Thursday, December 12, 2013

SLLO In Action: How Do Your Students Learn?

If you’re like me, you approach advising or supervising or navigating the freeway in the way that makes the most sense…to you.  I LOVE to learn and for a long time I was THAT kid in school (let’s be honest, I sort of still am) because I assumed that everyone liked learning as much as I did.  The realization that this wasn't the case sent me into a bit of a developmental tailspin…but I digress.

When choosing activities to facilitate with my students, I strive to be very intentional in selecting resources that push me beyond my comfort zone of learning and facilitating.  I’m very much a “give me a worksheet, let me think about it and write down my answers, then discuss with a neighbor or as a group” kind of learner.  But, personal news flash, that’s not how everyone prefers to approach every activity.  Some people enjoy those activities where you have to draw something (mine invariably ends up as a page covered in words).  Others enjoy building things.  Some people actually even LIKE IT when you’re forced to act out a scene ** introvert shudder**.

A very informative activity, and one that I've had lots of positive feedback from my students after conducting, is the VAK Assessment.  This is a learning style test that the students take, and then you can process with them as a group to learn more about themselves and each other: how they prefer to give and receive information, and the best ways to keep them engaged in meetings.  There’s a free, online tool that I routinely use that can be found at:

But if you don’t like this one, just google VAK Assessment and you’ll see that there are tons to choose from.

This past year, 6 of my 8 executive officers were Kinesthetic learners.  At the start, my highly Visual/Auditory self was a bit terrified at the prospect of keeping the team engaged and focused through their planning meetings.  But with the benefit of advanced knowledge and a summer of strategic activity planning with the Director, it ended up being one of the best years yet!

- Sarah Edwards

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

SLLO in Action- Reflections of Morgan Hiser

As a student leader with Aggie Representatives Educating About College Health (REACH), I had the opportunity to teach other students about health through leading meetings and doing presentations on health topics.  I currently work for the WilCo Wellness Alliance, a county health coalition in Williamson County, which is closely associated with Williamson County and Cities Health District.  I focus on healthy policy and environmental changes throughout the county.  As a leader of this group, I am responsible for leading and organizing group meetings of a large group of community members and supporting healthy changes throughout the county.  The peer educator training I received as a member of REACH allowed me to better relate to the community members in the coalition and be a more confident leader in the programs conducted.  REACH also gave me the opportunity to apply for a grant on behalf of the group.  Many programs or job positions need grant funds to support work being done.  The experience of the process in applying, and ultimately receiving the grant, helped me to understand the importance of making that effort for a program you care about.  Overall, I had many experiences with Aggie REACH that taught me how to be a well-rounded leader in the working world.

Morgan Hiser, CHES
Healthy Communities Project Specialist
WilCo Wellness Alliance

Highland Lakes Health Partnership

Thursday, December 5, 2013

SLLO In Action: Reflecting on Student Learning

Do you want to know how students feel about their involvement experience?  Do you wonder if students’ experiences are similar in different organizations?  We wondered the same things about involved students at Texas A&M.  But how do you go about answering these questions on a campus of 50,000 students with almost 900 student organizations?

We decided to take an approach combining reflection and one minute papers.  We asked advisors to participate with their student groups to have them complete a series of one minute papers throughout the academic year.  Students would reflect through these one minute papers each month from September through April.  After advisors administered the one minute paper, a group of staff members would read each reflection and score it based on an AAC&U rubric for integrative learning or lifelong learning.

So, how did it work?

We had almost 1,400 students involved in the project as it started, and about 1,100 during the spring semester from about 70 different student organizations throughout the Division of Student Affairs.  We were able to capture information from students in a variety of different roles and groups to learn about our students.  However, it was a lot of work to get forms back from all advisors each month and we did drop a few groups early on because they had gotten so far behind in the monthly reflections.

