Needs More Cowbell

cowbells
Photo by Thomas Kohler , license CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

As the cost of higher education soars, colleges and universities have come under closer scrutiny by parents and students to determine if they are receiving commensurate value from their tuition dollars. In response, Student Affairs divisions have become much more adept at showing how we support student success through our co-curricular programs and services. The stage has been set, and through our assessment efforts, we have been telling our stories to an audience that expects a high performance standard.

And if intentional assessment has been the platform for our storytelling, then Student Learning Outcomes has become the rock star. The incessant drum beat from SACS reviews, CAS standards, and Learning Reconsidered that has driven us to create and assess SLOs within each Student Affairs department has steadily taken hold, and we can proudly sing about skills that students learn by participating in our programs.

In Campus Recreation, as well as in other departments within Student Affairs, Student Learning Outcomes assessment has become the lead singer, receiving most of the effort and attention. But the glitz and glamour of SLOs have taken attention away from perhaps the most important measures that lead to student success: participation numbers and student satisfaction. These operational outcomes—what I’m calling the “cowbell”—are always there, are usually assessed, but are easily ignored in the shadow of Student Learning Outcomes assessment. Yes, SLOs are important, but what we really need, particularly in Campus Recreation, is more cowbell. Here’s why.

  1. Students who participate in recreational programs and services have higher GPAs, and are retained at a higher rate, than the average student population.

Reports from schools such as Michigan State University, University of Iowa, and University of Arkansas, show a correlation between gym use and GPA, with gym users earning higher GPAs than non-users. The reports also show a correlation between gym use and retention, with users being retained at a higher rate than non-users. We have noticed the same correlations at my school, and hope to formalize the findings at the end of this assessment cycle.

  1. Exercise resets and recharges your brain.  

Harvard Medical School psychiatrist John Ratey explains the cognitive benefits of exercise in his book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. According to Ratey, “Exercise is the single best thing you can do for your brain in terms of mood, memory, and learning.” And while it’s been shown that exercise improves learning, it also reduces stress and lifts depression.

So let’s take a look at our student participation numbers, and make a plan to reach out to non-users to get them involved with our programs and services. Let’s collaborate with other campus partners, such as student health and student counseling centers, to provide wellness programs to students who are struggling with health issues that impact their classroom learning. Let’s provide a safe, clean, friendly environment in our facilities that make students feel at home and will keep them coming back. Let’s collect student feedback on our programs and services, and make changes according to that feedback, so that students know we value their opinions and want to meet their needs. Then let’s assess our plans to improve student participation and satisfaction, see what has worked and what hasn’t, and develop an improvement plan. And let’s keep running the numbers to see if the correlation between gym use and GPA, and gym use and retention, show positive results.

Student Learning Outcomes assessment is great, but studies show that we need to start featuring the cowbell. An increase in student participation in our recreation programs can mean an increase in student success.

I’m telling you. You’re gonna want more cowbell!

more cowbell
Photo by Mike Kline, license (CC BY 2.0)
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