The Association of College & University Housing Officers – International’s Living Learning Programs Conference was hosted in Providence, Rhode Island this year on the weekend of October 4th-6th. This conference provides an opportunity for faculty, staff and students that work with living learning programs to come together and share resources, discuss innovations and educate each other.
This conference was truly an amazing learning experience and quite the opportunity to recharge one’s professional batteries. Being immersed in a community of professionals that all spoke the same professional language and were passionate about providing dynamic learning opportunities outside of the classroom for our students was very empowering.
You may be asking yourself why I would just now be writing about this experience if it was so amazing. The reason for this is because I wanted to make sure that the energy, momentum and learnings extracted from this conference experience weren’t lost once I got back to the day-to-day hustle and flow of our busy workplace. Have you ever jotted down a wish list of projects, ideas and initiatives while you were on an educational adrenaline rush at a conference and been so sure that you could implement them all upon your return? As many of us have found, this energy rush can quickly dissipate when you return to your desk and your many competing priorities are staring you square in the face.
This blog post is an injection of that energy for me. It is a gentle reminder that all of those great ideas and resources are still valid and all of the peers that I connected with from other institutions are merely an email, tweet or phone call away. I hope that it is as helpful to you all as reviewing my notes and reminiscing about it has been for me. Here are some of the important take-aways that I think are relevant to any Student Affairs professional in our division.
Leveraging High- Impact Practices
Ten learning practices were identified in the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ (AAC&U) Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) report as High-Impact Educational Practices (HIPs). Learning Communities are one of the 10 HIPs identified in the LEAP report, so a lot of the conversation throughout the conference centered around how we could leverage this new information to provide our students with better learning opportunities.
While the learning community specific conversations may not interest everyone in our division, I would argue that the larger point of leveraging HIPs to benefit your program and students absolutely does. The 10 practices that the LEAP report identified were First-Year Seminars and Experiences, Common Intellectual Experiences, Learning Communities, Writing-Intensive Courses, Collaborative Assignments & Projects, Undergraduate Research, Diversity/Global Learning, Service Learning, Community-Based Learning, Internships and Capstone Courses & Projects. (Read the report for full detail on these practices: http://www.neasc.org/downloads/aacu_high_impact_2008_final.pdf)
These 10 widely tested practices have proven to help students from a wide range of backgrounds. The research says that practices like these will improve our students’ learning and overall experience. Our university has already zeroed in on this report and I would imagine that we will be hearing more about HIPs as our university and division continue to take a good look at themselves in the mirror. With more change and growth on the horizon, it only makes sense to be ahead of the curve and examine how our departments are or could be leveraging HIPs to benefit the students that we serve.
Retention shouldn’t be the end point of our assessment
Don’t misread me here. Retaining our students is, of course, very important and should be an intended goal of any program or initiative that we implement. However, we need to stop trying to prove that our programs are successful by purely pointing at student retention. The true aim of our assessment should point to the student learning or satisfaction rates that then lead to retention as an outcome.
Using learning communities to boost retention was also a large part of the conversation at the Living Learning Programs Conference. Learning Communities for targeted or at risk student populations with retention as an outcome was a common program design shared by many institutions at the conference. Many professionals asked questions about, and participated in conversations pertaining to, student retention. What it seemed everyone was struggling with was how to prove that their program, intervention or initiative was the cause of student persistence or retention. It can be very hard to draw that line between cause and effect when you are trying to prove that your program helps to retain students.
What Jennifer Keup, the Director of the National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition and conference keynote speaker, said was; “We have to stop trying to prove that we can keep heartbeats in seats.” Keup argued that retention needs to be viewed as a side effect and not as an end point. What does this mean?
When we are assessing our programs, initiatives and interventions, we need to prove more than just the fact that our students remain in school. Our assessments must show what outcomes have occurred through our work and how those outcomes, if successfully attained, can correlate to student retention. Any assessment that shows a student’s improved efficacy, satisfaction with the university or understanding of how to navigate beneficial services will be given more credibility than a report that insinuates that their program helped to keep heartbeats in the seats.
Creditability of Student Affairs professionals and programs
A theme that kept surfacing at the conference was one of Student Affairs professionals questioning their credibility with their peers in Academic Affairs or upper administration at their institutions. Faculty are commonly cited, and rightfully so, as experts in their field. They are looked to for directive and instruction. I walked away from this conference feeling like, as a profession, Student Affairs professionals do not feel the same way when the work that they are doing is creating learning opportunities for students outside of the classroom.
Common refrains amongst conference attendees pertained to getting their peers in Academic Affairs to see them as a valued resource. “How can we get respect and buy-in for the work that we do?” “Why don’t my faculty partners use me to help facilitate the learning community course?” I hate to say it but there seemed to be a bit of a case of inferiority complex developing.
Luckily, many of these questions and complaints were answered. The answer is… You are an expert in your field. Faculty are not and do not want to be administrators. Many of our peers outside of our division do not have the great opportunity to see and interact with our students in settings outside of the classroom. We need to use these advantages to give us more clout at our institution. We have insights into our students that other professionals simply do not have.
We have to be better at using our student learning outcomes assessment and program evaluations to brag about the difference that we are making. We need to use resources like the It Takes More Than A Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning & Student Success survey findings outlined on the AAC&U LEAP website (http://www.aacu.org/leap/presidentstrust/compact/2013SurveySummary.cfm). Student Affairs professionals have been doing the work outlined in the 4th Key Finding highlighted on this report for a very long time. Building competencies in ethics, intercultural skills and building capacity for professional development are the holistic values that our field is based on. The report goes on to list key learning outcomes that employers believe that colleges should focus on in order to make their students more employable. These same skills are what can make our students ultimately more employable than students that are not using or benefitting from our services. The roadmap to improved credibility is there. If we, as Student Affairs professionals, can prove that the work that we are doing can lead to our students being more employable, then the work that we do will be better understood and valued.
Attending the ACUHO-I Living Learning Programs Conference got me to thinking about these issues and many others. Now it is up to me to keep the momentum that was built up within myself in Providence and ensure that harness it and use it back here at home. Writing and reflecting on it is my first step and I hope maybe a first step for anyone that has read this. It is up to all of us to make sure that we carve out the time continue these conversations and learnings. We then need to figure out how to turn them into written goals within the work that we are already doing.
Please feel free to contact me if you would like to continue this conversation – firstname.lastname@example.org
Justin McCauley is the Assistant Director for Residential Learning Communities & Assessment in Residence Life & Housing