Needs More Cowbell

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)

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.