The reflection prompts we gave students each month were:

  •          What brought you to this particular student organization and why is it a good fit for you? (September)
  •          Beyond building friendships and networking, what do you personally hope to learn through this student involvement experience? (October)
  •          What connections, if any, can you make between this student involvement experience and your classroom experience?  What connections, if any, can you make between this student involvement experience and your career path? (November)
  •          Based on this student involvement experience, please give an example of a time when you expressed your views, solutions, or opinions on an issue.  If you have not expressed your views, solutions, or opinions on an issue, please share your thoughts on why not. (December/January)
  •          How does this student involvement impact your life experience? (February)
  •          How have you applied skills or abilities gained from previous experiences to solve problems or explore issues in this student involvement? (March)
  •          How do you see yourself now compared to who you were at the beginning of this student involvement experience? (April)

Would we do anything differently?

While this project was a great initiative looking at a large number of involved students from across the division, we did learned a LOT.  We would spread out the reflections to a couple times a year, but ask that students spend more than “a minute” on them to get at some deeper concepts.  The monthly pace was challenging for advisors in administering the one minute papers and students reflecting on the question asked.  We would also plan more staff time for reading and scoring the reflections and only ask one question per time.

The concept from this project could easily be applied to individual groups or even during one-one-one meetings with students.  There are easy ways to build in reflection with your students and help them develop the skill to look back at what has happened in order to look ahead with better clarity and direction. 

- Kelly Cox

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

SLLO In Action: Wasting Time

Wasting time – I do not enjoy wasting time at all!  Waiting time in lines, waiting time at stop lights, being in meetings that have no purpose…okay you get the idea.  When I look at how I spend my time, I try to find activities that have meaning or purpose for me.  I try to find activities that do not feel as if they waste my time.  Oh sure, I have those occasional tasks that do not seem as if they have any purpose and I do them, but I try to not have my day filled with those type of tasks.  I use this idea when looking at organizations to join as well – what organizations provide meaning to me or fit with values I have?

Students getting involved may be deciding which organization to join based what provides meaning to them or fits with their values.  For some, they value feeling connected on campus and want to meet people.  Some may look for opportunities to give or help others.  Others join an organization to grow and gain new skills that will help them when they graduate. 

Texas A&M has over 900 recognized student organization plus dozens more that are connected with departments.  Do you make it easy for students to match what an organization offers with their own personal values?  Do students know what they might gain through your organization before they join?  Students selecting specific organizations based on what it can offer will look for this information.  Yet it is easy to overlook providing this during recruitment.  Here are some suggestions to help students in making decisions of what organization to join:

  •          Identify learning outcomes for your organization.  If you have differences by positions, breakdown outcomes that way to let students know what they might gain if they stay involved over time.
  •          Share learning outcomes with students and make it part of the recruitment process.
  •          Really talk with interested students and be honest with them about your organization and what you do.
  •          Be less competitive with other organizations – getting the most number of incoming members is not beneficial if it is a bad fit and they don’t participate or drop out.
  •          Don’t assume students know about your information or at least know accurate information.
  •          Be intentional with your recruitment to identify students who are a good fit for the organization and the organization is a good fit for them.
  •          If you have an interview process, ask what students are looking for in an organization.  Decide in advance what you will do if there seems to be a disconnect between what a student looking for and the purpose of your organization.

Helping students identify the right organization for them is a benefit for that individual student and for that organization.  It also helps students not “waste time” trying various organizations that really are not for them.

- Kelly Cox

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

SLLO In Action: Exit Interviews

They seem like such an easy concept yet when it comes to actually doing them, I’m a bit apprehensive.  Maybe I don’t want to hear what the student employee has to say.  Maybe they hated their job and now that they’re leaving, they will feel the need to unleash multiple semesters worth of pent up frustration.  I have a sensitive ego.  What can I say?  However, in conducting exit interviews for the past 3 semesters, I have actually learned quite a bit from my graduating student employees.  I learned our students want more to do than just to be an office lackey.  They get tired, I assume, of making copies for presentations or trying to figure out how to put restroom newsletters in the boy’s bathrooms without getting yelled at by the occupants.  Our students want responsibility.  They want to take on large projects where they can learn new skills.  And yes, they want to learn how to be leaders outside the classroom.  How has this new knowledge led me to be a better supervisor?  When I hire student employees, I ensure them this job is not just a job where they can surf Facebook or Twitter all day or where they can just sit and read history textbooks.  They will learn something at this job.  They will use their academic knowledge and finally, they will become leaders in the health field.  Am I still scared to do Exit Interviews?  Not even a little bit.  Bring it on.

