Meeting Students Where They Are At

Throughout my graduate courses we have discussed the notion of meeting students where they are at developmentally. This makes sense, as we cannot talk about systems of oppression and power and privilege with students who hardly understand their own identity. Additionally, we cannot expect a first year hall council president to be able to effectively run a meeting and lead an organization when this could be their first real leadership experience. I am bought into the concept of meeting students where they are at.

Yet, lately, I have been thinking about meeting students where they are at who have incredibly problematic views. How can I work with a student who has outright racist or homophobic views? What if the student rejects the idea that words can cause harm or think that trans* folk are just trying to get attention? How do I meet these students where they are at and still sleep at night?

My role as an educator is to challenge students conception of the world to get them to think critically and interrogate their views. I am not concerned with what their view ultimately is, but I want them to have seriously reflected on it and looked inwardly on why they hold those views. At least that is what I hope I am doing.

When it comes to the racist/homophobic/trans*-phobic student, can I really be neutral? Can I meet those students where they are at and still sleep at night?

Unlike other posts on this blog, this post does not offer solutions, rather I intend it to start a dialogue.

How can student affairs educators meet students where they are at, when where they are at is problematic and causes other students harm?

My role as a white, cisgender, heterosexual male student affairs educator is to challenge these students. It is not to indoctrinate them into some worldview but, rather, to cause them to critically reflect on their views; after all, they were socialized with these views. This work is not easy, but I need to expose students to multiple perspectives and challenge them to see the world differently, if only for a few short moments, so that we can live in a more socially just world.

How do you meet students where they are at?

Graduate Learning

Tomorrow I start my comprehensive exam (comps). 30 pages for two questions over 23 days. Needless to say anxious levels in the program are high currently and my cohort and I are all fixated on comps. Yet, as I have been talking with folks throughout both my program and the department where my assistantship is (the Office of Residence Life), I cannot help but appreciate how much I have grown (and how much I have learned) during my time in graduate school.

Two years are a quick time; especially in graduate school when your days and nights are full. The fast paced environment that is graduate school rarely allows for reflection, even though my program integrates quite a bit of reflection. For example, it was not until the summer between my first and second year of graduate work that I realized how much I had learned during my first year. I was confident in my supervision style and knew I was a quality worker. Yet, I was still timid during my ACUHO-i internship at the University of Washington. I knew I knew student development theory, had a good understanding of organizational theory, and knew a bit about assessment. My time at the UW was good and only continued to emphasize what I was good at (e.g. supervision, assessment, administrative tasks).

Yet, it was not until I returned to Oxford and sat through ORL training that I truly found my passion. It was not until a training on Living Learning Communities (LLCs) that I realized that these academic programs were where my passion lied. LLCs offer a giant potential for students to truly integrate their classroom learning with their co-curricular involvements. The potential that LLCs have for supporting student learning was made clear to me during that session, and my passion for LLCs was realized.

So now, as I prepare for my comps in conjunction with the job search, I have that confidence that I know what I am good at. I know I still have learning to do (learning never ends!) but I have a core set of skills that I am good at. I have a passion area that allows me to integrate my desire to support student learning with my passions of working with students, collaboration with faculty and campus partners, and residential living experiences. While the next 23 days are sure to be filled with long days and short nights due to writing comps, the Placement Exchange, a day of the NASPA Annual Conference, and other phone interviews, I know I have a core set of skills that will serve me well as I enter student affairs as a full time student affairs educator.

These are exciting times to be in. I am glad I now realize the amount of learning (and growth) that has occurred during my time in Oxford. I am a fundamentally different person than when I started this program in August 2014. So, I am ready for this new wave of challenges; bring it on!

What’s Student Learning?

The past few weeks have seen me (and the countless other student affairs graduate students) engage in a variety of practice interviews. While these have been incredibly helpful, the one lesson that is sticking out is the consistent piece of feedback which comments on my constant talk about supporting student learning; one practice interviewer even went so far as to say that was the theme of my interview. While I am excited that I have this overarching theme in my interview answers, I still wonder what exactly is student learning and how does student affairs measure that learning.

