The CircleIn crowd

by Matt Jardin  |   

Smartphone displaying the CircleIn app
(Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Suffice it to say, student success is at the heart of UAA’s mission. One of the myriad ways university leadership works to facilitate that success is by keeping the entire Seawolf community feeling connected.

During the pandemic when many people are cut off from their routines and communities, making and maintaining connections can feel like an uphill battle. Claudia Lampman, vice provost for Student Success and Honors College dean, hopes to offer a solution for students with the universitywide rollout of CircleIn.

CircleIn is a computer and smartphone app where students can communicate and collaborate. Within the app, classmates can ask and answer questions, share notes and links, study together remotely and create flashcards. Ideally, the informality of the digital space should be enough to ease users into interacting, particularly the 45% of students who are too uncomfortable to raise their hand during class, according to CircleIn.

As an added incentive, point values are assigned to every action, encouraging students to engage. Unlike other gamified systems that reward users with superficial prizes like branded merchandise and digital badges, students can use CircleIn to earn tangible scholarships and substantial gift cards to Amazon, Target, Starbucks and more.

“Four of our students won a scholarship just from the small pilot,” said Lampman. “The lowest amount was $350 and the highest was $1,000. That's real money for students. Every bit counts. If we can save them that money, it's money they have for rent, medical bills, food and all the other things they need to take care of so they can stay in school.”

Even before the pandemic, Lampman was looking for ways to keep students connected. After surveying 400 students in February and March of 2020, she was troubled to find that only one in three students felt like someone at UAA cared about them and indicated that they were most comfortable going to peers when they needed academic help. 

“Pre-COVID, I had been looking into interventions to help students feel more connected to the institution and to each other,” said Lampman. “As a commuter institution, we have a challenge that our students feel less connected to campus. All my research has been saying that one of the ways to address that is to increase peer-to-peer connection and peer-to-peer support.”

UAA’s implementation of CircleIn began in fall 2020 with a small pilot program across 25 courses known to have an increased rate of failure or withdrawal. The initial rollout was a resounding success. A survey answered by 261 of the students in the pilot classes found 61% felt CircleIn helped them be more productive in class, 63% were more comfortable asking classmates questions via the app than asking their professors and 76% expressed the likelihood they would use CircleIn in all of their classes when it became available.

At the start of the spring 2021 semester, CircleIn became widely available in all undergraduate courses at UAA (and even at UAF).

Exciting as CircleIn is, the app is actually the second in a series of similar initiatives designed to connect students and foster success. During CircleIn’s test rollout, the Seawolf Mentor program, a partnership with the Mentor Collective, was launched in full swing, helping more than 550 UAA students navigate the uncharted waters of higher education by pairing them with more seasoned student mentors via all means of electronic communication.

Just like CircleIn, the debut of the Seawolf Mentor program has been well received. A new mentorship program pairing graduate students with alumni mentors is also now underway.

While the introduction of CircleIn and Seawolf Mentor were somewhat expedited as a means to reclaim a sense of community and connection during the pandemic, Lampman notes the key takeaways from these initiatives will guide UAA’s approach to student success for generations going forward.

“Professors and advisors have said that COVID has actually shown some of the inequities our students experience. So we've learned about our students and their needs from COVID, which will help inform our programming,” she said. “Data shows that campuses that implement these types of initiatives have improved retention and an improved sense of connection and belonging, and I think that's a real win for our students.”


Written by Matt Jardin, UAA Office of University Advancement

Creative Commons License "The CircleIn crowd" is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.