- Rhonda Rahn

Thursday, November 21, 2013

SLLO Reflections: How Do We Reflect?

Reflect: among other definitions, defines to reflect as to think, ponder, or meditate. I know that I do not take enough time to reflect: I'm too busy moving on to the next project, meeting, or activity. At the same time, I know that action doesn't role model positive behavior for the college students and colleagues we work with. How can we expect others to reflect (well), if we don't do it?

I even admit that I started this article while waiting for my car to be serviced at the dealership, and I'm now working on it (a couple of months later) waiting for others to show up to a meeting. Not much time to seriously reflect on life and learning, is it? On the other hand, maybe we can reflect in smaller chunks of time.

What's the point of us reflecting anyway? I do think that some of our learning and integration takes place after some event--not always in the moment. Those of you that work with students regularly (especially those that may have made a poor decision at some point) know what I mean.  I also advocate that in this day and age, we need to know how to think, not just how to perform a specific skill (that may be outdated in a couple of years). But how do we know how to think? It takes practice and challenge.

Marcia Baxter Magolda has researched the area of self-authorship, which includes reflection as a major foundation. Table 1, below, illustrates the journey of self-authorship (from Authoring Your Life, 2009, p. 4). You can see that there is a process of development as we get older and have more experiences.

Trust authorities to decide what to believe, follow others’ visions for how to succeed. External voices (those of others) in the foreground drown out internal voice.
Torn between following others’ versus own visions and expectations
Listening to Internal Voice
Recognize the importance of hearing one’s internal voice and begin work to identify it. Attempt to get internal voice into conversation with external voices.
Cultivating Internal Voice
Use internal voice to sort out beliefs, establish priorities, and put the puzzle of who you are together. Work to reduce reliance on external authorities.
Trust yourself to decide what to believe, follow your vision for how to succeed. Internal voice in the foreground coordinates information from external voices.
Trusting the Internal Voice
Realize that reality is beyond your control, but you can control your reaction to reality; use internal voice to shape reaction.
Building an Internal Foundation
Use internal voice to make internal commitments and build them into a foundation or philosophy of life to guide action.
Securing Internal Commitments
Live out internal commitments in everyday life.
Italics=elements within phases
Table 1: Key Locations in the Journey toward Self-Authorship

In her longitudinal study, Baxter Magolda also explored how good partners helped in that development. The study participants said a good partner “respected their thoughts and feelings, helped them sort through their experiences, and collaborated with them to help them solve their own problems” (p. 12). In student affairs, that’s where advisors and supervisors come into play. They can help others in that reflection and interpretation phase without taking over someone else’s life.

Here are a couple of tips for reflection:
  • Schedule time to do it--have a meeting with yourself.  We are all very busy people, and I know if something doesn't get put on my calendar, it doesn't get done. Even if it is 15-30 minutes a week.
  • Schedule time with others. The last SLLO meeting of the year asked staff to reflect. We provided people with some questions, but they could also go down their own path as needed. We provided paper, markers, snacks, etc. to help people get into their own flow. The staff who attended seemed to like it, and shared some really great ideas and reflections.
  • For some, reviewing the current day and planning for the next day helps them briefly reflect-what did I learn today? What do I intend to learn tomorrow? What resources do I need to learn? What opportunities do I have to help others in their journey?
  • Read. Whether it's The Chronicle of Higher Education, a book, a journal article, or a blog, read something once a week that makes you think. What does this mean to me? My work with students? My own professional or personal development? My future?
  • Cultivate your internal voice. I’m giving you permission to talk to yourself, without others thinking you are crazy.

