There is often a myth that higher education institutions compete against each other, and perhaps from a recruitment lens that is true, but in student affairs, we value learning from each other far more than competing. It is so rewarding to see your peers from other colleges and universities sharing your work, retweeting it, and calling to ask you for help. Likewise, I love hearing the stories of my colleagues, gaining tips and tricks from them to help the students I serve more effectively, and learning about the successes and challenges others have faced. I believe that sharing is caring in our field because regardless of where you work, what school colours you wear, or where you are located, we all share a common goal - creating a meaningful and educational student experience.
My appreciation 'shout out' today is for Ryerson Student Affairs (@RyersonSA) for the immense amount of time and effort they have put into their blog. They share knowledge, skills, learning moments, and stories from the Ryerson perspective as a way to tell their story. They recently decided to branch out and encourage student affairs professionals from across the country to share their own unique stories as well, and Carleton was asked to be the inaugural institution. Myself and four other colleagues in the Housing Office were the guinea pigs for this new initiative, and I am so proud and appreciative of the opportunity. Not only did it allow us to share the work we are doing, but the response from our colleagues in Canada and abroad has been so incredible (and not at all expected). Thank you to RyersonSA for the opportunity to showcase our work as educators, and to all those people who have read our posts, reached out with positive encouragement, retweeted, liked and shared with colleagues. I didn't expect this experience to be so humbling and empowering, and I hope other educators in our field take advantage of the opportunity to share their story so myself and others can continue to learn from the experts in our amazing world of student affairs.
For those of you who have not yet read Assessing Student Learning: Purpose, Development & Student Conduct via RyersonSA, I've included it below.
Student Affairs is becoming a vast field, often encompassing everything from residence life to career development, to student engagement and many things in between. As our programs continue to grow, we as professionals need to become fluent in language that can discuss and demonstrate the value and effectiveness of our programs, particularly in the context of student learning and the contribution it has on achieving our greater institutional mission (Henning & Roberts, 2016). As you learned from my colleagues, student learning can come in many forms: community belonging and individual purpose, engagement and development opportunities, and even student conduct. While learning can look very different within any of these contexts, the common thread is that the professionals facilitating these learning experiences consider themselves educators, encouraging our students to learn through experiential opportunities that inspire creativity, experimentation, reflection, sharing, and being their authentic selves.
Truthfully, we should all see ourselves as educators, but that is not a term to be taken lightly. With the role comes a responsibility to continuously monitor how successfully we are offering programs and activities that enhance our students’ learning and overall campus experience (Henning & Roberts, 2016). Perhaps most importantly, being an educator outside of the classroom also means that assessment is everyone’s responsibility—student affairs professionals must all be involved in the process, as it is a key aspect of creating an integrated and collaborative learning experience for our students (Suskie, 2009).
I can appreciate that it may sound daunting to think that assessment is everyone’s responsibility, but it should be a focus of continuous development and experience as a student affairs professional, regardless if you started in the field yesterday or 30 years ago. From my experience, when introducing others to assessment for the first time, a common initial response tends to be that it seems difficult and, for lack of a better word, boring. We need to move away from thinking that surveys are the only ways to demonstrate student learning, or to have our students write elaborate reflections as our primary method of collecting data. As educators, we need to broaden our scope, better understand assessment, and find unique ways to build it into a learning environment; creating a culture of assessment. When thinking about ways to demonstrate how students have gained a sense of belonging through an experience, developed leadership skills, or had an “‘Ah-ha!”’ moment in a student conduct process, educators need to establish strong learning outcomes and find creative ways to integrate direct learning assessment strategies. This is where the magic happens, and we can see how vital our roles as educators are to learning outside of the classroom.
