If you want to test your memory, try to recall what you were worrying about one year ago today.
– E. Joseph Cossman
Volume 76 | Issue 1
January 2008

Research and Practice: Connecting Student Employment and Learning

Jonathan Lewis & Sebastian Contreras Jr.

Working part-time may not be students’ favorite part of college, but for many it has become a necessity. More than 80 percent of full-time undergraduates work part-time and 45 percent of this number work at least 21 hours each week (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005, p. 414). Many students work to afford tuition, books, or other living expenses; others work to fulfill a requirement of their financial aid package. However, a large number also work to gain valuable skills, develop careers, and find personal fulfillment (Kincaid, 1996; Mulugetta & Chavez, 1993; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). This reality presents college union professionals with an opportunity, not only to hire motivated and conscientious student employees, but also to fulfill a central role of the college union: meaningfully contributing to the learning goals of the broader institution (Peters, 1997). And in the current era of accountability, demonstrating that student learning occurs both within and outside the classroom is vital to future success within the college union profession. Therefore, the questions that must be answered are: How can we assess the ways in which our student employee programs are helping students learn? And with this information, how can we adapt to enhance the learning outcomes central to the mission of the college union?

The foundations of students’ learning while on the job can be drawn more broadly from literature on how people learn. Acknowledging that many volumes have been written on learning, one key argument emerges consistently from a wide array of researchers: the most productive and meaningful learning is that which cannot be separated from its context (AAHE, ACPA, & NASPA, 1998; Brown, Collins & Duguid, 1989; Eraut, 2000; Keeling, 2004; Resnick, 1987).

Delving into the literature on learning, Brown, Collins, and Duguid (1989) provide an accessible framework for understanding this principle in their concept of situated cognition, a theory of learning found at the intersection of authentic activity, context, and culture. Situated cognition explains that learning must be thought of as an event that occurs within a specific process, behavior, or situation. Attempting to learn separate from the specific experience is meaningless at best and impossible at worst. Other helpful frameworks in the literature include Kolb’s (1984) work on experiential learning, Vgotsky’s (1978) theory of zones of proximal development, and Wenger’s (2000) writings on communities of practice.

The college union is a prime example of a situated learning environment. Ward and Mitchell (1997) write that "as an educational function … the college union is part of student life and is responsible, along with faculty and other institutional agents, for the out-of-class learning of students on any campus, under any circumstances" (p. 64). The Council for the Advancement of Standards (2003) instructs college unions to focus their programs and services toward desirable learning outcomes, including student learning and development. And in Learning Reconsidered, programs and services that the college union offers—including a thoughtful student employment program—are identified as potential developmental experiences that can lead to key student learning outcomes (Keeling, 2004). Put simply, as the college union’s diversity reflects that of the broader campus community, so the college’s focus on growth and development echoes in the corridors of the union.

For those who work in the college union each day, there is no doubt that student employees are learning while at work. In addition to intuition, observations, and experiences, this fact is borne out empirically. Previous research has tied part-time employment to gains in persistence and degree completion, ego development, and career-related outcomes, including: finding a job; attaining a good salary; developing effective work habits; and attaining a high level of professional responsibility (American Council on Education, 1949; Gleason, 1993; Pascarella, Edison, Nora, Hagedorn & Terenzini, 1998; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). Traditionally, empirical research has not been a high priority among college union professionals. However, concrete data is perhaps the most effective bargaining tool to convince stakeholders of unions’ vital contributions to student life, growth, and development. But how do we begin to measure and document the learning that is occurring around us each day? The key is to connect (abstract) desired learning outcomes with (concrete) measurable workplace experiences that have been demonstrated in prior research to relate with learning.

An empirical study of student employees and learning

In the 2006–07 academic year, a study conducted at the Norris University Center, Northwestern University’s college union, aimed to identify relationships between workplace experiences and key learning domains (Lewis, 2007). First, five learning domains were identified for closer study: career development; civic and community engagement; leadership; ethics and values; and responsible independence. (These particular domains were chosen from much longer lists compiled by Learning Reconsidered, The Council for the Advancement of Standards, and Northwestern University’s Division of Student Affairs as key areas of undergraduate learning and growth that could conceivably be affected at the Norris Center.) Second, the literature on workplace and classroom learning was combed to identify concrete, measurable experiences that fulfilled two criteria: based on previous studies, they should lead to learning; and student employees could plausibly engage with each of these experiences as part of their job at the Norris Center. Thirteen experiences were selected for the study: formal training; informal training; observing coworkers doing similar tasks, collaboration, and teamwork; feedback from one’s peers; feedback from one’s supervisor; informal interaction with one’s supervisor; task repetition; problem solving; idea experimentation; reflection; intuitive decision-making; and congruence between job tasks and coursework/career interests.

