RA Training for Residential Curriculum: Involving RAs and Generating Buy-In

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:

One of the more misunderstood shifts in the change from a program model to a residential curriculum is the role that student staff members play. Because a curricular approach involves such a fundamentally different way of conceiving of staff member roles, the change process can be difficult. In order to successfully launch and maintain your curriculum, all staff members must be involved and buy-in to the process. This can begin with your RA training program.

Channeling RA Creativity

One misunderstood aspect of a curricular approach involves the concept of creativity. When providing structure through a curriculum, some argue the opportunity for creativity is diminished. If creativity is defined as complete freedom to do whatever one wishes, that may be the case, but in reality, a well executed curriculum allows for more focused creativity. By creating a common set of objectives, and narrowing the scope of efforts, staff members can be more creative in how they execute various strategies in an attempt to achieve the defined learning. Furthermore, defining and providing structure to these aspects of the resident experience does not preclude staff from responding to situations and needs as they arise or to modify content to fit individual student needs. This is still an important part of the job.

Facilitation guides are never meant to outline everything in a proposed activity down to the last detail. Instead, their focus should be on the essential components that ensure the learning takes place in the most effective way for achieving it. Although many staff members may be working off the same facilitation guide, their execution of them can look very different. This is similar to how two professors teaching the same introductory course may teach the same material in completely different ways. The innovation is in the pedagogy and the delivery of the learning, not in the content of that learning. And although residential curriculum facilitation guides may prescribe some aspects of the pedagogy, they still allow variance for each resident assistant (teacher) to tailor it to their individual styles and audiences.

During RA training you may wish to focus on aspects of pedagogy and the skills and capacities required of staff members to effectively execute facilitation guides. These can include group dialogue and facilitation skills, interpersonal skills, and basics of teaching and good pedagogy. Have RAs reflect on their own experiences in education. Help RAs develop a personal philosophy of education and mentorship. Engage them in the critical work of reflecting on their values, the values of the department and institution, and how these show up in their daily work. During RA training, empower your staff members to take ownership of the curriculum and make it their own through developing their own leadership and “teaching” style. Framing RA training around a notion of building peer educators and leaders can help RAs find their voice and their creativity.

Involving RAs in Your Training Development

Involving RAs in the development of your training programs can be another critical opportunity to develop buy-in. Utilizing returning staff members, in particular, can help by investing them in the process and making them feel valued and heard. Returning RAs can be leaders and tone setters for other members of the staff. They can also be important sources of insight into your curricular and training efforts.

When including your returning student staff members in your training programs, you may wish to think about their experiences from a curricular perspective. How might you build a curriculum for the development of your RAs as student employees? This may require you to think about multiple tracks for your training programs so first year and returning staff members receive different levels of content. For key areas where both tracks overlap, you may also consider pairing a professional staff member with a student staff member for the development and facilitation of a training session. As returning staff members, involving them in the presentation of the material or in some of the experiential components as guides can help them develop their own skills by having them teach others. Buy-in is also enhanced.

Peer Mentorship

A great way to involve all of your staff in training is to develop a formal staff mentorship program. Similar to enlisting your returners as co-presenters for training sessions, a mentorship program can challenge your returning staff members to develop their skills to the next level and enhance the training experiences of your new staff members.

When approaching a mentorship program within the context of training and development, it is again useful to think about it through a curricular lens. What skills do the mentors need to be successful? How can you guide the mentorship relationship? How can you engage the mentors in their practice and help them become better mentors over time? Building a mentorship curriculum can help returning RAs develop more employable skills, aid with investment in their positions and work, and enhance and build on the skills they gained through their first year as an RA.

An example set of outcomes for a mentorship training may look like the following:

  • Identify one mentor in the participant’s personal experiences who helped to grow and shape them as an RA.
  • Describe the values and principles of a mentoring relationship.
  • Explain three positive strategies to interact with a mentee.
  • Explain strategies for working with a mentee that may be struggling.
  • Develop a plan for applying the principles of mentorship to the returning RA/new RA relationship.
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Involving RAs in the training and development process is key to generating buy-in amongst your staff, but can also be an excellent opportunity to provide opportunities for returning staff members to enhance their skills and grow in their positions. By keeping in mind the tenets of “learning partnerships” and providing spaces for RA engagement in the curriculum, this communicates to your staff that they have value and they are integral to the success of your curricular efforts. Transforming your organization into one that is learning-centric is key to this evolution.

Key Questions:

  • How can you encourage RA creativity in utilizing facilitation guides?
  • How can you involve the RAs in the planning and execution of training programs?
  • How can you sequence your training for new and returning RAs?
  • How can you involve RAs in peer teaching, training, and mentorship?

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