I have heard student affairs professionals discuss the focus on learning as though they hope it is a fad that goes away. When I first came across this perspective it upset me. How could it be that student affairs professionals, those working in institutions of higher education, aren’t interested in what students are learning? Especially because they are often the same people who claim that students learn what really matters in life from their out of classroom experiences. Recently, I realized that I’ve become much more comfortable with this way of looking at learning because there seems to be a pattern of beliefs surrounding these two claims.
First, there are still many folks in the field that believe learning is the responsibility of faculty. This is something we need to get away from. Faculty do not have to be skilled in creating learning environments to obtain their position. This belief we (student affairs professionals) have only perpetuates the feeling we have of being second class citizens (that we often complain about), which doesn’t do anyone any good. Yet, we know that learning doesn’t just happen when a person walks into a classroom. Learning is something that happens all of the time in every environment. Thus, it would do us good to take on the responsibility of being intentional with the environments we create.
Second, if we do agree that student affairs professional have an impact on student learning, it can seem overwhelming. What might students actually be learning from us? How do we “prove” it? How can it be measured? (questions such as these arise because Learning is Messy). I am quite certain that there are a lot of other beliefs about why learning shouldn’t be the responsibility of student affairs professionals. Yet, these are the two I will focus on, and I would respectfully disagree with those who hold them.
It is very much our responsibility to be intentional with student learning. Otherwise, what are we doing in higher education? An easy way to justify our worth to those that think there are too many administrators in higher education (which is often the group student affairs professionals are lumped with) is to help people understand the learning that takes place for students through all of their experiences. Another concern is that we cause a division in the institution when we say that learning is for faculty only, which I only imagine makes it harder to fulfill the institution’s mission.
Our justification for the impact we have on learning does not have to be only via numbers that report how many attended such and such program and/or how many programs we sponsored. In fact, beyond the likelihood that learning occurred simply because people showed up, we don’t really know what learning occurred. We can, however, include numbers that reflect how many students said they learned whatever our intentioned learning outcomes are. It can even include narratives directly from students about the impact the experience has had on them. Yes, self-report data, to those that do not value it, can seem meaningless. But the selves reporting it are students, and instead of discounting them, it might do us well to listen to them. We know that traditionally students often make decisions about what they are going to do based on what their peers are doing, and parents like to hear that college is worth the time and money being invested. So, why not share such data with students and parents?
I often think that those hoping that learning is a fad within student affairs are underestimating the students, and I was cautioned against doing so by a close mentor of mine shortly after obtaining my master’s degree. Yes, I do agree that it is true that those who want to graduate college want to get a job, however I don’t think that is their only focus. I believe that students go to college to learn, and if they can find benefit from why they should learn something, it seems as though students are more than likely to want to go to college and will do their best to invest learning. It also seems as though it is more likely that we are accomplishing a purpose of higher education to focus on student learning.
Perhaps these are the partnerships they can create with faculty?
In what ways are you learning-centered in your practice?
And, regardless as to if you are considering what students are learning, they are learning. So, what might students be learning from their interactions with you?