- Darby Roberts

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

SLLO Reflections: Liking Isn’t Helping

In preparing for the semester ahead, I've done a lot of looking into social media and various news outlets to seek inspiration for leadership moment prompts.  Perhaps is it my own natural bias at play, but I usually gravitate towards those which don’t require a thorough knowledge of current world events.  I mostly choose those which can be set up quickly and then we can move into the conversation and reflection part without anyone feeling like they've attended a lecture at their exec meeting.  But in seeking out those inspirations today, I came across the following brief post which challenged me to reconsider my approach to those moments:

In processing the meaning behind this marketing campaign “Liking Isn't Helping”, I’m struck with the question of whether or not I've fully done my part (for myself or my students) to challenge us to move beyond just surface awareness of need in the world and into actual committed assistance.  Now, it bears stating here that one thing I absolutely LOVE about working with Aggies is that when they see a need, a very high percentage of them will mobilize to try to address is (thus the origin of Big Event, The Red, White, and Blue Out, etc…).  Nevertheless, we are all guilty at one time or becoming caught in the Aggie Bubble and not seeing what is occurring beyond the campus proper. 

Although social media news reports and heart-wrenching images can be distributed practically instantaneously, sometimes another instant is as long as we spend to click the Like button or “show support” without it ever actually breaking into our subconscious.  This might be a slight balm to our spirit to feel like we've “done something”, even if it’s something small, but I think what this campaign seeks to remind us is that we can’t stop there.  Basic awareness that the realities behind these images actually exist just isn't enough.

Therefore, my commitment for the coming semester is to push beyond the surface and not to shy away from the conversations and reflections that might take a bit longer but that help my students realize that these issues are very real in the world.  They will probably take me out of my own comfort zone, and I might have to work twice as hard to keep my personal politics out of the conversation, but if even one of my students leaves this year and chooses to commit themselves to the higher purpose of making a difference on a national or global scale, then it was all worth it.

- Sarah Edwards

Thursday, November 14, 2013

SLLO Reflections: The Best Laid Plans...

So it never fails – you set out on a big scheme that you have planned perfectly only to be laughed at by the universe that is clearly “anti-planning.” Well, at least that is how I always feel. Whether it is a morning routine gone array, a planned mental health day that turns into me or one my kids actually getting sick, or a Pinterest project gone wrong – life just happens.

Such is the case with my work in SLLO.

I clearly had grand plans of changing lives. Of making my students think harder, work smarter and be excited to discuss… wait for it… what they were learning outside of those hours spent “learning.” This work was going to change them. I was going to aid in their personal development, celebrate with them after they get that dream job, listen to their stories of discovery and then wait for the applause that follows on a job well done.

What I got was something I could have never expected.
All the time I spent evaluating rubrics, spell checking leadership learning contracts, facilitating leadership moments and sitting in on feedback sessions – ALL of that time, I was expecting to see a change.

And I did.

I saw a student determined to improve public speaking skills speak to a crowd of thousands.
I saw students afraid to give feedback evaluate friends and peers with objectivity.
I saw students connect classroom knowledge to leadership skills.

There are many more examples just like these where I witnessed change. But in all of that, the biggest change came from the most unexpected place. Me.

I changed.

I became more attentive. I reignited a passion in my work. I polished my own skills of prioritization and time management. I ran meetings more effectively. Every time I set the bar higher for my students, I did the same for myself. And together we grew as a team.

I even interacted with my children with more intention and discovered new ways of integrating learning into their lives. And while my husband hates it when I “student develop” him – I think he would even say that while my planned creation of a rubric for our children’s ability to potty train/brush teeth/follow instructions sounds crazy, it’s better than the money we spend bribing rewarding them for good behavior.

Much of the discussion of “should I or shouldn’t I” in terms of adopting SLLO into work practices revolves around the extra time it adds to work. And all those discussion are true – it does take time. But in the words of the often quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The reward of a thing well done is having done it.”

So do it. And make plans for the unexpected.