Additionally, job descriptions for 30 student employee positions at the Norris Center were coded for explicit or implicit mention of learning opportunities in any of the domains or experiences measured as part of the study. The purpose of this exercise was to determine the extent to which the proverbial stage was set for learning before students had begun working.

Individuals working in positions such as information desk attendant, maintenance, marketing, programming, and building management—164 student employees total—were asked to rate the frequency with which they engaged with those 13 experiences while on the job, how well they embodied the basic concepts of each of the five learning domains, and to what extent these experiences (while working at the Norris Center) affected their self-perceptions about each learning domain. Additionally, the students were asked to weigh in on the impact of seven other types of experiences that might account for growth in the five learning domains. These control variables were: employment elsewhere, extracurricular activities, residence hall activities, fraternity/sorority involvement, classroom experiences, precollege experiences, and job satisfaction. Approximately 25 percent of the overall sample held positions that required supervision of peers, and two or three students were employed in a contracted-service bookstore, while the remainder reported directly to a full-time staff member.

For a second perspective on the data, professional staff supervisors were asked to complete a similar survey for each student who worked in their department. Finally, students who completed the survey were invited to participate in a short qualitative follow-up survey. (All identifiable data were kept confidential, even from the research team.) The data were matched between student employees’ responses and those of their professional staff supervisors to get multiple perspectives on the same questions.

The results demonstrated clearly that learning is occurring on the job for these particular students. Empirical data from students and staff converged to indicate that 12 of the 13 workplace experiences measured were significantly and positively correlated with an overall measure of learning, a composite of the five learning domains averaged across student and staff results. In other words, students and staff agreed that learning is happening on the job, in domains that student affairs professionals seek to impact, and through engaging in experiences that the academic literature tells us should produce learning. Not surprisingly, students also reported important influences on their learning from experiences outside of the college union. Indeed, six of seven control variables (all except residence hall activities) also correlated significantly with each learning domain. However, the impact of these variables above and beyond the impact of workplace experiences on learning was modest.

The most surprising findings were in areas where students’ opinions and those of their staff supervisors differed sharply, such as in frequency of supervisor feedback (students reported more) and in the opportunities for curricular congruence (students reported much less). In addition, the one workplace experience that did not significantly correlate with student learning was formal training, on which college union professionals spend a lot of time and money. Finally, the analysis of students’ job descriptions indicated that they did not use language focused on learning or on the types of experiences that promote learning. In applying these findings, a number of improvements were made to several components of the Norris University Center’s student employment program.

Practical applications of the results

In Learning Reconsidered 2, authors Komives and Schoper ask: "What changes would occur in our work—and, indeed, across our institutions—if we were to identify the target first (i.e., specify desired, intended outcomes), and then design programs, strategies, and other college experiences that would contribute to those outcomes?" (Keeling, 2006, p. 17). Upon review of the study’s results, the Norris University Center did just that; Norris staff committed to identifying those student learning outcomes most relevant to student staff employment, creating a student staff development mission statement focused on learning, and improving existing programs to develop the desired learning outcomes.

Student Learning Assessment Tool

Taking into account the need for congruence between the learning domains, the CAS College Union Standard, and Northwestern University’s Division of Student Affairs’ learning domains, Norris University Center created the Norris STARS Student Learning Assessment. This assessment tool identifies the six desired learning outcomes expected for each student staff member: customer service; teamwork; autonomy; responsibility; leadership; and management. Although these learning outcomes do not mirror exactly the learning domains outlined in the study, there are certainly similarities and congruence between the two sets of learning outcomes.

Additionally, each desired learning outcome is linked with objectives that demonstrate various levels of competence within each outcome and allows students and supervisors to rate a student’s level of learning on a five-point Likert scale. The assessment tool measures students’ learning at the start of the year, midway through the year, and at the end of the year. Additionally, it gathers both summative (quantitative) and formative (qualitative) information. In an attempt to help students connect their employment to the classroom experience via the use of common, academic language, the newly created assessment tool is described (in student staff orientation and training sessions) as a road map or "syllabus" for learning while on the job.

Assessment Tool as Management Tool

One of the primary roles for college union professionals who manage student employees should be to provide students with the opportunity to reflect on their efforts to achieve success/learning and inspire them to construct meaning out of their work experiences. According to Fried (2006), "Assessment should be used as a feedback loop to tell students how they are doing and where they need to continue to improve" (p. 7). With that in mind, the Norris University Center intentionally designed the aforementioned STARS Student Learning Assessment so that it could also be used as a management tool, providing the opportunity for students and their staff supervisors to assess, reflect, and construct meaning on a mid-year and end-of-year basis. Staff supervisors are required to conduct performance/management meetings with student employees during which students assess their performance in accomplishing each of the six learning outcomes and staff supervisors concurrently provide feedback regarding their assessment of the student employee’s performance in accomplishing each of the six learning outcomes. The use of the STARS Student Learning Assessment as a management tool provides a formal opportunity for students to reflect on what they have learned through their work experiences and identify the knowledge they have developed as a result.

