Learning Reconsidered… Reconsidered

For the past several years there has been a push within Student Affairs to identify and assess student learning outcomes. Five years ago, the idea of assessing learning outside of the classroom was new to me, and I was encouraged to read “Learning Reconsidered 2,” which I eagerly devoured. Reading the book prompted me to look at my work from a different perspective.  It shook things up a bit, creating that fizz of excitement that makes everything seem new and interesting.

However, the learning outcomes initiative that created a pleasant fizz seems to have resulted in an undesirable explosion. “Assessment” has come to mean “student learning outcomes assessment.” All other assessments that have nothing to do with learning outcomes, such as attendance numbers and student satisfaction, seem at best to be unimportant, and at worst are poo-pooed as not being “real assessment.”

I completely agree that we need to assess student learning outcomes within Student Affairs, and we have developed programs in my area that promote and measure student learning. However, in Campus Recreation, most of our programs and services are designed to serve students’ needs, not to measure student learning. And according to current research, this model is completely appropriate for supporting student success.

For example, a 2002 study entitled “The Value of Recreational Sports on College Campuses” indicates that students who participate in physical activity and recreational sports experience improved emotional well-being, reduced stress, and improved happiness. In a spring, 2014, survey of 2500 randomly selected students conducted at my university, 78% of respondents reported that our facilities and programs helped them to feel more at home at our university; 90% reported that they enjoyed participating in our activities or utilizing our facilities, and 92% agreed that our facilities and programs improved the quality of life at our university.

Other recent research has shown a correlation between students who utilize campus recreation facilities and their GPA. In fall 2013, Purdue University found that freshman students who visited their rec center 15 or more times during the semester had a higher GPA (3.08) than those who did not utilize the facility (2.81). In fall 2010, Michigan State University found that freshmen who purchased memberships at their recreation center had higher GPAs and stayed in school longer than those who did not purchase memberships. Both of these studies support research conducted by John J. Ratey, M.D., author of “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,” that explores the brain-fitness connection.

What does this mean? For me, it means that student success, in part, depends on students utilizing our programs and services. Because of this, we need to do everything we can to keep students coming to the recreation center. We also need to understand the factors that prevent students from utilizing our programs and services, and change what we can to limit these impediments.

How do we gauge how well we’re meeting these challenges?

Attendance counts. Satisfaction surveys. Various other operational assessments.

We can impact a small percentage of the student population with programs that promote student learning outcomes, but we can impact student success on our entire campus just by improving the participation rate for our programs and services. Now THAT is something worth assessing!

I would love to hear your comments on student learning outcomes assessment vs. operational assessment.

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