- Katy King

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

SLLO Where Are They Now: A Public Speaker

 About 11 months ago I packed up my (too many) belongings and moved to Waco, TX to start the next chapter of life…graduate school at Truett Theological Seminary. As I look around at my life I realize I have come to love this place. I get to spend my time reading and studying God’s word and learning about the church, my “work life” consists of engaging with the community at Waco Habitat for Humanity and doing research on the topic of missions for an incredible professor and mentor, and I am in love with my church. My free time is spent reading books and really digging deep into community with the people God has placed here in my life.

I sit here now writing on the same laptop that carried me through my last semesters at Texas A&M University and an experience that when I look back upon I can only describe as surreal…serving as 62nd President of the Memorial Student Center. I was thinking about this chapter in my life the other day and realized that what I love most about my time as President is that it wasn't something that I wanted to do. In fact, I turned down the opportunity multiple times. I’m not trying to be arrogant when I say this. I know and appreciate that there are many people who wanted the job…I just didn't feel equipped. I knew, in detailed description, the intensity of what I would be agreeing to do. Yet, as I look back on the experience I realize that I was prepared. It was something I was preparing for years before I even knew what an MSC President was. I attribute a vast amount of my preparation to the Student Leader Learning Outcomes.

My first interaction with SLLO was via trickle-down contact. I was a shy freshman in MSC FiSH and the student staff in the organization engaged with the rubrics and tools behind the scenes and incorporated them into their leadership. I think I probably filled out a survey or two.

Fast forward to my sophomore year and I found myself in their shoes. Sitting around a staff table setting goals for myself and marking off boxes where I felt I landed in skill level at project management. Then I sat and talked with my Chair and Vice Chair about where I would like to be and what tools and practices could help me get there.

Fast forward once more and you find me as a junior, back on the other side of the table. This time I was serving as Chair and my Vice Chair and I spent hours brainstorming with our advisor, Katy King, about how we could push this project even further and engage deeper with our staff and freshmen. We simultaneously focused on our personal growth and each picked specific rubrics to follow, drafted learning contracts, and developed staff activities to get everyone thinking beyond just planning programs.

The rubric I picked to focus on personally was public speaking. My learning contract included signing up for a speech class. Two years later I found myself sitting in front of a news camera the morning that the newly renovated Memorial Student Center was to be rededicated and reopened after a $120 million renovation and expansion. The next day I was on a stage speaking to an estimated 3,000 people as we opened the doors and invited our Aggie family back into the campus living room for the first time in three years. Life is weird and unexpected.

What I love about the SLLO project, and where I think its primary impact lies in my life, is the focus on utilizing small steps and choices. I am a huge advocate for intentionality and reflection—and this is what I consider to be the core of SLLO.

I am a big picture person, often I really don’t want to recognize that the little choices I make can actually prepare me for the next opportunity. The SLLO tools required me to slow down and to examine my long-term goals and think about what I can do now to prepare. It is a model that relies on honest self-reflection and a willingness to be open to feedback from others. The funny thing is that it prepared me for far more than any of the goals I ever conceived.

Not only did SLLO prepare me for student leadership at Texas A&M but interacting with the project instilled skills within me that I continue to utilize every day. These are things that I don’t often even think about because they have become so ingrained in me. When I allow myself the time to sit and reflect I am always surprised at how far I have developed since I entered this season of life as an 18 year old freshman. I am comfortable receiving constructive criticism at my job. I am willing to provide feedback to peers and superiors. I am willing to step out of my comfort zone and challenge myself to do the things I think I can’t.  
If I were to offer one piece of advice to people considering engaging with the SLLO resources it would be: just start. Choose one tool or practice and help your students implement it. And then challenge them to do a little more, and a little more.

I am so grateful for Katy King’s passion. She not only provided me opportunities to engage on paper and in the safety of her office, but she actively pushed me to do the things I didn't think I could do. She never doubted that I could stand on a stage in front of 3,000 people and represent our student body…even though I questioned my ability. The SLLO project gave me an avenue to practice little things every day. It was these seemingly little things that ultimately gave me the confidence to go boldly and serve in ways I never considered possible. 