Learning Through Conversation
I can share from my own experience that truly understanding a student’s purpose or sense of belonging can be difficult, but it is such a rewarding opportunity to see how higher education and our programs have contributed to their development as an individual. It often reminds me of my first day at university—my parents dropped me off and it took everything in me to not sob because I was overwhelmed, a little scared, and still not sure if I made the right choice. Later that day, I received a message from a friend that said, “What do you call an alligator wearing a vest? … an Investigator! Go explore and learn about your new home so you can tell me all about it!” Those common conversations with her throughout my first month as a university student actually changed the way I thought about my own sense of belonging because as I shared all the details of my new world, I became excited about the people and content in my classes, proud to wear my gold and blue, and a sense of purpose that reminded me I was meant to be there.
Through intentional conversations and by asking questions driven by measurable learning outcomes, we are able to learn so much more about a student and their experience, as well as see the progress and growth that has occurred over time. Creating opportunities to have these types of intentional and meaningful conversations with students around career and personal goals, purpose, and what they love about their institution, demonstrates their self-awareness and identity development from the first day to the last of their learning experience. As Laura mentioned, sometimes all it takes is one person and a meaningful conversation to make a student feel as though they are a part of something bigger; a part of a community.
To capture these moments and assess the opportunities our students are taking to explore who they are and who they want to become, educators can use a formal rubric developed to measure the learning and progress from these conversations. This tool allows us to see if our students are growing over time, and if their sense of belonging in their residence-, campus-, and geographic communities increases as their experience matures. Additionally, by asking students why they feel that sense of belonging or why they chose our specific institution, it helps us as educators to have a better understanding of what is drawing our students to their program and make relevant adjustments accordingly. It also allows our student and professional staff to be investigators to understand who our students are as people and build meaningful, genuine relationships with them. By implementing rubrics to measure these conversations, we have the pleasure of seeing our students’ soul-filled journeys evolve during their time with us.
Creatively Measuring Student Development Using CATs
I have two loves in my life: my cat and program assessment. Conveniently, Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) combine both and offer a fun, creative way to measure what our students are learning and the skills they are developing from our programs. These techniques are often my solution to educators who find assessment to be overwhelming and daunting, because CATs are as fun and easy as you make them. They are incredibly transferable to many learning contexts, but in particular, we have found success using them in staff trainings, student development opportunities, and professional learning experiences.
When thinking about student engagement as a series of learning experiences, each workshop, session, or experiential opportunity can easily be assessed using a classroom assessment technique, regardless of an educator’s experience or training in pedagogy, assessment, or formal education (Angelo & Cross, 1993). The value of this strategy is that CATs are creative, quick, and concise. The techniques provide us with a lot of information about what our students have gained because of a learning experience, and where there might be gaps between what we hope our students will learn and the knowledge and skills they actually acquired. Not unlike our furry friends, there are hundreds of CATs in different shapes and sizes. Depending on the context of the learning environment and the concepts the educator is looking to assess, there are a variety of options to acquire relevant data in a fun, creative manner.
For example, the One Minute Paper is one of the easiest CATs to implement and integrate into any learning experience. The educator simply provides 5 minutes at an appropriate part of the program to ask students two questions: “What is the most important thing you learned from this experience/session/workshop?” and “What is the most important question that still remains unanswered?” Ta-da! Almost instantly we are able to compare the answers to our learning outcomes and identify if students learned the appropriate concepts, material, and objectives.
Whether it is a peer educator leading a student workshop or a student affairs professional conducting a training session, CATs help us all be better educators and identify what our students are learning. Perhaps even more importantly, CATs allow us to correct any concepts students may still be unclear about in the next session, via email, through a social media stream, or passive program. This closes the loop and is mutually beneficial — students feel as though doing the technique was worth their time, while the educator can ensure that the students have learned the material that was missing. On a larger programmatic level, the data is easily analyzed and we are able to see if our co-curricular programs are fostering formal learning opportunities. Similar to how a faculty member may measure a student’s learning as they progress through a course, these techniques allow us to see how a student’s leadership skills, campus orientation, career goals, or community service experiences have enhanced their overall student learning experience throughout the year. It also allows us to measure which of the student competencies Laurie and Natalie referred to are successfully being met. If you’re looking to infuse meaningful and manageable assessment into your engagement programs, these techniques are purrfect.
