As a student affairs professional, especially one who has always worked in student life, I often find myself trying to convince people that I am, in fact, an educator. As articulated by ACPA’s The Student Learning Imperative in 1994, student learning is intended to be at the centre of all of our work (ACPA, 1994). This is a philosophy I firmly believe in, and my programs always have objectives, learning outcomes and assessment methods attached.
While language about student learning has been a part of the student affairs field for almost three decades now, curriculum is a bit newer, and is much less frequently seen. However, over the past 5-10 years, the use of the curriculum model seems to be growing in Canada (Karim & Wills, 2020). Wilfred Laurier University introduced a residential curriculum in 2014. The University of Toronto’s Career Exploration & Education unit introduced a curricular approach in 2016. Both Western University and Ryerson have a developed an overarching student life curriculum in the past few years. As I’ve continuously seen these approaches pop up in our field, I’ve often wondered how they differ from our current approach. If a curriculum is made up of objectives, outcomes, and assessment, how does the curricular method differ from what we are currently doing?
The Curriculum Model
At its core, the curriculum model is not complicated or particularly revolutionary. As with most curriculum development, it starts with identifying an educational priority that connects to the institutional mission and purpose. It then breaks down this priority into well-defined learning goals and learning outcomes, which leads to strategies, lesson plans and facilitation guides, and finally, assessment methods (Kerr & Tweedy, 2006; Kerr et al., 2017).
While the model itself may not be revolutionary, “sometimes the most simple, straightforward application of knowledge results in change that is both challenging and powerful” (Kerr et al., 2017). Folks who have implemented the model often say that it changes everything: hiring practices, staff training, educational strategies, crisis management, conduct, and more. Institutions who use the curriculum model report increased student learning and share stories of transformation, on both an individual and community level. They share higher rates of student participation, an increase in student persistence, student satisfaction, and sense of belonging, and a decrease in conduct cases (Kerr et al., 2017).
Kerr et al. (2017) outline “ten essential elements of a curriculum model for learning beyond the classroom.” Many of these elements, I would argue, are already present in the work that I do: our work can usually be tied to the institutional mission; our priority is belonging and preparedness, and our learning goals and outcomes can be tied to that priority; my work is based on research and theory (that’s why I’m in grad school!), and assessment focuses on student learning and outcomes. However, three of the essential elements really stood out as ways our work could improve, and solutions to some of the problems I wrestle with regularly.
Developmentally sequenced learning
Despite spending a decade working in student life and advocating for the work that we do for student learning, I sometimes find myself questioning the impact of our programs. Does one single event or workshop attended by a small subset of students really make a difference?
While that question doesn’t necessarily have a straightforward answer, based on the ten essential elements, it does have a relatively straightforward solution: developmentally sequenced learning (Kerr et al., 2017).
Even if a single event or workshop does have an impact, it doesn’t have the same impact as multiple events or workshops that build on each other, planned over the course of the year. It doesn’t have the same impact as a variety of different strategies spaced out over time, but still working together. Structuring learning opportunities so that they are scaffolded and build on one another, and moving students through learning opportunities so that they are introduced to a concept, then develop competency, then become proficient, creates a far better learning experience and outcome then a one-off opportunity ever could (Karim & Wills, 2020).
A great example of programming that could benefit from developmentally sequenced learning is our sexualized violence programming. We have a sexualized violence prevention module in our Pre-Arrival Program; many students, especially those living in residence, will learn about sexualized violence prevention during orientation; Sexualized Violence Awareness Week takes place early in September; and workshops are often available throughout the year. Our goal, while never explicitly stated, is more about trying to get our message in front of students as many times as possible, rather than guiding them through a learning pathway where they could increase their knowledge and skills incrementally.
Use more than one type of educational strategy
In student life, our default strategy for teaching and learning is often events and workshops. While these can be sound strategies, and they certainly have their place, if this is the only strategy we look to, we are missing out on many potential learning opportunities. Sometimes, I find that we default to creating an event or workshop as a band-aid solution, or as a way to check the box. Strategies like intentional conversations, community meetings (particularly in residence), service initiatives, and even social media engagement can all help to achieve learning outcomes (Kerr & Tweedy, 2006). I have been pushing for years for greater use of social media as an educational tool with our students, and it works particularly well as part of a developmentally sequenced learning pathway.
The role of student leaders and student staff
We say that our field of student affairs is about supporting student learning outside the classroom. We say that our programming is built intentionally, using learning outcomes and learning theories. But when you look closely, a lot of our programming is created by student leaders and student staff who, often, have no knowledge of outcomes and theories, or the content area in which they are programming. How does that make sense?
This discrepancy seems to show up for me repeatedly. In January of this year, our team ran an event called First-Year Friday, where our students leaders planned and facilitated workshops for first-year students on topics including finances, substance use, involvement, and healthy eating. The students had great ideas for interactive components of their workshops, but when we did a dress rehearsal, the direct instruction pieces were lacking in solid information, and we had to really coach students to develop effective reflection questions that would help participants apply the learning to their own lives. More recently, a student staff member has been developing Instagram story content to share academic success tips with incoming students. Their work has required a fair bit of editing to align with research-based study principles and best practices in student engagement.
Student voice is undoubtedly important in our work, but the curriculum model shifts their role from the designer of educational strategies to the facilitator of learning opportunities (Kerr et al., 2017). Instead of creating programming themselves from scratch, student leaders are provided with lesson plans, facilitation guides, and guiding questions. Reading just this one element of the curriculum model gives me so many ideas about how to change my own practice.
The sum vs. the parts
In a way, the entire discussion about how the ten essential elements could, individually, impact my work is misplaced. While each element is important and has value on its own, it’s when all ten elements are present in combination that the true magic happens (Kerr et al., 2017). The curriculum model, at its core, is about the bigger picture- something we often miss while trying to sort out the smaller details. It’s about being intentional about working towards your learning goals and your educational priority. It’s about connecting our knowledge about learning outcomes, assessment, pedagogy and learning theory. And, in line with the vision statement for UVic’s Division of Student Affairs, it’s about transforming students’ lives and transforming our work.
ACPA: College Student Educators International. (1994). The Student Learning Imperative: Implications for Student Affairs. Retrieved from https://www.myacpa.org/sites/default/files/ACPA%27s%20Student%20Learning%20Imperative.pdf
Karim, A.F. & Wills, S.M. (July 2020). Developing an Integrated Student Affairs Curriculum [webinar series]. CACUSS Online.
Kerr, K.G., & Tweedy, J. (2006). Beyond seat time and student satisfaction: A curricular approach to residential education. About Campus, 11(5), 9-15. https://doi-org.ezproxy.library.uvic.ca/10.1002/abc.181
Kerr, K.G., Tweedy, J., Edwards, K.E., & Kimmel, D. (2017). Shifting to Curricular Approaches to Learning Beyond the Classroom. About Campus, 22(1), 22-31.doi-org.ezproxy.library.uvic.ca/10.1002/abc.21279