- Liz Andrasi

Thursday, November 7, 2013

SLLO Where are They Now: Dedicating Time to SLLO

As a graduate student, my use of SLLO, best described as restricted exploration, was challenged by limited hours, stress from classes, and 9-month stents with a specific organization. Given those constraints, I have still been able to utilize several tools effectively and seen significant impacts.

Having been exposed to SLLO (without knowing it) as an undergraduate student and getting the opportunity to attend a SLLO orientation at the start of my graduate assistantship with Student Activities, I was eager to test the waters of student leader learning. I spent the first year of my assistantship advising a freshmen mentorship organization. With a moderately sized executive staff of fifteen students, I primarily utilized 1-minute papers (or more accurately, note cards) to encourage the staff to reflect on two key areas: 1) the impact they wanted to make on the organization and 2) the personal growth they wanted to achieve as a result of their work with the organization. I also worked with my chief student leader attempting to work through a rubric but struggled with buy-in from the student. I found the 1-minute papers to be moderately effective as we revisited different ones throughout the year.

As I, myself, reflected on my year in the shallow end of SLLO, I discovered two key obstacles. I struggled to obtain buy-in from students, which I believe to be a product of my limited time with them. I also found my intentionality to be lacking. With these two obstacles in mind, I set some goals for my advising position with a different organization the following year. I resolved to be more intentional in planning out how I would use SLLO tools and more receptive to my students’ reactions to the tools I introduced.

During the second year of my assistantship, I stuck with the same tools as before; 1-minute papers and rubrics. The difference this year came from my goal of increasing intentionality with SLLO. I took time at the start of each semester to select 1-minute paper prompts to introduce throughout the year that related to their experiences with the organization at a specific time. For example, I prompted them to reflect on transition, both as it relates to the organization and to their life, in April.  I also exposed my chief student leader to all of the SLLO rubrics and outcomes, allowing that student to choose a rubric they wanted to work on. That ownership led to significant student investment and improvement in our work with the effective meetings rubric. In addition to 1-minute papers and rubrics, I also employed leadership moments in weekly director staff meetings, disguising them as “advisor times,” a seemingly more fun agenda item from the students’ perspective.

I achieved much more success with SLLO in my second year, compared to my first, and I found the main cause of that increased success to be intentionality.  I sacrificed extra time to give real thought and attention to finding the most impactful way I could incorporate SLLO into my advising experiences. That extra time made all the difference.

As I transition into my first full-time professional position, when it comes to SLLO, that extra time is what I will remember. I know the principles. I have been exposed to the tools. But, if I do not make time to be intentional with how I align my work with those principles, if I don’t take the time to strategically plan out how I will use the tools, my efforts will be, at best, diluted. And, while students will change and my personalized style with SLLO will develop, without the dedicated time and attention, my student impact suffers. Time will tell exactly how I use SLLO in my next role, but the one certainty I know and keep in those regards is that time will be spent to intentionally figure that out.

- Leo Young

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Downlow on SLLO: The Importance of the First Follower

So, the universe has been trying to teach me something this week.  And, as is so often the case, it has taken more than just once or twice for the message to sink in…but I think I've got it now. 

It all began earlier this week when, as a personal celebration for surviving another semester of my own academic pursuits, I convinced a friend to go see The Hobbit with me.  For the most part I was just decompressing from the Fall and enjoying the sheer magnitude of the film, but I also, as is so often the case, heard that voice in my brain interject at a few key points in the story with “This would be a great leadership moment”, and “You could weave that into a social justice module for class, etc”.  As I was in relaxation mode, I promptly ignored those voices...but the lesson wasn't over.

Fast forward to Thursday, and I am sent this clip:

Although the message from the TED talker sounded a little bit more like “Transform a Lone Nut into a Leader”, what really stuck out to me was his emphasis on the importance of the first follower.  I began to reflect on how often I talk with my students about the courage and strength it takes to be the first follower, rather than the leader, and I couldn’t come up with much.  That’s just not a conversation we have (or have had before…).  As I prepared to leave for the night, these thoughts continued to swirl around in my brain looking for a place to latch on and mesh into next year’s assignments.

