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.

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