How to make being a student staff member educational

Alan Roberts is a partner at Counterculture LLP, and a former policy development manager at NUS

At Sykes Student Union in West Chester University, Pennsylvania, student employees aren’t just there to do a job – student employment is considered a key part of the learning experience.

It is co-curricular, and it is supported and evaluated as such.

This is an interesting model to think about in a UK context – as students’ time to engage in anything diminishes, and as pressure grows on SU budgets.

RISE (Rams Integrating Skills and Education – the Rams are how students at West Chester U are known) offers a holistic approach to student employee evaluations, focussing on growth in a number of assessed learning outcomes, and valuing student employment as an educational, co-curricular activity.

The union considered the types of skills and experiences students would gain through their on-campus roles, to codify a set of competencies and related learning outcomes which would be measurable and meaningful to students and potential employers, and which could be effectively assessed through the evaluation tools developed.

The learning outcomes for the student employment program were:

  • Communication
  • Critical thinking
  • Digital technology
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Accountability, Professionalism, Work ethic
  • Intercultural fluency
  • Career readiness

These outcomes were chosen based on competencies identified by professional associations like NACE (National Association of Colleges and Employers) and ACUI (Association of College Unions International) that employers desire in new graduates.

Establishing bonafide learning outcomes that were related to the future employment helped market the program to students, as this is a reflective process which involves more participation from student employees than would ordinarily be required.

These learning outcomes were also aligned with the university’s overall goals for student development and career preparation.

Working together to grow

Assessment against the learning outcomes is via mixed methods within a rubric, such as self-reflection, likert scales, checklists and 1:1s. An opening workshop with participants helps students work in partnership with the assessors to define the kind of behaviours associated with each outcome and inform checklists and the overall guidance to support supervisory evaluation.

The focus of the evaluation is on distance travelled and is fundamentally developmental. It is not used as an overall performance assessment. The programme recognises that a student can develop competencies to different extents and sometimes those competencies can get worse.

When this happens, it is not seen as a performance issue. The objective is growth alongside getting the job done, with separate processes for overall performance management on the job.

The RISE program aims to provide students with a convenient and natural part of their supervisory relationship, with training materials and check-ins throughout the year to evaluate progress. The program focuses on critical thinking and sets specific goals for students to achieve before the end of the year evaluation, with mid-semester and end-of-year check-ins to monitor progress.

Student jobs as a potential retention tool

Students employed in Sykes Student Union are looked upon as a team whose goal is to serve the university and the community, ensuring that our mission is fulfilled.

The program is very important for engaging and supporting off-campus students at West Chester University. Many off-campus students at West Chester still live close by and could benefit from on-campus jobs, but it can be harder to get them involved due to living off-site.

It provides clear professional development, career skills and opportunities that help off-campus students feel invested in their education, even if they can’t be physically present as much.

The structured feedback, goal-setting and tracking of progress keeps off-campus students accountable and better connected to resources that can help them succeed.

The alignment of the program to the competencies employers desire makes the benefits very relevant for off-campus students who may not utilise other campus resources as readily.

Here, student employment adds to the concept of a sticky campus, directly engaging students who might otherwise find themselves at the fringe of campus life. Participation helps off-campus students feel more engaged with the campus community and less isolated from the on-campus experience.

Experiential learning – the results are in

The University is piloting a new programme to give students credit for experiential learning outside of the classroom, such as internships, conferences, and research projects – and the RISE programme is being tested to determine the best way to measure students’ learning in these experiences and add them to their co-curricular transcript.

On reviewing the two cohorts, thus far, they found that 74% of students grew in at least 70% of learning outcomes, with critical thinking being the area of greatest improvement.

Supervising the supervisors

One of the most challenging aspects of implementing a program like RISE is the significant time commitment required from supervisors, with regular one-to-one sessions by supervisors who themselves are often students, which means additional support from the union in providing training and support to supervisors, many of whom may not have experience.

Scaling the program as the number of student staff and supervisors increases over time. Large staff sizes make the evaluation process more difficult to manage.

Back in the UK

In the UK context, as in the US, student staff are typically juggling their university studies alongside their paid work for the students’ union. They may be reluctant to dedicate significant additional time to regular meetings, evaluations, and development planning.

The RISE programme puts a lot of effort into aligning the learning outcomes with the demands of graduate employers in order to make the academic aspect of a student job make sense and become something that was attractive to students.

Currently, students’ unions in the UK are facing the reality of a high turnover of junior staff and an inability to maintain salaries which can keep up with inflation. We are seeing increasing number of students employed in what are traditionally career staff roles.

Our HR practices need to adapt to this reality, where we are involved in a different kind of exchange, which isn’t limited to an economic transaction. The RISE programme shows us a way of building an exchange between a staff member who happens to be a student, their reason for being a student, and the connectedness of the union to its membership.

It offers a way of linking the union’s service delivery to the academic ambitions of the Institution, with improved job satisfaction, deeper student engagement and significant retention benefits – both in terms of staff turnover and student outcomes.

There’s more on the programme on Season 1 Episode 5 of the Membership Services Show

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