And then, the universe delivered the final blow: My grandparents wanted to go to the movies for Grandparents Night (our Thursday night tradition), and of course…we were going to see The Hobbit.  This time, with actual sleep having been had this week and my brain not still fried from writing a final flurry of papers, I watched the film for the lessons.  And I found a ton!

I won’t go into too many, but the one that stuck out the most that I knew needed to be addressed here was the moment when Bilbo Baggins did his own version of running up and joining the crazy guy dancing in the park.  Bilbo, who spends the first two hours of the movie reminding Gandolf and the dwarves that he’s never been a fighter, watches as the leader of the dwarves rushes away from the group and faces down his nemesis.  But rather than being paralyzed by fear or awe like the others, he braces himself to follow.  When the leader is struck down, Bilbo and Sting charge down the Orcs and, in doing so, bolster the others to fight back as well.

I was struck with the parallels to what I see in my own organizations.  While the dynamics rarely involve Orcs or Dwarves, they do often involve one or two leaders who seem so confident, that many of the other students sit back and watch in awe rather than stepping up to join in.  It’s only after one or two additional students break away from the pack and vocally support the “leader”, that the momentum builds and others fall in line. 

And so, this morning I find myself plotting with more intentionality about where this lesson in followership will fall into Spring’s curriculum.  And reminding myself to stop resisting the teachings of the universe…it always wins in the end.

- Sarah Edwards

Thursday, October 31, 2013

SLLO Reflections and Action

          I remember in my first year as a graduate student at Texas A&M, the first time I heard any mention of SLLO. I was in one of my first Residence Education meetings and the Associate Director was talking about this incredible program that can help us, as professionals, gauge how much our students are learning. As she went into explaining what SLLO was, I immediately felt out my league. Being a kid from small-town South Dakota, I don’t know if, to that point, I had thought about something like that. To me, complex guiding thoughts on practice were how to plot out farmland or what I needed to in my student organization to maximize the funding we were granted. As it turns out, exposing myself to SLLO and challenging myself to use it with my student staff was one of the best career decisions I've made in my limited time as a professional.

            In my time at Texas A&M, I utilized Student Learning Contracts with my student staff. My first experiment using these was, as could be predicted, disastrous. But, as I stuck with it and used feedback from the students I was working with to guide how I used them in the future, I started to get the hang of using them. By the time I was being forced to leave College Station (curse you, graduation!), I felt really comfortable using them and knew that as I continued to work with students, Learning Contracts and the assessment of student learning were going to remain a staple of my practice.

            As I started my time here at the University of Iowa, one major question was constantly floating around in my head: How can I, as a first-year employee, help guide our department in focusing on the assessment of learning in our student leaders. As committee assignments came out and I found out that I was on the Student Staff Training Committee, I had a realization: If we outline major competencies our student staff will both need in their position and gain through their time in the department, we can set up our training, supervision, and evaluation process to, in a natural way, assess student learning. Once I was able to convince the powers that be of this, the work could begin.

            As we are still in the beginning stage of piloting the use of our competencies, I will share a bit of the thoughts that went into creating our departmental competencies. Luckily, as I was talking about competencies in one of our first committee meetings, I was able to land a partner in developing them. As we sat down and began discussing the use of competencies and what we would need in order for them to be used effectively, we both came to the same conclusion: For ease of use, the department should have rubrics for each competency. The first step that we took was looking at the Resident Assistant job description and evaluation. From there, we were able to identify the seven overarching topical areas (i.e. Leadership). Next, we outlined individual competencies that would fall under certain topical areas (i.e. Takes responsibility for one’s own decisions and actions). The final step was outlining the rubrics that would be used in assessing students’ progress across the various areas. For this, we adapted Bloom’s Taxonomy to use different terminology that, in our minds, more directly correlates with students’ movement in knowledge as they stay in a student staff role for multiple years(Figure 1). Not only did we use Bloom’s Taxonomy as a guiding framework, but we also broke down where the student staff should be in the learning process based on how long they have been a Resident Assistant (e.g. training, 1st year, 2nd year).

