When I started my undergraduate program in 2007 I thought that the lecture halls and seminar rooms were the sites in which I would learn the skills needed to succeed in the world. As a result, I opted not to take part in many extra-curricular activities in my early years, focusing my energy towards academics rather than student affairs. However, as I became more experienced and I started pursuing a graduate degree, I found myself drawn to the events, activities and services that took place outside of the classroom; the resume-writing workshops, student conferences and intramural sports teams to name a few. It was in these spaces that I developed most of the transferable life skills and higher-order cognitive skills that I still carry with me to this day, as well as the ones that had the biggest effect on my employability.
When it came to writing cover letters and preparing for job interviews, it was my out-of-class experiences that allowed me to demonstrate the skills needed to succeed. When asked about my teamwork skills, I referred to the collaborative efforts I had with fellow teammates in sports and charity events. To prove my communication skills, I emphasized my presentations at conferences and responsibilities as a student council representative. Finally, when I was asked about my capacity to think critically, I highlighted moments in part-time work and campus events wherein difficult situations arose and I had to deal with them appropriately.
In short, I seldom made reference to the course work or learning I experienced as a student (aside from discipline-specific criteria), which made me realize that learning is not confined to the classroom. The vast majority of the skills I possess, and the ones that seem to be of interest to employers, are the ones I acquired outside of the classroom. As such, student affairs seem have the capacity to do much more than offer extra-curriculars and help students get through their programs. Perhaps, as in my case, they can help to develop the types of skills that lead to employability and lifelong learning.
HEQCO President Harvey Weingarten’s blog post, Managing for quality: Classifying learning outcomes, suggests that employers are demanding from new hires transferable life skills and higher order cognitive skills that are not necessarily being assessed in postsecondary institutions. His blog raised the question: how do we go about measuring transferable life skills and higher-order cognitive skills, and where might they be found in the postsecondary sector? It’s time to consider these questions across the entirety of institutional programs and departments, in both the academic and student affairs settings.
Student affairs encompass a vast range of activities that is often inclusive of everything not directly related to students’ academic experiences. As a result, students come into contact with some aspect or another within the student affairs branch during their postsecondary education, regardless of their discipline, proximity to campus, or demographics. But what skills are being developed as a result of these experiences? While many student affairs staff members ask these questions every day, the resources surrounding the assessment of student learning in these areas is lacking at a number of institutions.
Beyond the subject of resources, there is also a lack of understanding on how to assess outside of the academic context. While various academic programs and departments establish discipline-specific learning outcomes and develop requisite assessment tools, this process gets a lot more difficult at the student affairs level. For instance, how does one measure the types of skills being developed via athletics/intramurals, student groups, registration/financial aid, etc.? The picture becomes less clear in these instances. Personally, if you asked me if the skills I developed outside of class were ever directly assessed, or if I had any sense of how one might go about measuring the development of these skills, I would find it difficult to articulate.
The good news is that we can measure some of the skills that students develop as a result of experiences with student affairs. Find out how by registering for HEQCO’s free webinar, Assessing the student experience: Student affairs learning outcomes, Oct. 29 at 11am EST, where the panelists will demonstrate how assessing learning outcomes in student affairs can offer new ways to value these programs and provide more opportunities for students to develop the skills employers are looking for in both the Canadian and American contexts.
Marc Gurrisi is a research intern at HEQCO.