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Managing Experiential Learning in the Northern Illinois University Honors Program

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From manually tracking student engagement to low engagement during the pandemic, Northern Illinois University’s Honors Program was struggling to find a platform that would support its new Honors Engaged initiative. To guide its honors students to success, NIU implemented Honors Engaged on Suitable. Honors Engaged consists of outcomes-focused competencies that align with their Student Learning Outcomes. Students complete co-curricular and experiential learning opportunities in order to build skills such as student independence, risk-taking, and attitude towards their lives. Implementing Suitable has increased NIU Honors’ student engagement rates and alumni satisfaction levels.

About the School

In 1895, Northern Illinois University (NIU) was founded In Dekalb, Illinois. Out of NIU’s 11,500 undergraduate students, around 1,000 of them are Honors students that participate in the 126 majors available on campus. As a minority-serving institution with a large first-generation population, NIU switched to holistic, test-blind admissions in 2020 to ensure diversity within the university. When developing co-curricular programs, diversity is at the heart of it all.

Challenges before Suitable

Back in 2018, NIU Honors had a co-curricular program called Honors Engaged that featured course-based activities that were not required for graduation. The NIU Honors team desired to incorporate more meaningful co-curricular programs and high-impact practices that help students succeed. To manage the program, NIU Honors was using manual tracking processes, such as spreadsheets and emails, which caused administrative headaches. Not only was the NIU Honors team emailing with third parties who organized campus events, but they were also emailing students because students were unable to track their own progress or view what opportunities were available to them. As evidenced by this lack of data management, the program was not easily scalable for 1,000 students who were each participating in six experiences. 

Then in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, so NIU struggled with getting students to be involved outside the classroom. NIU Honors attempted to combat its low participation by offering virtual programming through its new passport program, but it was still an excessive amount of manual tracking that caused growing pains for the NIU Honors team. To solve these challenges, NIU Honors tried to use NIU’s Student Affairs system in 2021. However, this system lacked the technological capabilities and customer service NIU Honors was looking for. Plus, the students were not using the Student Affairs system. 

Finally, after receiving a referral from NIU’s College of Business regarding their success with Suitable, NIU Honors used Suitable to launch its new Honors Engaged program in 2022. NIU Honors chose Suitable because they wanted an accessible platform for students that would be easy to navigate and see their progress in real-time, directly from their phone. Suitable also allows students to search for experiences based on competencies, tags, and interests. On top of this, NIU Honors needed a reliable system to track the increased demand for experiences while also having access to program engagement analytics.

Life with Suitable

Both the old and new Honors Engaged program have two options – Associate Honors and Full Honors, which are completed in either two or four years, respectively. The old Honors Engaged program included community-based and non-university sponsored experiences, but the new Honors Engaged program features relevant competencies that are outcomes-focused. 

NIU Competencies

When transitioning to Suitable, NIU Honors chose these seven competencies because they wanted to focus on post-graduation outcomes. To actually select these competencies, NIU Honors had a staff retreat that helped NIU Honors determine what their program’s strengths are, while also considering the eight NACE competencies. Although NIU Honors would love for their students to complete all seven competencies, they are not required to for graduation – the program just wants its students to understand what skills they are developing through the experiences they are participating in. As students complete Honors Engaged, they earn various digital credentials and rewards. With the help of Suitable, the badges and milestones that NIU Honors students must complete are visually clear, and they can see their progress updating in real-time as they engage.

NIU Badges

Going hand in hand with digital badges is Suitable’s ePortfolio. Consistent with NIU Honors’ pedagogy to build student independence, risk-taking, and attitude toward their lives, Suitable’s ePortfolio provides students with a place to submit their achievements and work samples, such as earned certifications and internship completions. 

