Obstacles in Co-Curricular Programming
When I first began my position as the Director of Student Life, I was almost immediately asked to develop co-curricular programming for the campus, while also accomplishing the rest of a new director’s seemingly endless task list. I asked, “What does co-curricular mean?” then truthfully it fell to the bottom of my list, where it sat through the pandemic. Looking back, this could have been a critical tool not only for the school’s retention strategy but by also giving students a way to reinforce their learning outside the classroom in a time they so desperately needed it.
If I had known what the simple term co-curricular meant at the beginning of 2020, how many different ways could my department and I have helped students throughout the pandemic? Well, I’m not going to go too far down that road of regrets. Instead we are focusing on how we can help students going forward by learning from our mistakes.
As our campus family came back together in-person, I was thankfully approached by our Associate Vice President of Academic Affairs for Assessment and Accreditation, and she worked to develop a committee that first defined not just co-curricular, but also curricular and extra-curricular for our university.
- Co-curricular: Intentionally created, meaningful not-for-credit learning experiences created within the non-academic structure that support the institutional mission and prepare students to succeed personally and professionally.
- Curricular: Intentional and meaningful for-credit learning experiences created in the academic structure of the institution and aligned with academic program outcomes.
- Extra-curricular: Learning opportunities that develop the student holistically by providing environments in which the student can explore self-identity, different perspectives and develop social, physical and mental skills necessary to future success both personally and professionally.
That work, along with developing a framework for the entire program (mission statements, vision statements, student learning outcomes, etc.), took nearly a year.
During that time, I was also tasked with joining a steering committee for the Higher Learning Commission accreditation review. I was specifically appointed to contribute to our Co-Curricular Committee’s work. Every time the word co-curricular appeared in HLC documents there were either blank faces or the familiar question, “What does co-curricular mean?”
As someone who had asked that question in the not-so-distant past, I was happy to be able to answer that now. However, I walked away from that meeting thinking that 1) clearly, I was not the only one with that question, and 2) if just our small committee knows the definition of co-curricular, then how are we going to make this program a success?
While all this was happening, our campus was also rolling out our new student engagement software, Presence, which we had selected largely because of its ability to produce a co-curricular transcript for our students. So, I had definitions and a very powerful software tool but was consistently explaining the concept of a co-curricular event to others.
We are left with three challenges. First, create a campus where co-curricular is in everyone’s vocabulary. Next, develop activities that are truly co-curricular events. And finally, report these hard and soft skills that students are acquiring in a meaningful way. While I’m far from an expert, I am hoping my experience in running into these barriers can help your campuses avoid them or hurdle over them with ease.
Creating a Co-Curricular Campus
How do we make sure every-person on campus knows and understands the terms? This includes the staff, faculty, students and administration. The entire purpose of co-curricular programming is for there to be cross-contamination in the learning, so failing to include any groups can be detrimental to the entire group.
- Create a well-rounded committee. This means including staff from multiple areas on campus, faculty and students. I’m a believer in having students on committees—it’s a great assignment for a member of student government.
- Create a comprehensive website. These days, we are programmed to search the internet for our answers. If a student is searching for an activity, we want them to be able to find that information on our own website. This can also make it easy for faculty and staff to reference and learn how the program is structured.
- Launch! When your program is ready (we had a few test events prior to launching), send a campus-wide email with a few high-level details—none of us need another long email in our inbox—and then link to your website. And don’t forget social media, too!
Creating Co-Curricular Events
How do we create a series of events that meet co-curricular requirements, achieve our student learning outcomes and create experiential learning outside the classroom? This is a large task to take on, but co-curricular events can and should be emphasized. Our committee has implemented three checkpoints for all co-curricular events.
- Create an application process. We need to ensure that an event part of the co-curricular experience meets certain criteria and our defined student learning outcomes. Our committee has developed an application process that event planners can submit.
- Create an evaluation tool. People need to know these events differ from the traditional extra-curricular events they have attended in the past. Our committee utilized a QR code that took them to the evaluation tool (approved by the co-curricular committee).
- Monitor progress.We obviously want to make sure students are learning something and that it is impacting their education in a meaningful way. Our committee meets at least at the middle and end of the semester to ensure all our student learning outcomes have been or will be achieved and to review the evaluation tool responses for any patterns or gaps in our programming.
How do we report the success of our program? By students checking into events on Presence, we can gather that critical demographic data for attendance at our events.
- Evaluating retention. After at least one year of data collection, you can cross-reference it with your retention demographics. Are students of a certain population not attending our co-curricular events and also suffering in the retention numbers? How can we target activities at these groups to make sure we are providing them with the best possible chance to succeed? The data can also be used with grades.
- Reporting hard skills. These skills are the easiest to evaluate: You either have them or you don’t. These could include CPR testing, technical skills, etc. Many co-curricular opportunities have a knowledge check as part of the experience, where students can demonstrate their proficiency in these skills. We can easily gather these data for our reporting.
- Reporting soft skills. These skills can range in abilities. For example, how do you evaluate that someone learned how to be ethical? This is where we use an evaluation tool to ask students qualitative questions about their experience. We can also use tools (such as evaluating their level of agreement with a statement) to ask if they feel more comfortable with the topic and if the experiences challenged their thinking.
Author Perspective: Administrator