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The Essential Role of Assessment in Student Affairs’ Practices

By focusing on increasing students’ sense of belonging and creating co-curricular experiences, student affairs can increase student persistence, bridge different forms of learning and improve student success.

Witnessing the learning and growth that students who engage in co-curricular experiences acquire is one of the most fulfilling components of serving as a student affairs professional. These opportunities are designed to contribute positively to the student experience by facilitating the development of new skills and understandings that are helpful during the college experience and applicable to life after graduation. Co-curricular experiences are also designed to foster a campus climate that enhances students’ sense of belonging and connectedness to the institution. These factors contribute significantly to student decision-making on their enrollment at their college or university.

For many student affairs professionals, our own engagement in these experiences may have been a significant factor in the decision to pursue a career in higher education. While we may recognize the inherent value of co-curricular involvement and intuitively know these experiences contribute to student learning, demonstrating the outcomes gained through co-curricular opportunities is a powerful and increasingly important task for student affairs educators.

As we pursue strategies to advance equity, inclusion and student success in higher education, it is necessary to gather evidence to illustrate how various co-curricular experiences impact student success, so informed decisions can be made about where to invest precious resources. It is incumbent on student affairs educators to collect this evidence and use it to improve our practice and demonstrate how our work contributes to student learning and success.

Assessment of co-curricular experiences may seem to be a daunting task for student affairs educators who are already balancing multiple responsibilities. The implementation of co-curricular opportunities involves multiple logistical elements including planning, collaborating with campus partners who may need to contribute their expertise or service to the experience, budget planning and analysis and marketing to raise awareness of the opportunities among students.

A particular co-curricular experience is one of many different and equally complex experiences being planned and offered in any given week. In my own work executing co-curricular experiences and leading teams responsible for offering these learning opportunities, I have found that assessment planning, design and implementation may not always rise to the top of the list of priorities needing attention to implement the experience.

Time and resource constraints are challenges related to employing robust assessment of co-curricular experiences; however, several practical strategies can be taken to make assessment foundational to the co-curricular design and implementation process.

A natural place to start is defining what is meant by co-curricular experiences in practical terms. I have adopted an approach that broadly defines co-curricular experiences including all student learning opportunities offered on campus outside of the classroom. This broad definition prompts discussion about how we can approach planning and implementing the experiences we produce through a student learning lens.

This approach often starts with an open discussion about what we hope students will gain by participating in whatever experience we are offering. This method is applicable to activities or events we hope students will choose to attend and services we offer students through various functional areas designed to provide student support. Asking ourselves what we want students to gain or take away from their interactions with various programs, activities and services provided allows us to clarify the learning goals and outcomes associated with a particular experience.

Another powerful practice is to consider ways the learning goals and outcomes generated through the “what do we want students to gain” conversation align with college or university learning goals and outcomes. Alignment between individual co-curricular learning outcomes and broader institutional learning outcomes demonstrates intentionality in connecting the in-classroom and out-of-classroom learning students experience.

This practice also demonstrates to college or university leaders that staff charged with creating co-curricular experiences are approaching this work by focusing on student learning and contributing to the specific learning outcomes and objectives the college or university prioritizes. Identifying specific learning outcomes for co-curricular experiences that align with institutional learning outcomes clearly expresses how student affairs can make a tangible contribution to the college or university’s student learning mission.

Creating learning outcomes for co-curricular experiences may be a new practice for some colleagues who are responsible for the design and implementation of these learning opportunities. Providing professional development resources and dedicating time to share effective co-curricular assessment practices can help to make this work less daunting and more empowering. Minnesota State has established a co-curricular assessment community of practice that includes resources designed to help colleagues define co-curricular assessment, clarify the assessment process, create learning outcomes and determine assessment methods.

The community also focuses on prioritizing equity and inclusion throughout the assessment process. The co-curricular assessment community of practice has served as a valuable tool to help colleagues at the 33 colleges and universities in the Minnesota State system advance their co-curricular assessment work by engaging with professional development resources and sharing their experiences implementing their own assessment activities.

Gathering evidence of student learning through co-curricular experiences is an increasingly vital component of accreditation and quality assurance processes. This increased focus is an exciting opportunity to consider ways in which co-curricular assessment can be highlighted as an institutional priority. My work in this area has revealed the importance of senior student affairs leaders providing the support necessary to advance this work by discussing it regularly in division meetings, providing professional development opportunities and sharing results to celebrate successes and inform divisional priorities.

The most important motivation for advancing co-curricular assessment practices is the opportunity to utilize the data generated to improve our practice. Results of these efforts can help us ensure the programs and services student affairs educators offer contribute to the student learning goals and student success metrics the institution identifies.

Co-curricular experiences have been shown to contribute significantly to the equity, inclusion and student success goals associated with decreasing equity gaps in educational outcomes and increasing the rates of student persistence through the higher education experience.

Maximizing the impact these learning opportunities have on student success requires further clarifying our goals for student engagement with the experiences and services we offer students and a more refined understanding of what students gain from their interactions with the campus environment. Implementing practical strategies to gather information from our students about their experiences can help us better serve them and create student-centered campus environments conducive to their success.

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