Center Students in Your Work with These Proactive and Reactive Strategies

Show of hands: how many of us think our schools, departments, and services are student-centered?

Can you prove it?

This isn’t just my assessment streak showing; it’s surprisingly clear we are not as student-centered as we think we are. Think about it. I’ve worked at institutions where full-time faculty and staff do not know about the range of student services available. One might argue that the marketing of those services is geared towards students, but shouldn’t the employees who might engage/refer students to those services be aware of them, too?

I have also worked at institutions where crucial information (like the purpose of a program or what students should be able to demonstrate as a result of earning their degree) are not posted anywhere for students (prospective, current, or past) to see.

Faculty and staff go through time-consuming and intentional work to articulate learning outcomes or develop rubrics to measure learning, all to not share them with students (the key stakeholder who should know them!).

And then when we do share such resources with students, they don’t understand them.

Consider this not-too-shabby learning outcome from an advising/student success area: “Off-track students will engage in Motivational Interviewing in order to verbalize an action plan to get back on track by next term.”

We probably understand it, but would students? Would an “off-track” student know what motivational interviewing is? If they’re off-track, would they even know how to get back on track (let alone that they’re off-track)? Do they know there are tracks?

There are two realities to come to terms with. First, we must recognize that students are (likely) ignorant to much of the specifics we may be trying to convey to them. Second (and because of that first thing) we need to do a better job plainly and overtly communicating with students in ways they understand. If you’re reading this and beginning to feel worried or overwhelmed, it’s a signal my message is hitting close to home.

Don’t worry, though. There are some intentional and manageable steps you can take to begin to address this.

Reactive Strategies

Understand Your Students

Before you start combing your website, policies, or handouts to see if you have student-friendly language, you first need to understand your students. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, as higher education is increasingly serving a more diverse population of students these days.

The following are just some of the details to consider regarding student profiles at your institution:

  • Age – different generations have different communication expectations and preferences; consider that in articulating and sharing information to be understood.
  • Language proficiency – not all of your students’ first language is English; keep this in mind in using terminology or colloquialisms, as well as whether you make translations available.
  • Professional familiarity – find a balance in communicating industry or field-specific information; some students will be brand new while others may have worked in or followed the industry for some time.
  • College familiarity – navigating the higher education experience can be very unfamiliar territory for some (e.g., first-generation students), and even those with some first-hand experience may not know everything about the process or expectations.

Know Your Resources

It is important to know your resources, interventions, and policies. The better you know them, the easier they are to explain or present in ways best meeting audience needs or preferences.  

“The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple.”

― Albert Einstein

In considering explanation or presentation, make sure to review the language as understandable. Faculty, staff, and students alike should be able to comprehend the policy, practice, or resource as it’s articulated.

The language we use to describe interventions or what students should get from them needs to be student-friendly.

If they don’t know what something is about or the potential impact and benefits, how can we expect them to seek them out? When it comes to policies, they need to be comprehensive, yes, but also able to be understood by students consulting our handbooks to guide behavior or understand their rights.

Take Action

There’s plenty to be done in order to be more student-friendly:

  • Utilize orientation and admission efforts to gauge understanding of resource documentation
  • Engage student leaders with campus experience and familiarity to review policy and guideline language
  • Allow students to review and articulate their own interpretation of learning outcomes or rubric information for assignments in courses
  • Coordinate focus groups of multiple student perspectives for feedback and suggestions for clarity
  • Leverage existing institutional review activities like program review, policy review/revision processes, accreditation visits, and strategic planning to examine from a student lens or plan to do this work.

Given specific resources, interventions, policies, and practices, there may be more specific students to engage or appropriate ways to do this kind of content examination.

Proactive Strategies

This work can be done proactively as opposed to reactively having to edit, revise, or rework established information. Here’s how:

  1. Seek student input: When creating programs, resources, and policies, get a student perspective. This is important both to gauge importance/urgency/relevance of said initiative, as well as making sure the language utilized is student-friendly.
  2. Involve students in existing processes: Typically, policies and programs go through some kind of development and review process. Rather than just ad-hoc engaging student feedback, intentionally and permanently involve students as part of these processes.
  3. Empower students to be the creators: Leverage your student body, with leaders, innovators, and passionate people looking out for the interests and experiences of their peers. Utilize student senate, student councils, and/or student organizations as sources for new interventions, resources, or policy information.

It makes sense to involve students in such review and processes, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, we often rely solely on faculty, staff, or administrator perspectives to ensure institutional activities are student-centered and for the best interest of the students. Granted, there are times students do not know what is best for them or what they truly need, but that doesn’t excuse excluding them from opportunities to engage in the process altogether.

Despite our best intentions and living out our mission in our deeds, we all have work to do in making sure the articulations of our efforts and language we use reflect our student centeredness. While you may not have the capacity to scour every policy, outcome, document, or webpage at your institution, start where you have control and go from there.

Let’s do what we can to make positive improvements for the sake of our students, because they are important and deserve as much.

Joe Levy

About the author: Joe Levy is the Executive Director of Assessment and Accreditation at National Louis University. Joe is passionate about data-informed decision making, accountability, and promoting a student-centered approach inside and outside of the classroom. Follow him on Twitter @JoeBooksLevy! Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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