In George S. Blimling’s new book Student Learning in College Residence Halls: What Works, What Doesn’t and Why they talked about student learning and what it looks like; specifically George Blimling (2015) stated that the principles of student learning are:

(1) engaging students in active learning, (2) helping students develop coherent values and ethical standards, (3) setting and communicating high expectations for student learning, (4) using systemic inquiry to improve student and institutional performance, (5) using resources effectively to achieve institutional missions and goals, (6) forging educational partnerships that advance student learning, and (7) building supportive and inclusive communities (p.18-19)

These principles, as outlined by Blimling, are helpful in conceptualizing how student affairs educators can support student learning; no matter the functional area that the educator works in.

No matter where we work, who our students are, and what our funding structures look like, it is essential that student affairs educators create environments where student learning is at the core of our work. To have this learning focused practice, educators should do the following:

  1. Develop measurable learning outcomes for all programs and initiatives. Being clear on the purpose of the program/initiative will allow the student affairs educator to focus their efforts to support student learning. Using those learning outcomes to guide program development and implementation will strengthen the support for student learning. In addition, these learning outcomes need to be shared with participants to ensure they are aware of what it is they are learning.
  2. Partner with faculty. Student affairs educators are firmly aware that learning can (and should) occur outside the classroom. Thus it is essential that student affairs educators develop meaningful partnerships with faculty to support student learning. Not only do academic affairs normally have more resources to support student learning, invested faculty can increase student involvement and engagement.
  3. Infuse opportunities for reflection for students. Students today are ever more focused on “what’s next” and the “value added” of the experience. Whether or not you are troubled by that, that is where are students are at. Thus, it is imperative that we slow experiences down and provide meaningful reflection opportunities for students to engage in. Reflection is a powerful tool in supporting student learning, and something that needs to be instilled into the practice of student affairs educators more often.
  4. Utilize research and assessment to guide practice. Scholars around the country are developing new ways to better support student learning. Using this new information to guide practice is essential to best support student learning. This is not to say, though, that every single thing published that seems like a good idea will work at your campus; taking pause and reflecting on whether this research makes sense at your campus will allow you to avoid jumping down a rabbit hole of implementing best practices, only to see them fail.

Supporting student learning needs to move beyond simply talking about it. We need to actually support student learning. Changing our practice as educators will be one way we move our field forward to better integrate learning opportunities into our work.

Works Cited

Blimling, G.S. (2015) Student learning in college residence halls: What works, what doesn’t, and

why. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Are We Being Effective? Strategies to Integrate Assessment Into the Work of Student Affairs Educators

It is rare in higher education that during a meeting, assessment is not mentioned. In the seemingly endless call for more assessment, higher education (and student affairs in particular) is struggling to increase assessment efforts to meet the demand from both internal and external stakeholders. This is not to say that there is a lack of quality assessment occurring in higher education and student affairs, because there is quality assessment, but the overall tenor of assessment in higher education and student affairs is one of anxiousness.

This post will not address the potential solutions to increasing the assessment efforts in higher education and student affairs. That will need to be addressed by Senior Student Affairs Officers (SSAOs), and is addressed in Leading Assessment for Student Success: Ten Tenets That Change Culture and Practice in Student Affairs. Rather, this post is going to deliver three ways that graduate students and new professionals can integrate assessment into their daily practice, even if that is not an expectation in their department. However, the importance of assessment needs to be addressed first.

Why Assess?

Graduate students and new professionals working in student affairs are the first to groan when assessment is mentioned. Assessment is, rarely, why folks enter the field. They would much rather spend time building relationships with students, designing and implementing programs, and working on curriculum. The perception of assessment is one of a difficult task that simply needs to be done to appease SSAOs or external pressures. Yet, the purpose of assessment is often missed.