            Upon finishing the first few stages of my first major student learning project as a full-time professional, I came to the realization of how much being involved in SLLO has impacted my knowledge base and practice. Without the exposure to SLLO and the outstanding professionals involved in and leading it, I wouldn’t have had any clue to even think about student staff competencies, much less outline this process. To folks new or unexposed to SLLO, I encourage you to get involved and learn all you can while you’re at Texas A&M. For those of you currently or previously involved in SLLO, thank you for the great work you do and have done in guiding our field and keep it up!

Carson D. Dinger, ‘12
Residence Life Coordinator

University of Iowa

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

SLLO Reflections: What’s the Big Idea?

As the director of Student Life Studies, I have a unique perspective on student learning. I see the departments, advisors, and students coming to our office for student learning assessment help. They want to improve their programs to meet the needs of today’s students. I also see what’s happening on the institution level: Accreditors want to know what students are learning in their college career.

For many years, staff in student affairs were not really plugged into student learning assessment. They were focused on student services and student development, both of which are necessities on college campuses. In recent years, though, there has been a shift in higher education that demands we also focus on what students are learning. It’s not always just about putting on a great program or providing a needed service; it’s about what students are learning from those activities. In addition, it can be about what the student leaders are learning from being in charge of those programs and events. We know students are learning; we need to be able to show the learning.

Universities are being asked to provide evidence and documentation that students are, in fact, learning something, not just in their classes, but also in the rest of their experiences. Obviously, students should learn their discipline, but they should also be able to communicate effectively, work well with others, and make good decisions. Faculty may have an easier time assessing learning, particularly as it relates to discipline knowledge. They are seeing students for an extended period of time, require some sort of artifact (test, papers, projects), and provide feedback along the way for students to improve performance. Depending on the situation, faculty may incorporate communication opportunities (written paper, oral presentation), group projects, and ethical dilemma case studies in the courses. I like to think that students then have the ability to transfer that information to different settings and improve over time. Student affairs staff can also develop these skills in students, beyond the confines of the classroom walls.

So, what is the Big Idea? The big idea is that learning takes place in all kinds of settings, all the time, and in all kinds of ways, and we need to make it our focus and reason for being. The future of our country (and the world) depends on it. In We’re Losing Our Minds: Rethinking American Higher Education, Keeling and Hersh argue that America is being held back by the quality and quantity of learning in college. Graduates can’t communicate, solve problems, comprehend complex issues, accept responsibility, understand others’ perspectives, or meet employer expectations (p. 1). There is a crisis in student learning (“there is not enough higher learning in high education” [p. viii]) that we need to acknowledge and address in new ways. In brief, some of their principles include:

  •          Higher learning requires the collective effort of the entire faculty and staff. We need to agree on ends (outcomes) and means (rigorous thinking, writing, reading, ethical behavior, etc.).
  •          Higher learning occurs horizontally, across experiences in and out of the classroom, as well as vertically within major and disciplines, and in ways that are necessarily cumulative. Higher learning is synergistic and requires integrated design.
  •          Assessment is an intentional process of helping students learn, including how to seek, use, and internalize assessment processes and results.
  •          All learning—intellectual, developmental, social, and emotional—happens through changes in the brain. There is guidance about developing pedagogies to help students learn more effectively.
  •          The individual learner matters in the learning. Students’ readiness is a complex construct that influences persistence, achievement, learning, and success.
  •          Students’ individual levels of engagement and investment in their college education are also fundamental factors that affect achievement, persistence, and success. (pp. 21-22)

All of us should be concerned with the value (rather than just cost) of higher education and how to improve the learning among college students of today. Student affairs professionals have a significant role in preparing students to be the thinkers, learners, and leaders of tomorrow. It is a big idea that requires new thinking and engagement, right here, right now.

- Darby Roberts