Volume 78 | Issue 4
July 2010

Competency-based graduate student assessment bridging work and the classroom

Tamara Yakaboski & TJ Willis

Professionals and faculty often overhear student affairs graduate students criticize that academic courses fail to connect to practical work in college unions and student activities. As the student affairs field is increasingly driven toward higher levels of education, specifically college student personnel programs, this disconnect is problematic. Graduate programs are a main path to careers in student affairs, yet practitioners and researchers often overlook master’s level graduate students. The current economic climate also requires that students widely market their skills and experiences within transferable, competency language.

As a field currently without licensure or certification, student affairs is guided by standards and continued professional development. Professional development begins most often during graduate school when students both in and out of the classroom learn the standards of the profession and what competencies are necessary for success and advancement. However, most research has discussed skills and competencies among student affairs professionals and not specifically addressed individuals at the graduate level. ACUI as an association has constructed a competency language for work within college unions and student activities, so the next step is to determine how those competencies can be applied to graduate students and new professionals. A pilot study conducted during the 2009–10 academic year tested a tool that can be used with graduate students in the workplace and through
their coursework.

The pilot study program
The process of professional development is a lifelong journey that requires attention to both professional and personal growth. In a 1981 NASPA Journal, Stanley Carpenter and Theodore Miller outlined a three-stage professional development process that restarts when an individual moves into a new position or challenge. The first stage is formative, which is where the individual is learning and focuses on practicing their new skills. Next is application where the individual becomes responsible for himself or herself by doing. The third stage is additive, when the individual becomes a role model and starts to contribute by taking responsibility for others. Carpenter and Miller’s professional development model demonstrates the importance of working with graduate students during their foundational student affairs training to develop and plan how they will achieve expertise in the necessary student affairs competencies. Additionally, the role modeling in the third phase helps to impact other graduate students, thus it is important that they have a successful meaningful graduate experience, in and out of the classroom. During these stages, professionals need to be intentional in applying theory to practice with the ultimate goal being the development of themselves and others as scholar-practitioners.

Last year in the Journal of College Student Development, Michael Cuyjet, Robert Longwell-Grice, and Eduardo Molina presented their research on “Perceptions of New Student Affairs Professionals and Their Supervisors Regarding the Application of Competencies Learned in Preparation Programs.” The authors underscored the need for faculty and mid-level professionals to collaborate in an effort to produce the “most effective and practical training for the next generation of student affairs professionals.” The competencies can be used as an intentional guide toward professional development.

The connection failure between the classroom and work or field experience informed the goals for this project:

  • Create a dialogue on how ACUI’s core competencies can be a framework for graduate and new professional development.
  • Develop a competency-based assessment tool for benchmarking and planning student affairs skills.
  • Make a deliberate connection between classroom faculty, professional supervisors, and students.

With a focus on growing the profession and utilizing the core competencies, the pilot study was designed and implemented to test a competency-based assessment tool (see Figure 3). The assessment was created with the intention of being flexible enough to work for various types of assistantships and areas of student affairs; therefore, in Figure 1 both ACUI and ACPA: College Student Educators International’s competencies are included. In looking at both sets of competencies, one can see how they are developing within their specialty area of student affairs as well as the field as a whole.

The design of this assessment tool allows students to take their current job description and add in their job duties. By providing the document in a soft copy, the student is able to expand beyond one page and to keep an ongoing record as they add new duties and courses. The use of such a visual provides the student, their faculty, and supervisors clear indication of areas of weakness, which help to plan future internships, committee work, or elective courses. While the ACUI core competencies examine individual skill sets under each competency, they do not at this point have skill levels. However, since comparisons can be made between some of ACUI’s core competencies and ACPA’s competencies (e.g., student learning and student learning and development), the ratings from ACPA (basic, advanced, and intermediate) can be an appropriate starting point. While this is not perfect, in looking at the larger field of student affairs first and understanding what different skill levels look like, the hope is that this translates into other skills where ACUI and ACPA do not overlap (e.g., facilities management). Additionally, this is where the conversation with a supervisor, professor, or mentor is important is aiding in realistic self appraisal.

