Suggestions for Student Learning Beyond the Classroom for Fall 2020

by Kathleen Kerr, Keith Edwards, Jim Tweedy, Hilary Lichterman, Amanda Knerr authors of The Curricular Approach to Student Affairs. Our publisher, Stylus, asked us to offer suggestions for student affairs work in the uncertainty, challenging, and online/social distanced circumstances of Fall 2020.

We are in the midst of so much uncertainty. We are uncertain about: in-person, online, or virtual; new and returning student enrollment; budgets, furloughs, and layoffs; movements for racial justice; November elections; economic impact on higher education, students and their families, and us and our families. A return to normal is likely not possible, nor desirable. COVID-19 has advanced the digital revolution, but the virus has also strongly accentuated the need for connection and meaning. We have new, and new-normal ways to reach our students, but a mere transfer of content delivery from what we’ve always done in-person to online platforms will fall short or fail. How do we more closely align our institutional mission, values, and contexts and outcomes for student learning beyond the classroom with the most effective engagement strategies? Our goals for student learning such as self-awareness and identity, relationships and community, equity and justice, well-being, and community engagement are more important than ever. The strategies for achieving that learning must pivot. Here are a few suggestions we have found ourselves turning to as we make this pivot amidst the uncertainty and anticipate not just one, but many transitions ahead for fall 2020 and beyond.

Be Intentional

As you consider decisions about continuing, re-envisioning, or canceling events given a remote or hybrid environment, decisions should not be driven by the fondness you or others have for the event but rather its purpose. Ensure that decisions are driven by desired outcomes. Why was the event developed in the first place? What learning outcome is this strategy connected to and are there other ways that outcome may be achieved?

Practice Essentialism

Author Greg McKeown describes essentialism as the disciplined pursuit of less. Universities across the country will be facing budget reductions, furloughs, retrenchments, etc. as a result of losses due to COVID-19. Student affairs staff will be asked:Who are your essential employees? How are you defining essential? Can you articulate the educational value and importance of your staff to the mission of the institution as it relates to student academic success, persistence, and retention?

It can also be tempting to turn to new platforms, products, apps, and services in the hopes that the next one will solve all our problems as promised by the vendor. However, many of us and our students can be overwhelmed with the variety of options. How many usernames and passwords have you created to login into new things in the past two weeks? Keep it to the essential here as well. What are the platforms and tools students are already familiar with, accessing regularly, and comfortable utilizing? What about your campus learning management system (LMS)? How can student affairs engagement be integrated into LMS and other standard tools students are familiar with to bridge the bifurcation between the academic and beyond the classroom learning?

It can be tempting in a crisis to pull in and consider the essentials to be emergency/crisis response and administration. It is important, now more than ever, that we focus on intentionally designed learning opportunities that map to the institution’s mission and values. Our students will be attending many of their classes virtually. Many events may occur with physical distancing. We will be encouraging them to stay in their rooms and not congregate. Now more than ever there will be a need for connection with one another. How do we provide opportunities for connection with our students and support their well-being?

Student Well-Being Must Be a Priority

Human health, safety, and well-being must be a core priority, now more than ever. While students may be spending more time on virtual learning, they may feel more isolated from peers. Activities that involve large gatherings will be limited. Recreational activities such as athletics will be limited. Clubs and organizations may meet less often.  Learning opportunities found in the arts and speakers may be less available. How can we meet students’ needs to connect, even if the opportunities are limited? How do we create new ways to engage students and help them engage with each other? Students, like all of us, are craving meaning and connection.

How are we providing opportunities for students to connect to one another within their college communities? How do we help them know they belong? How are we attending to their mental health and overall well-being? How are we addressing issues of equity and justice? Without attending to these key issues, many students may feel isolated, marginalized and minoritized, lonely, and challenged to be successful academically. How are we not only addressing student needs reactively but also being proactive and helping students learn how to manage their mental health and well-being through exercise, sleep, mindfulness, nutrition, taking their medications, building and turning to social connections, asking for help, and utilizing the resources they may need.

Creating opportunities and guidance for students to reflect and process is going to be critical, especially with the limited opportunities to share the same physical space. Helping students be comfortable being alone, without feeling lonely, while also finding opportunities for connection is nuanced and important.

Collaborate

How do we not think in silos as units or departments or divisions, but consider the impact we want to have as an institutional community? If we are clear about our shared purpose, we can more meaningfully and effectively collaborate. For example, how might residence life collaborate with marketing and social media, athletics, and student activities to create virtual means of engaging students to not only entertain them, but help them connect, build community, and develop a sense of belonging?

This is a great opportunity to engage your campus resources. Consider all that we can learn from instructional designers, educational technology faculty, centers for teaching excellence, and distance education colleagues to help students not just survive but thrive beyond the classroom.

Innovate

This is an opportunity to re-envision our work beyond the classroom. Oftentimes, our biggest obstacle to innovation is inertia, “This is how we’ve always done it.” When the way we’ve always done it isn’t even possible, innovation possibilities open up. What’s the best use of resources? What works for the most marginalized of our students? What traditions need to change or end? What events have had huge costs in money, staff time, liability, and risk? How can we keep our focus on what we want students to learn and be nimble, flexible, and innovative about how students will learn?

Communicate Clearly, Often, and Thoughtfully

Now more than ever, messages need to be strategically integrated. Human beings tend to learn through repetition. This coherence and building of messaging, and oftentimes repeating messages, will be essential for students, staff, and partners. Where is repetition being redundant for the learner and where it is reinforcing the learning? How do we craft messages that focus on what is possible, agency, and how we are all interdependent with one another? How student affairs staff members communicate can play a key role in empowering students to take responsibility and agency for their safety, learning, and community. Students are co-constructing their learning. As Marcia Baxter Magolda reminds us to ask, how do we be good partners for their journey?

Conclusion

COVID-19, racial injustice, and other challenges have elicited fear, trauma, and uncertainty – conditions that are not typically optimal for learning. As educators, we must exercise care, leverage resources, and remain laser focused on our students’ learning beyond the classroom. Learning can happen when basic human needs are fulfilled. How students feel physically, emotionally, and otherwise impacts their ability to reflect, connect, and engage. The intentional design and delivery of strategies for student learning beyond the classroom can shift this challenge to a benefit or advantage.

The co-authors of this post are also co-authors of The Curricular Approach to Student Affairs.

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