Student Development (A Personal View)

mike ridleyAs some of you know, I’m enrolled in an MEd program at the University of Toronto. Currently I’m taking a course on student development from Peter Dietsche. Excellent teacher/researcher, and as always, wonderful colleagues in the class.

The initial assignment in the course was to submit a personal reflection on the concept of student development (based on a series of specific questions). It was interesting to think about this so I thought I’d post my assignment.

– Mike

Student Development: A Personal Reflection

Provide your own brief definition of student development in higher education.

Student development in higher education is the integration of academic learning programs with the larger issues of personal improvement and individual growth. It is a student centered, holistic experience focused on understanding (and demonstrating) values, nurturing skills, and moving towards knowledge.

Describe what you believe to be the role of the individual student in promoting his/her development. Are there particular student characteristics that help or hinder development?

Current undergraduates are sometimes viewed as disinterested consumers purchasing an accreditation for the sole purpose of getting a job. If this is so, it is because we, the universities, have made it so. My experience with undergraduates suggests that while they are concerned about getting a job they are also interested in being active learners, exploring ideas and gaining new experiences, and being reflective about what they are doing and seeing. They are open and willing to take risks. They are curious. These are essential characteristics of an effective learner and a self-aware individual. Where these characteristics have been sublimated by high school or personal circumstance, it important that the university find ways to nurture them.

Students must be partners in their own learning. Taking responsibility for their own learning and development is something many students wrestle with. Their educational experience prior to university has been too passive and universities often provide little support in transitioning to this new perspective on their own learning. We, universities, assume independent, self-directed learners when the typical undergraduate is still a novice learner.

Students who already know what they want from their undergraduate experience can be the least open to new experiences. I worry about them more than I do about those who say they don’t know what they want from university (the so-called “aimless” learners). While a career focus and explicit educational outcomes are valuable, they can also blind a student to exploring unfamiliar or challenging ideas, concepts or experiences. University, for our typical 17-24 year old undergraduate cohort, is a time of increasing self-awareness. We need to unsettle students as much as we need to help them find coherence. Students themselves need to be open to new ideas and we, as an institution, need to allow them to be novices.

Some students never accept this responsibility. A colleague told me about a student of his that rarely spoke in class. When he pressed her to contribute she said “but I don’t know what you want me to think.” His heart sank not just because this student had accepted her role as a vessel to be filled up by the institution but because this student had expressed a desire to become a teacher herself.

I teach a first year undergraduate course ostensibly about the end of literacy (it’s really a course about helping students become better learners). The material is very provocative; intentionally so. One of the results that I am most pleased about is that students openly challenge my ideas. I am delighted (and only slightly perturbed) by this. The class insists on informed discourse (alternative ideas must be supported with intellectual rigour) and as a result it promotes critical thinking and, most importantly, breaks down the separation of teacher and student. I know these students will move on to large classes with little opportunity to express themselves or challenge their instructors. However, in a small way, they have been allowed to find their academic voice and with it the realization that they are responsible for their own learning.

Describe what you believe to be the role of the learning institution in promoting student development. Are there particular institutional characteristics that help or hinder student development?

While it is very important that universities be supportive and helpful, I also believe universities must challenge their students; they must purposefully put them out of their comfort zone so that they wrestle with new ideas or experiences. Learning is about risk taking. We have conditioned students to be successful, not to be learners. Failure or poor performance is viewed as conclusive not developmental. As a result fear of failure (i.e. poor marks) constrains learning.

In this sense universities need to create an environment for both disruption and coherence. They need to challenge students with new ideas and experiences while also providing the intellectual tools and personal skills to nurture self-awareness.

Have universities fully accepted the need for new learning and support modalities arising from a cohort of students with very different expectations? I am impressed by the approaches to learning utilized in the gaming community. In digital games “do-overs”, community support, collaborative learning, continuous feedback, and active learning are the norm. The typical undergraduate learning experience is dramatically different: rote learning, teach and test, “place-based and book-paced” approaches, and a focus on summative rather than formative evaluation. We have 21st century students entering 19th century classrooms. The disconnect couldn’t be more profound (and more harmful to effective student development)

The University of Guelph has a reputation as a caring institution. We spend more per capital on student affairs than almost any other university in Canada. Those investments have tangible outcomes. The student culture at Guelph is highly engaged and participatory. Parents think of Guelph as a safe and supportive community. It is demonstrable evidence that, beyond rhetoric, we are a learner centered university. This community culture is palpable at Guelph because it is reinforced almost daily by administrative leaders, senior students, many faculty, and most professionals by their actions and words. As a result, unlike the other universities I have experience with (UNB, Toronto, McMaster, Waterloo), Guelph has an holistic view of student development that is recognized and appreciated by the students themselves.

One of the surprising findings at Guelph from the recent NSSE surveys was that many students expected first year to be more challenging and rigorous. It was too easy they said. Have our concerns about the first year experience and transition into university life resulted in a lowering of academic expectations? In large part the problem resides in our uniform approach to student learning. Our programs have too many required courses, too much repetition from high school, little in the way of prior assessment, and almost nothing self-directed in 1st year. We don’t utilize existing methods to create more individualized learning programs. Our students arrive with dramatically different learning experiences and levels of intellectual achievement (especially true as we encourage more international students) but we channel them quickly into a “one size fits all” approach. Our continuing use of the phrase “student cohort” only serves to emphasize this collective model and limits a focus on individual development.

