by James A. Baumann
Most everyone who has spent time in campus housing or student affairs will have heard of a program or initiative passing “The Heart Test” – that is, doing it makes everyone feel good in their heart. But in a time of increased accountability and reduced budgets, along with improved data collection opportunities, the good ole Heart Test doesn’t hold up the way it used to. Rather, departments are being asked to increase student learning opportunities as well as be more purposeful and strategic in the way they design, offer, and assess learning programs.
A recently released book, The Curricular Approach to Student Affairs: A Revolutionary Shift for Learning Beyond the Classroom (Stylus Publishing), makes the case that student affairs professionals, including those in housing, have an obligation to systematically deliver learning experiences. The solution to that challenge, the authors argue, is a curricular approach that “aligns the mission, goals, outcomes, and practices of a student affairs division, unit, or other unit that works to educate students beyond the classroom with those of the institution, and organizes intentional and developmentally sequenced strategies to facilitate student learning.” In short, icebreakers and pizza parties, while they have their place, are not going to cut it.
To learn more about strategies and support for a curricular approach, the Talking Stick emailed the book’s authors. Collectively responding to those questions are Kathleen G. Kerr (associate vice president for student life at the University of Delaware), Keith E. Edwards (a speaker and consultant and former director of campus life at Macalester College), James F. Tweedy (director of residence life and housing at the University of Delaware), Hilary L. Lichterman (senior associate director of residence life at the University of South Carolina), and Amanda R. Knerr (executive director of residential life and housing at Indiana State University).
The department and/or division curricula need to align with the institutional mission, purpose, values, culture, history, student populations, and more. Learning aims for a curricular approach include the educational priority, learning goals, narratives, learning outcomes, and rubrics. Learning aims cannot be copied from another campus. In the book, we describe the process of discerning your learning aims as an archaeological dig. The dig examines formal and informal documents to discern, rather than create, the goals and outcomes and how to best articulate them to align with the overall institution’s aspirations.
One of the primary challenges of this process stems from a strength of the student affairs profession: the desire to include all voices. Setting aside personal passions to allow institutional aspirations for student learning to guide the process is a challenge. The key is to find ways to connect personal passion areas to the institutional mission and undergraduate learning goals and outcomes.
Challenges can also arise if the process of determining the learning aims of the curricular approach is misguided, rushed, or becomes stagnant. It is critical to involve the entire team and sometimes the larger community to gather buy-in as the learning aims are identified. When institutions rush this process, it often results in difficulties later on and/or needing to go back to the beginning and revise and restart. Or teams may get stuck in the development of learning aims for months or years, delaying a final decision and not moving forward.
Institutions that are successful at engaging in this approach work hard to motivate the entire team and recognize that learning aims guide the educational plans and strategies and evolve as our campuses shift or clarify their purpose.
There are thousands of postsecondary schools in the U.S., each with its own mission, values, and leaders who interpret the broader mission in unique ways. Student populations also have different needs, and those of marginalized populations are particularly important. We also see various behavioral trends and mental health needs, general education outcomes, the ethos of collaboration, and reporting structures from institution to institution that shape the goals of student learning beyond the classroom. While all institutions have a degree of commonality, each one has an individual charge and culture. A curricular approach will struggle if residence life and student affairs professionals fail to effectively plan for the distinct goals, values, and norms of the institution.
One of the ways this approach is often misunderstood is that it is perceived as just a focus on what student staff or student leaders do with students or residents. If this process only translates into requirements for resident assistants, then it is a program model, not a curricular approach. With a curricular approach, the focus is on how to best engage students around the learning aims. Depending on the learning outcomes and the strategy, the best person to facilitate that learning might be a peer with similar experiences who can establish a rapport with students. In another case it might be an entry-level professional with a master’s degree with expertise in learning development and facilitation. In other instances, we may need to rely on campus partners in other units, faculty, or community partners who can bring both the content knowledge and competence at facilitating the learning opportunity.
Most student affairs preparatory programs only touch lightly on student learning outcome design (and using outcomes to design programs) and on student learning assessment. Learning outcomes and learning outcome assessments are habits of mind for effective curriculum designers, whether inside or outside the classroom. We find that many recent graduates are somewhat familiar with the language, but in a curricular approach they gain a new way of thinking about their work.
A curricular approach should also guide staff development. We cannot ask students to go where we are unwilling to go ourselves. The learning aims often guide professional development using similar topics. The learning goals of self-awareness, equity and justice, and relationship building are relevant for the learning we need to continue to do ourselves. We also often see the process of professional development utilize some of the same strategies we aspire to engage students in so that we can experience, refine, and develop the strategies and how we communicate them.
Other gaps might be in pedagogy and how to incorporate engaged pedagogy or liberatory pedagogy into their work. We also see the emergence of new ways of leading, managing organizational change from all levels in the organization, and creating cultures of learning in organizations that shift to a curricular approach. Finally, we think that the pandemic has taught us that we need to help all of our staff learn how to utilize technology to engage and develop community and learning.