Graduate assistantship/practice application
At North Carolina State University, the tool helped a first-year graduate student connect the workplace to the classroom when it was used as an evaluation instrument following the first semester. This allowed for the development of a common language of competencies and identification of competencies to develop throughout the assistantship experience.

“The assessment tool gave me the opportunity to think critically about the tasks that I am doing with my assistantship and the ideas and theories that I am learning in class,” said Ebonie Williams, the graduate assistant at North Carolina State University. “Even though [the exact steps to plan an event] may not be taught in a classroom setting, this tool allowed me to connect learning outcomes in my assistantship to what I am learning in my classes. I believe this will be a true asset to my learning experience in the classroom and with my assistantship, therefore making me an even better student affairs professional when I graduate.”

In completing the instrument at the end of the first semester, the job description for the position was revamped to include the “competencies gained” in the position. This will allow potential master’s students applying to the program and assistantship to begin to indentify competency language. Furthermore, in using the job description as a tool for developing the resume, the competency language enables transferrable marketable skills to emerge more clearly.

In addition, University of Rochester graduate assistant Elliot Zenilman implemented the tool during his second semester. Zenilman said he used the form “during my evaluation to show how I wanted to get more out of my graduate assistant position. I used the instrument to list my job duties to identify opportunities for growth in my graduate assistantship and am currently working on the future development section.”

With this language in place, the graduate assistants and their supervisors can better identify opportunities to develop competencies within internships, training programs, and group discussions of current events in student affairs.

Graduate school application

During the most recent school year, the assessment and ACUI core competency document also were integrated into an “Introduction to Student Affairs Administration” course at Southern Illinois University–Carbondale. Figure 2 shows a condensed version of the course schedule in the syllabus. Graduate students in college student personnel enroll in this introduction course typically during their first semester of the two-year master’s degree program. The main objective of this course is to provide an overview to the student affairs profession and to serve informally as a socializing mechanism for the profession.

The assignments for the course were designed to include use of the assessment tool in guiding students’ professional development plan, academic plan, and internship or practicum selection. The students wrote a professional development plan that addressed their five-year, 10-year, and ultimate career goals; then, they worked backward to address what competencies were needed for those positions and how they might obtain and develop the competencies.

The next step was the faculty-student advising session, which allowed the faculty to discuss with each student individually how to best connect their professional goals with their course selection and internship development. In the Southern Illinois University–Carbondale program, students are responsible for crafting their own internship. The faculty encouraged the students to do so with the competencies in mind.

Figure 3 is a sample of a partial assessment completed by a student in the introductory course. This example is from a graduate assistant for SIUC’s University Programming Office who had this to say regarding her assessment: “My actual analysis of core competencies I receive is much more extensive that what I thought I would get. However, some of these competencies are more frequently used or practiced than others. In Facilities Management, I only receive the general administration and management skills in my current position. I believe that I will acquire more facilities management experience as I progress through my coursework and become more involved in the logistics of programming within the next year. I have achieved basic skills in most of the Human Resource Development competency, but I need learn more on human resources policy, laws, and institutional practices. I think that I will learn human resources more in the EAHE 535b Law and Higher Education course, and I will be able to apply it to gain practical experience within my assistantship. My Intercultural Proficiency competency needs to be much more developed before I acquire my first student affairs position. I plan to fulfill this competency through internships: the trip to Kenya and New Student Programs SOAR. I also need to improve my Marketing competency. I feel I will gain more experience through my internship with New Student Programs in SOAR by learning how to market and communicate SIU to prospective students. The competency that I need the most work in is Technology. I believe I will gain more experience with technology as I assist with the Student Programming Council’s television and films committees, as they are the ones most centered on technology.”

After assessing her current competencies, she then planned which ones she would need to gain her desired position after graduation: greek life coordinator. 

Overall, students in the course responded positively and felt this assessment was beneficial both in class and in their work.

“I believe the assignment worked really well because we were able to take it home and reflect on what we were doing in our program and work,” said Dan Ryan, a graduate assistant and teaching assistant for the first-year experience program. “It really helped me honestly assess what skills and abilities I was developing and what I needed to develop. I thought it was a great assignment.”

