There are a number of practices in residential life and education that have become commonplace, but that don’t always advance our roles as educators and student affairs professionals.  Over my many years in residence life, I’ve seen the following four ideas surface again and again. They are concepts that seem to be ingrained in our collective experience and yet are not challenged as much as they should be. Is there a better way? Can we break out of some of these “bad habits”?

Tossing something against the wall to see what sticks.

Tossing Something Against the Wall to See What Sticks.

When developing programs for students, it can often seem as though individual programs occur in a vacuum. In approaches to residence life that have student staff members program to categories, individual programs often stand alone, are disconnected from one another, and occur at times convenient to the staff member rather than at times optimal to progressive student learning. This “semi-structured” approach is more often “loosely random” and does not lead to a more comprehensive and successful residential learning program.

Part of this is due to the fact that there can be great variance in the experience of students. A rock star RA might be able to develop an excellent program whereas a ghost RA might be able to slide by with the minimum required work. Furthermore, these programmatic efforts often occur with very little assessment of actual student learning. If this does occur, programs are often not repeated and improved upon in the following years.

This approach is about as effective as throwing spaghetti at the wall. And even then, if the spaghetti sticks to the wall, it will fall off when a new staff member steps in and has a completely different approach or idea for how to engage the residents. If we know something works, and we know it hits the learning outcomes resident students need and desire, then why don’t we seek to replicate it, repeat it, and improve it, year-over-year? Furthermore, how can we build on its success and reach towards more advanced outcomes?

Throwing a dart and then drawing a bullseye around it.

Throwing a Dart and Then Drawing a Bullseye Around it.

I can’t take credit for this analogy, but it’s been one that I’ve heard numerous times. It is the idea that one decides on the program or event one wants to do first, and then one writes the learning outcomes second. This is the opposite of what good educational practice dictates we should do. Instead, one should determine the desired learning outcomes first, before determining what methods and strategies are best suited to achieve them.

Many educational approaches in the residence halls that involve student staff making decisions about programming are crafted this way. The student staff member may be given some guidance, such as with a broad programmatic category or theme, but the staff member is given great variance in developing a specific program and outcomes. This process is inherently problematic as it often subjects learning objectives to the whims, interests, and desires of the staff member instead of being grounded in what we know students need.

Not being able to conceive of educational efforts without involving food.

Not Being Able to Conceive of Education Efforts Without Involving Food.

One of the biggest signs that a program may be ill-conceived is that it is assumed that food is required in order to make residents want to attend. Although it is true that food is a good draw, there are ways to craft programs that are responsive to student needs and something residents would want to partake in. If one’s educational model starts with needing food to attract residents, then one might want to examine the nature of the event itself. Why design a program that even you wouldn’t want to go to?

Hidden within this statement is also the premise that education needs to take the form of a physical event. One that people must attend and at which food will be present. There are a number of other strategies that one could employ that move beyond the program.

Finally, if food is present, think about how it is being integrated. If the food is “grab and go,” how does this encourage attendance and active participation? It is better to tie the food into the event smartly and weave it in as an essential part of its execution. Food should be integrated into the program and not treated as an “add-on.”

Herding cats to attend programs…

Herding Cats to Attend Programs…

Attendance at a program is not a good measure of learning outcomes achievement. Although it can be one important metric, it should not be the sole metric. When attendance figures are used as the primary means of assessing program effectiveness, learning outcomes are lost.  Just because someone attended something does not mean they learned anything.

Elevating the importance of attendance figures can also lead to programs that actually work against the learning goals of a department or program. Think of the times student staff members have rounded up residents to attend a program. Once there, were the residents truly engaged? Was the event well planned and executed to achieve its goals? Although possible, one must be careful that the desire to hit an attendance figure doesn’t overshadow the outcomes of the event or program in the first place.


There have been multiple approaches to achieving outcomes in the residence hall environment over the years, but many of the above concepts seem to re-appear. Until professionals challenge the underlying assumptions of some of the models we have developed, the field will be unable to truly claim the title of residential education. What is unique about residential curriculum, and some of the newer approaches being developed, is that they are not just new models. Instead, the are built off of entirely different sets of premises.  Until we can break out of our old habits and culture, we can never truly hope to transform the learning environment for our students.

Key Questions

  • How do you intentionally ensure that the learning outcomes you desire are addressed through your educational efforts?
  • Do you determine your outcomes before you determine the best means of achieving them?
  • Are you over reliant on the draw of food to encourage engagement in the educational opportunities you provide? Do you employ the presence of food in a strategic manner?
  • Do you have to “herd” residents to attend events? Why?