Learning Outcomes within Job Descriptions

One of the most glaring deficits within the Norris University Center’s student employment/staff development program identified in the research study was in the lack of learning outcomes explicitly outlined in student staff job descriptions. Past job descriptions simply outlined basic functions, pay rates, and skill sets needed for employment with no consideration for the potential for learning in workplace experiences or the identification of learning in specific domains. In an attempt to better communicate to all stakeholders that learning is indeed a central component of the Norris student employment program, job descriptions were rewritten to specifically enumerate connections to learning outcomes and objectives. These intentional changes have allowed Norris’ stakeholders (i.e., student employees, college union professionals, and the Division of Student Affairs) a greater understanding of the roles and expectations of student employees.

Learning Outcomes as the Foundation for a Recognition Program

An integral component of a comprehensive student employee program is a fair, highly visible, and consistent recognition program that helps to create an environment of shared success and commitment. The Norris University Center intentionally redesigned its recognition program ("Caught in the Act") to reinforce, reaffirm, and recognize student employee behavior demonstrating the identified learning outcomes. These complementary elements/learning outcomes represent the path with which Norris seeks to achieve the highest level of customer service and learning for student staff. Not only are professional staff recognizing student employees, but also most importantly, and most often, students are recognizing each other. As Fried (2006) states, "Students must be able to articulate what type of learning is important; then they need to practice learning, and be able to demonstrate their mastery of goals, in a variety of environments" (p. 7). A recognition program centered on learning outcomes allows students to see the development and practice of learning in others and consequently themselves.

Future directions and conclusion

There are certainly obstacles to college union staff introducing this framework. For example, human resource guidelines may limit students from performing tasks (e.g., supervision of peers) that some prefer be left to professional staff. Some faculty and academic administrators may believe that a student’s time is best spent pursuing learning solely in an academic setting—acting as a research assistant, engaging in a capstone course, or working on a thesis. Many in our profession have never conducted research before and are reticent toward taking that initial step. Discussion and decision making around these issues will vary based on the mission, vision, and goals of each individual institution, as well as those of each union. However, in the final analysis, each college union must find some way to identify concrete, measurable learning goals that will comprise the core of a thoughtful student employment program; the rising tide of stakeholders, both internal and external, will demand no less. In addition to the ideas described, some additional suggestions include:

  • View fellow college union and student activities professionals as educators and researchers, not simply practitioners successfully completing daily tasks and operations. Student affairs professional staff must begin to work more closely with faculty and graduate students to answer some of the empirical questions that higher education stakeholders pose.
  • Work collaboratively with graduate students (and their faculty advisors) within the field of education, psychology, or organizational development to create paid or volunteer research opportunities that can single-handedly change a college union’s employment program to base it on concrete, empirical research.
  • Develop a clear message to all stakeholders: a student’s opportunity to learn while on the job is key not only to a student and the college union’s success, but also to the institution’s success. If student affairs professionals want to be "asked to the table" with senior academic administrators, student affairs departments employing students must make clear the knowledge acquisition of these experiences.
  • Strengthen the college union’s findings by encouraging colleagues in other areas of student affairs to conduct similar research with their student employees and student leaders (e.g., resident advisors, orientation leaders/advisors, leadership programs, multicultural program mentors, etc.). Hold peers accountable for intentionally creating student learning opportunities, documenting student learning outcome categories, and regularly reviewing learning outcomes based upon assessment data. If the college union must serve as the trailblazer for an institution’s student affairs division, then blaze away!
  • Determine what employment opportunities should explicitly foster educational development. Increasingly, college unions are being held to a higher level of accountability for learning within student employment programs and face the dilemma of whether to fill positions with work-study students. Current interests of student affairs divisions pressuring for higher levels of learning, leadership development, peer management, and citizenship are in direct contradiction to federal work-study regulations that prohibit these exact types of cognitive complexities.
  • Measure the extent to which other learning domains, such as humanitarianism, healthy living, and inter-/intrapersonal competence, may be meaningfully developed in student employees. Continue to influence and enhance student employment programs by regularly conducting and reviewing assessment and performance data. As student affairs professionals begin to gain confidence in assessment, the field must not be fearful of making programmatic changes if experience, research, and student voices, and data demonstrate a need for change. College unions are constantly evolving and ever-changing, so too should student employment programs and learning outcomes.

The changing context of higher education requires that college union professionals keep pace with the myriad stakeholders demanding to know what students are learning while at college and to what extent the university (and for that matter, the college union) is facilitating this learning. The kinds of research, critical evaluation, and the practical application of assessment data outlined in this article compels students to demonstrate the meaningful learning that we have always known is taking place in our halls. What better way to prove our worth within the university community than to allow our students to tell our story for us?


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