Transitioning to a curricular approach represents a cultural shift. A department can have well-articulated goals, outcomes, and educational plans, but a residential curriculum will never be successful without the necessary cultural and organizational change that comes along with it. For residence life departments, in particular, this means preparing your student staff members for this shift, involving them in the process, and helping them through the process of change. This is also true of other departments that may employ large numbers of student staff programmers or for those that work with student leaders involved in peer education work.
One of the questions I frequently get asked when consulting with campuses on transitioning to a curricular approach is how to gain buy-in from student staff members and students leaders. Shifting to a curriculum necessarily means that the role of these students will change in some ways. Hiring practices must change and training practices must change.
For example, within residence life departments that operate under a programming model, RAs may be hired for and trained on their event planning skills. When transitioning to a curricular approach, it may become more important to hire RAs for their interpersonal skills and their ability to connect, counsel, and act as peer mentors for students. When transitioning, some RAs hired under the old model may feel out of place. Removing program requirements and de-emphasizing bulletin board and door dec crafting skills can be seen as a threat to the job for which they were hired. A quite reasonable and normal reaction. So, in managing the transition to a curriculum, it is incumbent upon campuses to prepare staff for this change and help ease the transition.
One piece of advice I give to campuses is to reflect on Marcia Baxter Magolda’s Learning Partnerships Model (Baxter Magolda & King, 2004). In a true learning partnership, learning is co-constructed between teacher and student, blurring some of the lines of “authority” in the relationship. Cultivating this type of open learning partnership is an excellent way to gain buy in, and the expertise and perspective of student staff members and student leaders. When developing these relationships, keep the following four tips in mind:
1. Validate RAs, Student Staff Members, and Student Leaders as Knowers.
Student leaders and staff members are integral to the execution of your curriculum. They possess knowledge of current students in a way that administrators can often never fully realize. They are also experts in aspects of peer culture and influence. They can connect with other students, as peers, in ways that administrators cannot. Recognizing this, valuing this, and naming this can help student staff members and leaders see their importance in a curriculum. When discussing curriculum with student staff members and leaders, it is important to highlight these themes, communicate these themes in hiring processes, integrate these themes into training programs, and recognize students for their efforts on a regular basis.
2. Involve Student Staff Members in the Curriculum Development Process.
Given the expertise of student staff members and leaders, it is important to involve them in the curriculum development and review process. Although they may not be the ones explicitly or solely writing the learning outcomes or facilitation guides, they nevertheless have insights and feedback that can make them stronger. Consider using focus groups. Regularly check in on practice to make sure your theory-to-practice link is sound. Also include staff members in review processes you may have set up to revise and enhance your curricular objectives.
3. Utilize Returning Staff Members as Leaders and Peer Teachers.
Breaking down the teacher-student binary means that we all have a role to play in improving our knowledge and practice with curriculum. To further this, utilize the execution of the curriculum itself as a learning opportunity for student facilitators and staff. Invite students to co-facilitate learning opportunities and reflect on the process afterwards. In some ways, the curricular process is mirrored at a meta level to enhance leaning for the “teachers.”
You can also replicate this strategy during student staff and student leader training. Pair a professional with a returning student when presenting a training session or topic. Utilize direct staff input when constructing a training or leadership session. Re-envisioning student staff and student leader training overall to focus on student roles as teachers and connectors can help set the tone for how your students approach their work with their peers.
4. Share Assessment Data Freely and Transparently.
Gathering assessment data is useless unless it is used and shared. You can stress the importance of assessment with student staff members and leaders by “closing the loop” and showing how the data they collect informs changes to practice. Being open and honest about what went well and what missed the mark encourages a culture that focuses on continuous improvement. This can shift a culture away from an operational “checklist mindset” towards one that is more learning-centric. Sharing this data also helps you to be able to to tell your story and help student staff members and leaders articulate the “why” of a curriculum.
Student staff members and leaders are essential to the success of a curricular approach. Utilizing their strengths and utilizing them appropriately in the curricular development process and the execution of it can greatly enhance the learning environment for students. Rather than treating them solely as executers of a curriculum, re-envision how you can bring them in as partners.
- How can you validate, through thought, deed, and action, student staff members and leaders as “knowers”?
- In what ways can you use returning staff members and leaders and peer trainers and teachers?
- How can you ensure the cycle of assessment is shared widely and that all levels of staff are able to contribute towards continuous improvement?
Baxter Magolda, M., & King, P.M. (Eds.). (2004). Learning partnerships: Theory and models of practice to educate for self-authorship. (pp. 1-35). Sterling, VA: Stylus.