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