By Geoff Irvine on Thursday, April 07, 2016

NASPA logoIn 2015-2016 there had been a fair amount of noise on the Web about the notion that Student Affairs had a proactive role to play in supporting and assessing the instructional goals of their academic colleagues. NASPA and external commentators stated that the time had come for Student Affairs to actively seek out collaboration with faculty (and visa versa). Given what we do here at Chalk & Wire, we decided to come to Indianapolis to check it out.

We came fully expecting to see this partnership in significant bloom – especially at a conference with the huge tagline of “Common Purpose: Shaping a Vision for Higher Ed.” So, here’s the news. While the people we spoke to understand the incredible potential, joint learning efforts involving assessment are as scarce as hen’s teeth. Student Affairs folks resonated on the issue of assessment of their own offerings via surveys, but rarely thought of this as anything that should (or even could) be elevated to a more systematic process, let alone one that might involve their academic colleagues or rubrics and that ultimately might become a high stakes event.

On the face of it, the concept of “Student Affairs/Academic Affairs” partnerships is a pedagogical no-brainer. Academics teach staggering amounts of content and skills in their courses but rarely, if ever, assess student learning “authentically.” Put another way, outside of professional program internships and field placements, students rarely see an assignment that asks them to take what they know out into the community and solve real-world problems. The research about the impact of authentic assessment on “student engagement” (another mantra and goal shared by the two sides of the house) is legion. Near as we could see, there is no downside on this one.

Student Affairs, in fact, has what the academics need in spades. They have historically and expertly supported all manner of real-world learning experiences in the form of student clubs and organizations. These outside-of-the-classroom interest groups need student members with vision, management and organizational skills and creativity. Many NASPA members have invested deeply in student leadership training, community service opportunities and special events that scream out for reflection and application of what has been taught formally in classrooms. One might argue, that for students in the humanities, Student Affairs may well be THE single best source for authentic learning opportunities and the assessment of workplace skills. 

In reality, NASPA members seem much more comfortable with what they have always done—which seems to be mainly finding ways to make sure students enjoy their campus experience outside of the classroom, while making equally sure these experiences get great ratings.

It’s all about “engagement”—a term as murky to define as “e-Portfolio.” Social media is their modern power tool of choice. They strategically use Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to hit just the right demographics to achieve maximum impact. Believe me, they know what’s trending! On the achievement front, however, assessment of academic outcomes and even something as obvious as “badging” are largely unknowns (I mentioned badging in one workshop and the two leaders had never heard of the concept – someone in the front row had to offer a quick primer.)

So, is student affairs a dry well on the issue of completing the learning cycle? I have not given up on them. I do not think the issue is so much “what” or even “if,” but mainly seems to be about “how.” To be fair, this is as much my problem as theirs. We know it can be done. We even know how. The goal is for us to find a school that wants to stand out as a Full Cycle Learning institution.

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