Few would dispute that students learn and develop through their cocurricular involvement and interactions with advisors. However, increasingly campuses are striving to make that education more deliberate and measurable. For institutions looking to enhance student learning outside the classroom, student organization advisors are perhaps best poised to shape and execute structured, learning-based involvement opportunities.
The work of student organization advisors is complementary to the institution’s academic mission and provides an additional realm of learning opportunities for students. The book “Advising Student Groups and Organizations” tells us that advisors can serve as mentors, supervisors, teachers, leaders, and followers. In addition, advisors meet regularly with organization leaders, act as liaisons between the university and the organization, research and develop resources for organization leaders and members, assist with decision-making and conflict issues, and provide a historical context amid ongoing transition.
In both formal and informal settings, advisors have the opportunity to intentionally design educational student experiences through the use of outcomes and relevant theory. Well-rounded advising approaches strive to incorporate a variety of models and areas of expertise to inform practice. Service-learning literature is one such area that offers several frameworks of how student experiences can be intentionally designed to facilitate development. These frameworks can be utilized in the practice of student organization advising to achieve some of the benefits and outcomes associated with service learning. By blending organization advising strategy with service-learning pedagogy, advisors increase their ability to foster student learning and achieve specific outcomes.
A service-learning context
An understanding of service learning’s critical elements, specific methods of reflection, and primary outcomes can provide a knowledge base that student organization advisors can apply to supplement or guide practice.
The Campus Outreach Opportunity League identified five critical elements of thoughtful community service programs. Those elements include:
- Ensuring that the voice and needs of the community are included in the service experience.
- Providing volunteers with opportunities for orientation and training.
- Providing volunteers with opportunities to engage in meaningful action.
- Providing volunteers with opportunities to engage in reflection about their experiences.
- Evaluating the impact of the volunteer’s learning experience and the effectiveness of the action.
These elements provide a framework in which student learning and development are the focus of the experience, making it intentionally educational and providing a measurable standard for professional practice.
Some would say that the element that most directly leads to student learning is engaging in meaningful and critical reflection of the action or activity. In 1997, scholar Robert Rhoades wrote that action and reflection exist “in a reciprocal and dynamic relationship with [one another]. We can have no true action without reflection.” Rhoades described four primary means through which reflection in service-learning experiences can be meaningful: reflections about the self, reflections on leadership, reflections on values and commitments, and reflections on social change. By utilizing these four categories, student learning and community impact are maximized.
The PARC model
One model of service learning that shows great potential flexibility in its application is the PARC model. The 1992 work “Service Learning: Meeting the Needs of At-Risk Youth” presents a model for service-based student engagement with the goal of drop-out prevention. The PARC model, as it is called, outlines the process of preparation, action, reflection, and celebration (PARC) as essential components in encouraging specific learning outcomes through service.
Preparation refers to all that takes place prior to the hands-on experience. Effective preparation sets the groundwork for the experience by identifying an appropriate project, planning logistics, and preparing students through ongoing training. Action consists of the actual, hands-on student experience. Reflection provides the strongest opportunity for students to make meaning of, and think critically about, their experiences. Reflection is an ongoing process and can be achieved through a variety of methods including group discussion, individual writing, or other creative projects. Finally, celebration helps to bring closure to the experience. This may include individual or group recognition and can help serve as motivation for those who continue with the projects or action.
Identifying learning outcomes
The learning outcomes identified through the PARC model fall into the following general categories: personal growth, social growth, intellectual growth, citizenship, and preparation for the world of work. Personal growth refers to characteristics related to self-improvement and self-actualization (e.g., developing identity and formulating personal values and beliefs). Social growth includes social skills needed to relate to others (e.g., communication, caring for others, and awareness of diverse backgrounds). Intellectual growth refers to cognitive skills necessary to enhance academic learning (e.g., problem solving, decision making, and critical thinking). Citizenship includes the responsibilities individuals have to the larger society (e.g., awareness of community needs, social action skills, and a sense of responsibility). Finally, preparation for the world of work identifies transferable experience and information about future career decisions (e.g., professionalism, ability to follow directions, and ability to work as a member of a team).