(Concept) Mapping Out Student Conduct Assessment
Having prior experience meeting with students about their conduct and the impact it can have on other members of the community, I have seen first-hand how influential student conduct is to student learning, whether our students realize it or not. As Jordon shared, although not generally thought of as such, conduct may provide the most effective forum for learning to occur, whether it be immediately after an incident, in a conduct meeting while recounting the event, or during an outcome that encourages our students to reflect on their learning experiences. Trying to capture the learning on all of these levels can be difficult, and to do so well, requires assessment and evaluation in a number of different ways.
As our conduct curriculum develops, so too does our ability and enthusiasm to capture what students are learning from their experience but also their satisfaction with the conduct process. Students who engage in our conduct program have an opportunity prior to and after each meeting to identify who they met with, discuss if they felt their voice was heard through the process, explain how much input they had in identifying an appropriate outcome for the situation, and articulate what they learned as a result of the entire process. Conduct administrators at any level can capture this data in a variety of ways, including social media and technological platforms, classroom assessment techniques, rubrics, and pre/post surveys. These methods provide impactful assessment and evaluation results, allowing us to improve our program and enhance the “Ah-ha!” moments in our meetings.
Perhaps my favourite assessment strategy we are implementing into our conduct curriculum is concept mapping. While there is plenty of opportunity to have students involved in the conduct process for negative behaviour to demonstrate their learning through this technique, we are currently focusing on those who positively contribute to our community. Focusing on the Conduct 360 model Jordon spoke of, we are encouraging the students we meet with to recognize their positive contributions to the community by mapping out how they have and will continue to act for the benefit of their community. By using a concept map technique, students are able to make relevant connections between their positive behaviour, the ways others in the community are positively impacted by their leadership, and additional ways to be involved in residence, on campus, and in the greater community. Not only does this activity allow educators to measure student learning and achievable outcomes, more importantly in our case, it provides a creative and visual representation of our educational priority: cultivating engaged leaders in their current and future communities.
At the end of the day, assessment provides us as educators with such an incredible ability to demonstrate that learning does happen outside of the classroom. As our programs continue to grow, our need to prove fiscal responsibility increases, and we continue to remind our colleagues that student affairs professionals are (and should be thought of as) educators, the need for assessment becomes more apparent. Finding creative and fun ways to infuse assessment into everything we do—conversations about community belonging, student engagement opportunities, or student conduct programs—allows us to highlight the value of our work and celebrate the worthwhile time and effort we put into creating intentional learning experiences outside of the classroom. Ultimately, assessment reminds us that we are educators and we all play a role in making student learning a messy, sparkly, intentional, and meaningful experience.
I have started numerous drafts of various articles since I published my last formal post, but I always seem to stop halfway through and ask myself: Is this meaningful? In my professional world, the answer is usually "yes", but in terms of my own development and reflection, probably not.
A significant influence on my decision to start blogging was because I do my best 'thinking' in writing, which often translates into intentional reflection. Championed by my partner and supervisor, I created this blog in hopes of finding an outlet that blended my personal and professional thoughts, ideas, and questions about the world around me. Lately, I have found that most of my drafts are just about work - how to use an online training system, how to use CATs, or how to map curriculum. While I'm sure that content may be appealing to some people, the posts have become more about sharing knowledge than they have about my experience as an educator and learner. I have started numerous drafts of various articles since I published my last formal post, but I always seem to stop halfway through and ask myself: Is this meaningful? In my professional world, the answer is usually "yes", but in terms of my own development and reflection, probably not.