In my experience there is a continuing tension between the academic faculty and those in student affairs roles. The faculty view themselves as responsible for the “real” curriculum while the student affairs professionals are “co-curricular” as best, irrelevant at worst. This separation or isolation has a negative impact on student development because it fails to see the interconnections among academic endeavours and other aspects of a student’s life. It discounts the value of educating the whole person and it creates a power imbalance among those devoted to student development. Finding common ground for these communities is an ongoing concern.

Curriculum design can help or hinder student development. The current interest in curriculum mapping arises, in part, because academic programs have lost some of their internal integrity; they have become either a smorgasbord of courses or a lock-step march of required course with little variation or diversity. Neither serves the student well. Curriculum re-design, especially if universities move towards a 3 year undergraduate option, offers the possibility not only of a more integrated and developmental approach to student learning but also a more dynamic pedagogy appropriate to a digital generation.

More students than ever are working part-time while they study full-time. Since faculty rarely coordinate workload across courses, the mid-terms, major assignments, and final exams typically occur at the same time. Add to this students who wish to be varsity athletes and you have an untenable mixture of conflicting obligations and severe time constraints. From the academic side we tend to view undergraduates as students not as individuals with interests, obligations, and opportunities outside the classroom or the academic program. For example, we rarely incorporate volunteering as part of formal learning and assessment. We don’t take holistic student development seriously.

Describe any specific processes or procedures within learning institutions that contribute to student development.

Where to begin? Doesn’t almost everything a university does, to some degree, contribute to the development of the student?

Where do student development issues get discussed? How much time institutional leaders (President, VPs, AVPs, Deans, etc.) talk together about student development issues (in the broadest terms) defines their real commitment to a learner centered institution.

Perhaps the most telling relationship on any campus with respect to effective student development is that between the senior administrator for student affairs (e.g. Vice President, Student Affairs) and the Provost and Vice President Academic. Their leadership in articulating and promoting an holistic view of students is crucial to support for programs, resources, and expertise. The traditional tension (or lack of respect) between academics and student affairs professionals can be overcome by these individuals working together to nurture an integrated culture for student development.

One of the most important of recent innovations advancing student development has been the creation of the Learning Commons (typically in the library). When done well, the Learning Commons is a physical platform and a common space which brings together a number of the services to support students that were previously widely distributed, disconnected from each other, and often with restricted accessibility. In cases where the Learning Commons integrates support (and expertise) for research, learning, writing, information technology, students with disabilities, peer assistance, and numeracy, students are well served with a set of aligned services and resources with a common strategy for student support. That it took this long to create the Learning Commons model is a testament to the turf wars that have (and likely still do) dominate academic culture.

We tend to think of student development primarily in the context of the undergraduate experience. Student development at the graduate level (either in research or professional programs) seems less discussed or at least reframed in different terms. Is this a problem? The apprenticeship model, which guides most research graduate programs (a student working under the supervision of a faculty member), tends to marginalize an institutional perspective on graduate student development. A more holistic perspective on graduate students is less common on most campuses. Programs and support mechanisms are consequently less available.

If we were to reframe “student” development as “learner” development we would escape the institutionalized focus on the role and refocus on the process. Most of us promote life long learning but we contextualize it around “student” development. Do “student development” perspectives and initiatives tend to focus on youth (the 17-24 year old cohort) and not more inclusively all students (such as adult learners)? I am interested in seeing life long learning and continuous personal development be a focus of higher education.

Consider your own experiences in learning institutions (college or university) and briefly outline:

One positive experience you feel contributed to your personal development

As an English major I was stunned to get a paper back from a professor with an average grade (he liked my ideas) but with the note appended indicating that “you are completely insensitive to your reader.” It was the first time I really understood that when I write something, there is a reader, an audience; there is someone I had to think about. This may seem trivial but it changed the way I write and think to this day. It also reinforced the importance of feedback. As an instructor (or colleague or supervisor) I try to provide as much as possible, not just on the specific task but on all aspects that are appropriate. Sometimes a single piece of relevant feedback can change the course of a student’s development.

One negative experience you feel hindered your personal development

At one point as an undergraduate I was accused of plagiarism. The professor called me into his office and proceeded to terrify me. He talked loudly and only about penalties and negative impacts, not about how and why I plagiarized (which, as a novice academic, I now realize I did). I learned nothing about how to prevent plagiarism but I did learn to fear faculty and to not seek out their help. The insensitivity of this professor altered my perception of all faculty and created barriers that took many semesters to dissolve.

One aspect of institutional structure or function you feel should be changed to enhance student development

The overwhelming focus on disciplines is undermining holistic student development.

Universities are constructed around disciplinary concepts, and academic programs reflect those divisions. The world as we know it is not this way and students don’t develop solely within disciplinary constructs. Cross disciplinary or interdisciplinary approaches are modest (or even half-hearted) attempts to address this; they may broaden the perspective but they keep the disciplines. All this serves the interests of faculty far more than that of students. It also means that we talk about “co-curricular” activities as if they were separate and distinct from the “real” academic program or the important aspects of student development.

At the University of Guelph we are starting a School for Civil Society which will be constructed around problems and issues not disciplines. It will engage resources from all parts of the university (faculty, librarians, student affairs professionals, learning professionals, students themselves). We hope this will break through the disciplinary silos and offer students the broadest platform to explore values, skills, and knowledge.

*Editor’s note: this article was originally posted in “Exploring the Information Ecology” – Mike Ridley’s own blog. It has been reposted with the written consent of Mike Ridley.