We are continuously frustrated by clichés in our profession. One such prominent cliché is “We need to meet the students where they are.” The statement alludes to learning sciences but is rarely pursued adequately. Learning sciences and deep study of student learning tells us that our starting point for student learning is crucial, yet we rarely put enough effort into knowing where to start. If we don’t know where our “students are” in equity frameworks, for example, we should not be jumping in at the 400-course level when a 200-level is more appropriate for learning, development, and growth. Failing to recognize effective starting points in any of our educational priorities is likely to be not only ineffective, but may also create longer term blockers to student learning and development.
We have offered a wide variety for possibilities of pedagogical approaches to help readers begin to think outside the usual means they are familiar with and comfortable with from their own experiences. When we center the student learning around learning outcomes, certain pedagogical approaches might be a better fit. For example, we love inter-group dialogue as a pedagogical approach; however, there would likely be a better approach to use when communicating about Title IX policies and processes.
Backward design is an inherent and essential foundation of the curricular approach. Taken together, the pedagogical approaches shared in the book serve as a framework or interpretive lens through which the curricular approach is designed, implemented, and assessed. To be used effectively, these approaches must become the fabric of a culture rather than stand-alone tools.
Housing and residence life staff are likely doing lots of different kinds of important assessments, from cost comparisons to usage rates to satisfaction surveys. In a curricular approach we need to build in assessment for student learning as well. This means assessing if students are learning what we aspire for them to learn and assessing whether what we are offering is supporting that learning or perhaps becoming an obstacle.
The assessment of student learning at the micro and macro levels taken together can help articulate our value to students and campus colleagues as well as help us improve our strategies over time to be more effective. The assessment practices used to design, implement, and understand a curricular approach should be inherently part of the overall metrics and assessment of a housing department or some other department in student affairs. The curricular approach provides an undergirding framework for identifying and enacting the mission and culture of an institution.
Including student learning assessment as part of the design process of student learning techniques helps to focus the educational strategy and subsequently makes measures easier to enact. But considering assessment as the last step is rarely effective. Student learning assessment is significantly different from satisfaction or head-count assessment. It is more complicated, often requires multiple measures, and should be focused on the improvement of student learning rather than demonstrating proof of the product. And while it is interesting that a housing department may have had 10,000 phone calls, 30,000 program attendees, or 50,000 page hits, none of these figures tell us whether or not the efforts contributed to student success in retention, graduation, investment, regional accreditation measures, etc.
For years we have measured success in our residential education department through attendance at events or student satisfaction with the events. As we discussed in the book, we need to move to the assessment of student learning in a variety of ways. We think one mistake is that we try to assess student learning through self-reported survey response. This is an indirect measure of learning. While conducting a survey after an educational experience is helpful in understanding what students took away from the event, it is equally important to build in more direct measures of learning. Can we build into experiences opportunities where we can more directly assess student learning via observations or student-led product development rather than relying on self-reported survey assessments?
The curricular approach can be best championed by leadership who embody the mindset of learning beyond a traditional classroom and who are committed to using resources in an intentional manner to benefit students’ learning beyond the classroom. They should recognize that staff are involved in a constant cycle of learning, as are our students. The key is to focus on helping students achieve the learning outcomes and aspirations of the institution and to help the institution achieve its goals. It will take try after try. Recognize that perfection has never been achieved in the classroom, and it won’t be achieved beyond the classroom. We all just try to improve with each cycle.
It is important for the senior housing officer and other leaders to role model a culture of learning at their institution by intentionally cultivating a learning-centered mindset at all levels of the organization. The senior housing officer also needs to be a great storyteller to help campus partners and colleagues, parents, student leaders, and students understand what is being developed, why it is essential to the student experience, and how it contributes to student persistence, retention, and success.
The curricular approach holistically considers the student experience and opportunities for growth and learning, rather than segmenting certain parts of the student experience. Students’ basic needs must be addressed in determining how the approach is designed, delivered, and assessed. The curricular approach, by definition, maximizes stewardship of resources to benefit students.
Many staff are utilizing their curriculum as a tool to clarify purpose and set priorities in the midst of this pandemic, racial injustice, trauma, and increasing uncertainty. Clearly articulated goals and outcomes are more important now than ever so that what we are trying to provide to students is clear despite the unknowns. At the same time, this clarity allows staff to shift strategies and approaches to meet the new and shifting student needs.
For example, COVID-19 will force many housing departments to focus on the most basic needs of food, safety, and shelter. Carving out time to talk about what we want our students to learn, experience, and be able to do has helped us really identify our core values and core priorities. It has allowed us to eliminate so many of the extras that we thought were indispensable and to revisit what we have done simply because “we’ve always done it this way” so that we can re-create learning in new and meaningful ways. It has also provided our team with some certainty amidst a sea of chaos and uncertainty.
Should we wish to succeed in the intense resource battles to come, a deep focus on our potential impact on student success, in the manner that our own institution defines student success, will be key. The curricular approach encourages this type of focus and connection. It would be a false dichotomy to presume that basic needs are not critical to student success.
James A. Baumann is the Talking Stick editor in chief and ACUHO-I’s director of communications and publications.