This morning while laying in bed and reading through Facebook (a morning ritual for me), I found the 10 Steps of Happiness on my news feed. For the first time in a while, I found something that I felt passionate about reflecting on. These 10 steps are not just ideas to live your life by, but they have so much transferability to our work lives, regardless of the field one is in. Especially when thinking about the realm of higher education, it can be so easy to get caught up in being "busy" and focus on challenges, rather than appreciation, creativity, and taking risks. I know that as an educator, leader, partner, friend, daughter, colleague (and hopeful future parent), I need to do a better job of integrating these into my life. In thinking more about this concept, I have made it a goal to focus on one step for each of the next 10 months. I will do my best to document my climb!
Until the middle of April, I am going to start on step 10: Complain less, appreciate more. Over the past couple of days, I have really thought about what my next steps look like in terms of a career. Finishing up the last course in my Career and Academic Advising program has really pushed me to think about the questions I would ask and the ways I would help someone else in my current situation. As well, being on a career development placement in another office has made me really appreciate where I work and what I do in the field of higher education. I am confident that the decision to temporarily leave my permanent role has provided me with an incredible amount of perspective and has made me realize that I was at a place in my professional life where I was no longer feeling challenged. In turn, I felt unhappy and discouraged. Since leaving, I have learned a lot about myself and my purpose. I am so appreciative of the skills and experiences that I have gained through this job change, and I can confidently say that no amount of professional development or conference attendance will match the experiential learning that has occurred over the past month. I am incredibly excited to continue to learn over the next 8 months as well, because each day I gain new skills, perspectives and collaborative opportunities. However, this process has also taught me that I am passionate about student learning outside of the classroom even more than I ever thought I was (which if you know me well, was still a lot). It has affirmed that my love of co-curricular learning is what I am passionate about and where my purpose lies. It has only reinforced for me that I am an educator. This journey has really taught me the power and value of trying new things, gaining new perspective, learning to work with different colleagues, and finding yourself.
Today, the first post in our #RyersonSA series was published. Carleton's Director of Housing and Residence Life Services shared her story on the importance of higher education being a space that invokes reflection and spirituality to help our students find purpose and meaning in their life. When I think about spirituality and my own purpose, I can confidently say that this new role has allowed me to explore that and ask myself if my work is purposeful. Especially at a time in my career where I was starting to feel like work was becoming somewhat redundant and I missed feeling challenged, trying a different position has been such a welcomed and rewarding experience. While it has cemented for me that Student Affairs is my home, the opportunities to learn, grow and network have been worthwhile and very impactful in ways that I am thinking about the future. This experience has also been crucial in encouraging me to set boundaries and find a true understanding of what work/life balance looks like in my life. Thinking ahead to the future as well, I know that I want to have a family and hopefully pursue a Doctorate of Education soon, so taking this time to learn how to balance and set priorities for myself will be incredibly helpful when I return to Residence Life. Based on how much has changed for me in only a month, I would highly recommend that everyone take a step outside of their comfort zone to try something new - whether it reaffirms your passion for your job like it has mine, or it opens your mind to a whole other realm of possibility, it is worth taking a step away and gaining perspective. Even small things like being managed by someone else, having to learn about your new colleagues and developing new working relationships, and using different muscles than usual contribute to an incredibly rewarding and educational experience.
As I reflect on the notion of complaining less and appreciating more, it truly is the foundation of happiness. Before you can move forward, you need to be in a mindset where you are appreciative of the people, experiences and opportunities that are presented to you every day. Sometimes I take this for granted, and need to remind myself to focus more on the positive; not get bogged down with the tasks and workload. But on days like today when I take a few minutes to reflect, think, and share, I find myself feeling more fulfilled, thankful, and purposeful. After all, it is not enough to spend all our time on helping our students have purposeful experiences. It is important that we make the time for ourselves to have them as well.
What does "complain less, and appreciate more" mean to you?
A creative educator striving to enhance the holistic student experience and committed to exploring personal strengths and fulfillment.