At its core, assessment allows educators in student affairs (i.e. all of us!) to ensure that learning is occurring as a result of our work. That leadership retreat that was designed to allow first year students to develop a leadership style prior to their arrival on campus needs to be assessed. The learning outcomes of a women in engineering living learning community need to be assessed. Every program that student affairs educators design and implement needs to be assessed in order to ensure that learning is occurring.

We assess not to please SSAOs or external audiences (though that is a benefit) we assess to ensure that our programs and initiatives are meeting students needs and that they are beneficial to students. That is it. That is the only reason we assess; to ensure that our work is being done effectively. Assessment is the ultimate student centered practice!

Now that we have figured out the why we assess (though, admittedly, I glossed over a great body of research that should be reviewed for a deeper understanding of why we assess) we can delve into the three strategies to integrate assessment into the daily work of a student affairs educator.

Assessment Tips

  1. Reflection. A great deal of our work as student affairs educators is in the hopes of long term development. A weekend retreat for Greek leaders should have learning outcomes associated with the weekend, but educators are interested in how Greek leaders are using the lessons learned at the retreat beyond that weekend. Thus, student affairs educators could implement a reflection journal. A reflection journal can be a way for educators to pose questions to students to cause reflection to occur. Additionally, these reflective journals can be a guide for a one-on-one conversation with a student. The assessment portion of the reflective journals comes in how a student affairs educator reports on the learning. Back to our Greek leadership retreat, a Coordinator of Greek Life could use reflective journals with the Presidents that attended the retreat for the rest of the semester. Questions that they could ask their Presidents would be “How have you used the Social Change Model in your leadership as President?” or “How have you seen the values of your organization on display in your organization?” These questions allow the educator to get a sense for how the lessons covered at the retreat are impacting the Presidents beyond that weekend.
  2. Pre/Post Test. The most overused assessment tool, but one of the most effective. A leadership programs graduate assistant has designed a three hour workshop for newly elected student leaders. The graduate assistant is going to focus the workshop on Kouzes and Posner’s Leadership Challenge (1987) and wants to see how well participants understand the key elements of the theory. Prior to the start of the workshop, the graduate assistant has participants take a pre-test addressing the components of the theory. After the workshop, the graduate assistant gives participants the same test. The graduate assistant then analyzes how the group answered after the workshop, compared with their answers prior to the workshop. This allows the graduate assistant to see that while participants really understand the “Encourage the Heart” component, they did not understand idea of “Challenge the Process.” This allows the graduate assistant to change the curriculum of the workshop to better address the idea of “Challenge the Process,” better meeting her learning outcomes.
  3. Rubrics. Advising student groups is a busy and challenging task. Volunteers can be unmotivated, there are the pressures to meet programmatic demands of the department, and students want to see a value-added experience that they can add to their resume. Thus, the Hall Director (HD) who is advising the Residence Hall Association (RHA) Executive Board developed a competency rubric to guide their advising. This rubric has four competencies: leadership, teamwork, facilitation, and event planning. The five point scale for each competency is explicitly laid out what would lead to being scored a 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5. This rubric allows the HD to tailor their one-on-one conversations. They indicate to the Chair of the Campus Programs Committee that they are not performing well in the facilitation competency, and that this competency is key towards their goal of becoming the President. Additionally, the HD writes an executive summary for the Director of Residence Life at the end of the year which summarizes the learning which occurred on the RHA Executive Board, noting that every member of the Board scored a 4 or higher on the teamwork and leadership competency, but 60% of the Executive Board scored a 2 or lower on the facilitation and event planning competency. This leads to focusing more time in Executive Board retreats on facilitation and event planning.

Conclusion

The three suggestions to integrate assessment into daily work outlined above are easy to start increasing ones competency in assessment. Assessment is not about pleasing a SSAO, but rather it is about ensuring students are learning and that programs and pedagogies are effective.