Ryan was in his first semester of the master’s program as was Cerra Wilson, a graduate assistant for the McNair Scholars Program, who also appreciated the exercise.

“The assignment helped me to specifically recognize competencies that I have and need to improve on,” Wilson said. “It also outlined some standards for the workplace and employees in any field. I would suggest that the format of the assessment include more room to write how each competency relates to a specific workplace activity. I think that would help someone truly understand and identify their strengths and weaknesses.”

Other students made similar comments and said the level of detail enabled them to plan for which specific areas required additional focus.

It is important that students learn to take control of their own professional development, Cuyjet, Longwell-Grice, and Molina argued. One observation consistent among the students was an initial over-estimation of their competency level. Since most of the students were in their first semester of graduate school and their graduate assistantships, they seemed to feel confident in their skill levels considering they had lower skill levels coming into the semester and acquired a wealth of knowledge and experience in a few short months. However, this understanding was mostly introductory and did not cover the higher level use of the competencies, very much like the first of Carpenter and Miller’s professional development stages. Another possible explanation for this trend was that students felt they gained expertise through course reading, such as that of facilities management. One future exploration might be to assess to what degree graduate students adopt the expertise of their faculty and supervisor as their own.

Implications for practice
Competency-based assessment, supervision, and curricula can assist in graduate student and new professional development as a tool to connect the work and academic realms. For graduate students, an assessment tool can be used in conversations with their supervisors and faculty advisors to create a seamless flow between coursework and practical experiences. The ideal goal is that such an assessment could position the student as the liaison or bridge between their academic faculty and their student affairs supervisor thus creating a more meaningful and holistic approach to graduate student competency development and curricula.

In planning for students’ future, this tool could also assist them when applying and interviewing for jobs. For example, they can use it to help draft their cover letter and make their resume competency-based rather than title- and function-based. Using competency language also demonstrates transferable skills, which can set one individual above the next.

While the pilot program discussed here focused on graduate students, feedback demonstrated that the assessment could be positively applied to new professionals as well. This use might assist with new professional transition and retention by guiding evaluation and supervision sessions and also using it to plan professional development. In turn, this could correspond to improved job satisfaction and staff retention.

In summary, the assessment tool use and adaptation can be implemented in the following situations:

With undergraduate students considering a career in student affairs perhaps through volunteer advising or student supervision.

  • To guide internship and practicum experiences for graduate students both with their faculty advisor and with their practitioner supervisor.
  • To describe graduate assistantship positions in terms of competencies rather than job duties (this could also apply to undergraduate leadership/volunteer positions).
  • With new professionals as a part of their evaluation process.
  • To create a dialogue between a campus’s higher education faculty and student affairs professionals.
  • To connect the college union and student activities profession to the larger student affairs profession.
  • In one’s own professional development and growth.

With the move of student affairs toward a competency-based profession, it is imperative to examine “the intersect of curriculum and practice—the internships and assistantships of preparation programs—as a place to focus particular attention for the development of skills and knowledge related to a wide range of competencies,” Cuyjet, Longwell-Grice, and Molina said.

Furthermore, graduate students and new professionals could benefit from identifying transferrable competencies since many leave the field early in their career. Lisa Lorden’s 1988 NASPA Journal article, “Attrition in the Student Affairs Profession,” first identified this trend. Lorden’s work, while dated, highlighted a lack of clarity in student affairs professionals’ job duties can lead to attrition issues. Using a competency-based job description and evaluation—as in this pilot program—could help ease this discomfort because the new professional could focus on skills rather than tasks. Building on Lorden’s research, in 2007, Kristen Renn and Jennifer Hodges found a connection between confidence and competence and a new professional’s desire to leave the field. Again, utilizing the core competencies could assist in relieving this problem because helping graduate students identify and name competency skills can increase their self-confidence.

There are many ways in which to implement ACUI’s core competencies in one’s daily work as well as in connecting theory to practice; this pilot program can address that need.