Restorative Practices in ResLife: Engaging Students by Integrating Fair Process into Assessment

This post is one in a series about integrating Restorative Practices into a model for residential learning.  Start with the introduction as a primer and explore posts on other strategies you can utilize with a restorative lens.

| Introduction | Roommate Agreements | Floor Meetings & Circles | Curriculum Development | Assessment |

In my last post, I introduced the concept of Fair Process, why it’s beneficial, and how it can relate to a Curricular Approach to residential education.  Recall that Fair Process involves making decisions with stakeholders impacted by decisions rather than for them.  The three parts of Fair Process are engagement – genuinely taking the views of stakeholders into account when making a decision, explanation – informing stakeholders of how the final decision was made, and expectation clarity – clearly defining expectations moving forward. 

One example of Fair Process in creating a curriculum is the dig that is used to generate learning aims for the curriculum.  This audit of the institutional context usually involves representatives from various stakeholders, including campus partners, staff members in varying departmental roles, and students.  Engaging a variety of stakeholders is a strong start, particularly if the process is thoroughly explained to them and the dig generates a set of clear expectations.  However, the dig can epitomize how difficult Fair Process is when there’s a large number of stakeholders and frequent turnover.  The dig, as a one-time process, can quickly start to feel like a distant piece of history.  In just two or three years, most of the students and entry-level staff members working with the curriculum will have had no direct experience with it. 

Unfortunately, the engagement and buy-in that comes from Fair Process are not generated when leaders made decisions with the group’s predecessors.  This can make it feel like a curriculum is being delivered to students–and even staff members–rather than implemented with them.  Thankfully, curricular development does not end with the dig, as one of the Essential Elements of a Curricular Approach is the inclusion of a cycle of assessment.  While the assessment cycle itself does not constitute Fair Process, elements of assessment and Fair Process overlap and provide a starting place for the implementation of this restorative practice.

A basic assessment cycle consists of four steps: establishing learning goals, providing learning opportunities, assessing learning, and using the results of the assessment.  We already engage our students as we assess their learning, we can explain decisions as we use the results and establish learning goals, and expectation clarity is key for our students when providing them with learning opportunities within the curriculum.

Fair Assessment Process

Engagement

In the work of residence life and its assessment, we already engage students in many ways, particularly as we assess student learning.  The key to making this assessment align with engagement as a component of Fair Process is ensuring that we are engaging all stakeholders impacted by decisions and that we genuinely take those views into account.  There are two main ways I’ve seen engagement fail to meet this standard. First, we may not regard students and student staff as stakeholders despite the impact the curriculum has on them.  Second, we may not genuinely take their view into account, even if we have the intention to.

Ensuring the student engagement that we already conduct is linked to our decision-making processes is easier and more sustainable than creating brand new engagement methods:

  • If you utilize 1-1 meetings and 1-1 forms, ensure there is a path for discussions of curricular strategies to make it back to those in decision-making roles.  Setting permissions strategically on Roompact forms can streamline this process.
  • Make use of time in professional staff meetings for Hall Directors to share their staffs’ feedback with those who make decisions regarding the curriculum.
  • Build opportunities for RAs to give feedback on curricular events and strategies into the planning process, like in the assessment portion of Roompact’s events module.
  • Make sure those in decision-making roles in the curriculum have access to resident-level assessment data and can utilize it in a timely way.  This includes strategy-level assessment, intentional interaction data, and results from large-scale surveys.
  • Make use of existing residential student advocacy groups, like your Residence Hall Association or an RA Council, to provide feedback on curricular strategies they either experience or implement.

Again, the feedback is only useful if you have the structure and capacity to engage it in the decision-making space.  While it’s important to seek a variety of voices using different methods and it can be exciting to implement innovative methods of engaging, it’s not worth using any method that won’t bring the information back to the decision makers in a timely way.  Simply put, don’t collect data you won’t use.

Explanation

Explanation is relatively simple but can be overlooked after feedback has informed goals and strategies.  When the decision or change aligns with student feedback, we should acknowledge the contribution they’ve made, and when the decision does not align with feedback, it’s even more important to acknowledge stakeholders were heard and highlight why another direction was chosen.  Explanation is often as easy as intentionally closing the loop by being transparent about assessment results and how they inform change.  Even if it seems obvious to us, making a point to communicate to students how feedback was used is the only way they can know we heard them.  This can be done during training sessions, in written communication, and during meetings; it just must be done consistently.  The challenge is generally not finding the means to communicate, but rather, the difficulty lies in the ways we must hold ourselves accountable when we share information more transparently.

  •  If we share with students how we integrated their feedback, we must hold ourselves accountable to consistently use student feedback.  While this is a productive accountability measure, it may create stress when time and resources for engagement are limited. 
  • In situations where feedback was collected but the decision made was not in alignment with that feedback, we must have conversations where we say no to students. Though uncomfortable, these conversations still build understanding and trust.
  • Sharing the rationale of changes that we made may necessitate highlighting failures and areas of improvement.

This is not a call for total transparency.  There are certainly contexts in which students may not need to know all details about a decision, and at times, they may not be interested in all the intricacies of curricular design.  Still, when determining how much to explain, consider whether omissions are to the students’ benefit or are barriers to inclusive decision-making.

Expectation Clarity

Expectation clarity falls at the point in the assessment cycle when learning opportunities are provided.  It is making clear what is expected of students and student staff as the curriculum is implemented.  For student staff, accountability in implementing the curriculum looks like clear deadlines, digestible facilitation guides, and outlined consequences for failure to meet expectations.  While this may seem rigid, students should already have been involved in making decisions that led to this point.  Additionally, consistency is preferable to the confusion and perceived unfairness that ambiguous expectations can create.

That said, this sort of accountability has limits.  Student staff who think only in terms of requirements may just do the bare minimum, and students who are not staff can’t be held to these standards.  Hence, it may also be helpful to clarify aspirations in addition to expectations, placing focus on what we hope students will achieve through involvement as opposed to what consequences they will suffer from not participating.  Centering the learning aims and indicating the value of the educational priority and what it means for students can make our aspirations for students clear.

Final Thoughts and Caveats

Though I believe that integrating Fair Process into a cycle of assessment makes the inclusion of a new idea easier, I have taken pause to consider some potential pitfalls and misunderstandings.

Advocates of the curricular approach may notice that the assessment involved in this approach does not necessarily center learning.  When we ask students and staff how we can better implement a curriculum, they’ll often respond in terms of satisfaction.  This might feel like a step backward, toward seat time and student satisfaction rather than beyond it.  This is a valid concern; however:

  1. This assessment may speak to outcomes that promote learning.  For example, a sense of community built through Restorative Practices or student staff buy-in generated through Fair Process creates a stronger learning environment.
  2. This additional type of assessment should not replace learning-focused assessment.  We may turn down student feedback that would improve satisfaction if it doesn’t align with the learning goals.  This can be reconciled through the explanation step of Fair Process.

Lastly, even if integrated into the assessment cycle, Fair Process is not an assessment tool, nor is it a result of comprehensive assessment.  The goal of Fair Process is the development of inclusive decisions and systems, working with students to promote their happiness and cooperation.

Key Questions:

  • At your institution, who holds stake in the content of the curriculum?  How can you make sure to continually involve them in decision-making?
  •  What methods do you already use to engage student feedback?  Does all the student feedback make it into decision-making spaces?
  • In what ways do you explain your curriculum and how it was developed to students?  Are there places you could do better in explaining your decisions to students?
  • Are your expectations and accountability measures clear to students?  What about your aspirations for student learning? 

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