RA Training for Residential Curriculum: Tone Setting and Basics

The following is part of a series of blog posts addressing a number of areas related to developing a training program for RAs and student staff members working within a residential curriculum model.  Posts included in this series are:

Typically the residence life academic year begins with a lengthy period of training, before the opening of the residence halls, intended to prepare staff members for their roles. Beyond being a time to train staff members on procedures and their duties, it is also an excellent time to set the tone for the year and introduce staff members to the underlying philosophies and skills that undergird their work. For campuses with a residential curriculum, you will likely want to approach RA training with a different mindset than you may have in the past.

To start, you may wish to begin your training with topics focused on student learning, the curricular approach itself, and do a deeper dive into the content of your learning objectives. Beginning with concepts of learning as opposed to policies and procedures can break staff members out of the “check the box” mindset. Ordering training in this way instead challenges staff members to think about how they approach their work through the lens of your student learning and campus-specific educational priorities and objectives. When designing your RA training programs, consider leading with the following topics.

Student Learning

Curricular approaches are about student learning, therefore, it may make most sense to start off a semester or quarter training program focusing on the concept of learning both for the residents and the staff members themselves. You might want to teach your staff members some fundamentals of student development theory–or specific theories that guide your specific campus curriculum. The thought process behind this idea is to make sure staff members understand that everything they do in their roles is intended to enhance student learning and success.

Basics of a Curricular Approach

Although student staff members are not leading the charge in designing the curriculum, it is still important to help them understand the basics of a curricular approach in order to help them understand where they fit into the overall picture. Understanding how your institutional learning objective cascade was developed, why certain objectives were selected, and how they are put into practice through sequenced and guided strategies can help staff members understand where they fit into the process. This training does not need to be exhaustive, but understanding how a curriculum is developed and the intentionality behind it can help staff members understand their roles.

Learning Outcomes

Although student staff members will not be writing the learning outcomes of a curriculum, they nevertheless need to be trained in their structure, how to write them, and most importantly, how to interpret them and put them into practice. By teaching student staff members the basics of writing measurable learning outcomes they will gain a better appreciation for those that they encounter in facilitation guides. As a result of understanding these more clearly, they will be better able to give life to these outcomes when they put them into practice–and provide feedback on their effectiveness. Furthermore, with a better understanding of learning outcomes can come a greater appreciation for assessment. The importance of training on assessment and the presentation of assessment data during training is addressed in a later post in this series.

Your Curricular Objectives

When developing your training, contextualize it to your campus and/or departmental learning goals. For example, if one of your learning goal areas relates to “wellness,” do a training on basics of wellness–teach theories of wellness, share campus assessment data about students and wellness behaviors, and have each staff member explore and come to a common understanding of what successful achievement of your wellness goal looks like. Diving into the content of your learning goals, and not just the structure of them, can help your staff members become more competent in these areas. If staff members are supposed to help teach residents about these concepts, they need to learn them first.

Skills and Capacity Building

Because RAs in a curricular approach are frequently called upon to be facilitators of student learning, it is critical that they be trained on these and related skills. For this reason, you may wish to focus on capacity building in areas that are critical to the success of your curriculum. These can include topics such as:

  • Understanding group dynamics
  • Group discussion and facilitation
  • Mediation
  • Interpersonal skills–specifically one-on-one dialogue and advising
  • Low-level counseling and helping skills
  • Goal setting and academic planning

To further empower your staff members, you may wish to address these topics in more of a leadership retreat-type format. Approaching teaching these topics as lifelong skills, as opposed to just RA-role based skills, can increase buy-in. This can be empowering to RAs and help them make connections to what they are learning in their jobs and their future success.

Tone and Learning Partnerships

Finally, while the content of your training programs is important, the tone and the pedagogical practices utilized in those training sessions is equally important. Aim for engagement. Validate the RAs as knowers. Be transparent. Help staff members understand that everyone, even the professional staff members and trainers, are learners. Be humble. Share assessment data. Work with RAs to co-construct the learning environment.

Having a pre-training discussion with all of your training facilitators can help ensure that your training sets the right tone and models this tone in its execution. Much as you’d develop goals, outcomes, and facilitation guides for a campus curriculum, repeat these processes in your training design. Develop facilitation guides for each of your sessions. Revise and enhance these year-after-year to enhance the learning of your staff. Spend time discussing how best to facilitate these topics as “teachers” of the training. Reviewing Baxter-Magolda and King’s concept of learning partnerships might be particularly useful.

Key Questions

  • What key theories or philosophies guide your curriculum? How can you ensure these are consistent themes in your training from the onset?
  • What key skills and capacities do you need to develop in your student staff members?
  • How can you infuse the concept of a learning partnership into the way all of your training facilitators approach their roles?

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