Residential Curriculum Element #6: Student Staff Are Utilized in Roles Appropriate To Their Skill Development

In residence life and education, student staff members are some of our most important partners in the educational process. They are our front-line on-the-ground staff and are integral to promoting student learning. As peers, student staff members are often best positioned to help their fellow students in ways that professional staff members can’t. There are also some roles, however, for which professional staff members are better suited. One of the key components of developing an effective learning plan in the residence halls is recognizing the skills, strengths, and abilities of staff members and structuring their roles appropriately.

For example, under traditional paradigms in residential education, student staff members are often tasked with designing and executing educational programs for their residents. And yet, student staff members are likely not best equipped to take on this role. How can an undergraduate, untrained in student development theory and learning-centered design, be expected to create a truly outstanding educational opportunity?  Certainly there are a few standouts.  There are the all-star Resident and Community Assistants, who, through a mix of talent, ability and the luck of the housing lottery draw, are able to achieve a great level of success on their floors.  These all-stars, however, are often the exception rather than the rule.

Doctor's Stethoscope

When designing a curriculum, masters-degree bearing professionals should take on more (if not all) of the responsibility for designing learning opportunities for residents. Trained in the writing, development, and assessment of learning outcomes, professional staff members should be the driving force behind the structure of a curriculum. This is not to remove student staff from their educational roles, but instead to free them up to do what they are best suited to do: facilitate peer learning. By setting up parameters, or the core of the learning opportunities provided, professional staff members can empower student staff to unleash their creativity–ensuring educational delivery is appealing and relevant to residents.

So how should roles be delineated between professional and student staff members?

One of the main difficulties in implementing a residential curriculum is striking the right balance between student staff member autonomy and the prescriptive plans of professional educational experts. A balance can be struck, however, when one reflects on the strengths of each. The following is an example about how one may wish to structure these roles and expectations:

Appropriate roles for professional staff:

  • Using research and employing high-impact practices in designing educational environments.
  • Writing and developing learning outcomes.
  • Assessing outcomes and determining adjustments to better enhance outcomes.

Appropriate roles for student staff:

  • Utilizing creativity to connect and engage with residents.
  • Engaging in dialogue and promoting peer learning.
  • Developing community and a sense of belonging.

Developing a curriculum is more than just defining educational objectives. It requires that one re-examine the way work is organized and defined. Many schools that develop a curricular approach find that it requires that they change the way they hire and train their staff. When the work changes, the priorities for hiring change.

Transitioning to a residential curriculum also requires a change in culture. While this is no easy feat, recasting and defining a department as a learning-centered organization has the potential to produce great dividends for students and staff alike. Curriculum is as much about educating the residents as it is about educating the staff.

Key Questions:

  • How will you need to alter or rewrite student staff member position descriptions to fit with a curricular approach? What about professional staff?
  • How will your hiring and on-boarding practices need to change to set staff up for success?
  • What cultural practices in your department need to change in order for it to become a learning organization?

Reference: Kerr, K. G., Tweedy, J., Edwards, K. E., & Kimmel, D. (2017, March-April). Shifting to curricular approaches to learning beyond the classroom. About Campus, 22(1), 22-31. doi:10.1002/abc.21279

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