Although NIU Honors launched Honors Engaged through Suitable, the program would not be as successful if its students did not know about the platform. NIU Honors team has a few strategies they use in order to reach students. These include:

  • Virtual Engagement Panels
  • Suitable Tip of the Week
  • NIU Honors x Suitable Webpage
  • Advising Appointments
  • Push Notifications About Information Sessions
  • NIU Honors Freshmen Retreat 

The first strategy is a semesterly virtual engagement panel that students earn points for attending. These panels range from leadership boot camps to professional development boot camps all run by alumni. Another way NIU Honors promotes Suitable is through a weekly newsletter. Linda Condon, an Honors advisor, includes a Tip of the Week about Suitable, whether it be about how to use the platform or what students can gain from using the platform. NIU Honors also revamped its website to feature Suitable’s competencies, a frequently asked questions section, and a Powtoon video that explains the importance of engagement.  

NIU Honors Powtoon

After NIU Honors’ freshmen move in early to campus, about 33% of them are taken on the annual freshman retreat. When they arrive, the NIU Honors team has the students download Suitable to get started with Honors Engaged. At the retreat, the freshmen are assigned to teams of 20 to 25 for the whole year; these teams are also assigned in Suitable. Throughout the year, the student teams collect points to win incentives, such as a pizza party. This brings out the competitive nature of college students. 

Additionally, NIU Honors developed a mentorship badge. Every freshman is assigned to one of the twelve student mentors, encouraging the students and mentors to attend events together and complete other Engaged experiences. A unique aspect of this mentorship badge is that students get to write a letter to themselves about what they hope to earn out of the mentorship program. 

To reward students who are actively participating in Honors Engaged, NIU Honors implemented enhancement awards. These awards honor one student from each academic class based on their total Suitable points accrued over the entire year, which are tracked through Suitable’s leaderboard. During the annual Spring Honors Ceremony, the winners receive recognition and $250!



"A really neat thing we are doing with Suitable that we didn't think about at the beginning is using points, leaderboards, and so many other features to our advantage."

Linda Condon
Honors Advisor, Northern Illinois University

Take a look at the accomplishments of the Honored Engaged Program at Northern Illinois University

  • A 73% student engagement rate
  • 355 activities completed in one semester
  • A 27% increase in student engagement with Honors Engaged
NIU Dashboard

Additional Outcomes Achieved

Using Suitable to launch the new Honors Engaged program has worked well for NIU Honors. By requiring students to complete Honors Engaged to graduate with honors, there is a fundamental incentive to complete it. Besides the honors distinction, Honors Engaged has a broad range of opportunities that students enjoy having because there is flexibility to complete opportunities that do not follow one, required path. They can seek out new experiences and automatically keep a record of everything they’ve done.

On the NIU Honors side of things, the team has been leveraging the various features that Suitable has. In just the Fall 2022 semester, student activity completion went from 281 to 355 – a whopping 27% increase! This has led to an amazing student engagement rate of 73%. Also, NIU Honors’ graduation rates have kept consistent, signaling that the Honors Engaged program has not discouraged students from graduating with honors. As shown in the table below, the Honors Engaged program has increased student satisfaction from 2020 to 2022. 

Graduation Satisfaction

Without Suitable, these outcomes and the tracking of these outcomes would not have been possible. Suitable offers valuable data by major, race, ethnicity, class standing, competencies, and more. Analyzing engagement data by these categories helps NIU Honors understand what events earn the most engagement. For example, events focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as career and self-development have the highest engagement. Knowing that, NIU Honors is able to ask themselves why those events have high engagement, providing the team with information they never had before. 

Plans for the Future

Ever since implementing Suitable, NIU Honors has been able to more easily pull engagement data from Suitable whenever the team needs it. However, NIU Honors has hopes to further utilize analytics to determine potential equity gaps and patterns of engagement. 

By the end of Spring 2023, NIU Honors hopes to reach a student engagement rate of 80%. And at the end of this academic year, they plan to see for themselves what activities truly matter for the Honors Engaged program. Along with this, NIU Honors wants to improve completion and management of experience sets. 

In the long run, NIU Honors is excited to leverage Suitable to increase its graduation rate. The team hopes to do this by using Suitable’s ePortfolio and analytics to articulate the intrinsic value of co-curricular involvement to its students, while also learning which activities are correlated with a greater likelihood of graduating on time. Over time, NIU Honors can harness the data to start doing predictive analytics to further improve outcomes and the value offered to students.