The learning outcomes identified for service experiences often are specifically related to the nature of the work and the curricular structure. When applying the PARC model to a student organization, or other nonservice-learning contexts, the outcomes should be refocused to achieve a relevant and specific set of outcomes within a cocurricular framework. The intentional structure and process outlined in the PARC model can be adapted and applied successfully to student organization advising to encourage those specific learning outcomes identified for cocurricular involvement.
The learning outcomes identified for cocurricular involvement are derived from a wide variety of student experiences, including participation in student organizations. According to the research in “Learning Reconsidered,” involvement and leadership within a student organization can contribute to several broader learning categories, the most relevant of which include civic engagement; humanitarianism; knowledge acquisition, integration, and application; practical competence; and interpersonal and intrapersonal competence. The Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education recently revised its student learning and development outcomes to integrate their existing outcomes with the concepts presented in “Learning Reconsidered 2.” The revision, published in the new edition of “CAS Professional Standards for Higher Education,” creates six broad categories, or domains: knowledge acquisition, construction, integration, and application; cognitive complexity; intrapersonal development; interpersonal competence; humanitarianism and civic engagement; and practical competence. Within each of these domains are various dimensions that allow for a more specific approach to achieving learning within each domain.
Specific organizations or activities may achieve different combinations of these accepted outcomes as well as additional program-specific outcomes. Once desired learning outcomes have been identified for an organization or activity, they can be merged with the PARC model to create an intentional structure for the cocurricular experience.
From theory to practice
Applying the elements of the PARC model to an advising setting creates an opportunity for advisors to be more intentional about student learning throughout each of the model’s four stages.
In the preparation stage, advisors can facilitate student learning by helping to prepare students for their involvement or leadership experience. Preparation may include reviewing topics such as the organization’s history, a mission or purpose statement, membership expectations or responsibilities, and goals or objectives. Providing students with appropriate preparation will enhance intellectual competence, help them to develop specific leadership skills, and enable them to begin the action stage with confidence and a sense of preparedness for the experience.
In the action stage, advisors work closely with students, facilitating student learning by challenging the active process and supporting students as they engage in the experience. For instance, during this stage students may experience conflict, obstacles, or other developmentally challenging situations. These experiences provide an opportunity for students to achieve learning outcomes such as interpersonal competence, effective communication, and leadership skill development. The action stage allows advisors to help students learn by doing.
In the reflection stage, advisors can facilitate learning through activities and programs that allow students to think critically about specific experiences from the preparation and action stages. Reflection activities may include topics such as personal growth, program evaluation and feedback, and assessment of accomplishments or contributions. Student learning and development can be enhanced by providing students with structured reflection experiences that engage them in thinking about personal values, humanitarianism, diversity, and spiritual awareness.
In the celebration stage, advisors can encourage additional reflection and learning by celebrating the growth of the student and the organization. Celebration of the organization’s successes and accomplishments can provide an additional opportunity for students to consider their own learning and contributions to the organization, the institution, and the community. Celebration activities such as student recognition programs and awards can contribute to the development of enhanced self-esteem and satisfying lifestyle choices for students.
Functional areas and one-time experiences
Although based in service learning, the PARC model is applicable to a wide variety of advising functional areas as well as both one-time and ongoing experiences. The intentionality in advising that is borrowed from service learning has broader implications for practice, even outside of a service context.
For example, the PARC model can be successfully applied to the yearlong advising experience with a student programming board. Within the context of the academic year, preparation may take place through one-on-one meetings with board members and regular student leader training sessions. Action may involve the implementation of the board’s events and programs. Reflection components might include event wrap-up reports, one-on-one debriefs, or student leader learning outcome assessments. Finally, celebration could take many forms, recognizing efforts at the end of an event, semester, or year.
The PARC model can be effectively applied to one-time experiences as well—for example, an officer training workshop or retreat. The model can be used as a useful framework, within which the activities would vary to meet the participants’ specific needs. Preparation and action may be linked through the content of the retreat; for example, the action of delivering the retreat may provide preparation for student attendees to engage in future activities. Reflection can take place at the close of each activity to affirm specific learning goals or at the close of the retreat as a whole to share individual learning with the group. Finally, celebration could include sharing appreciation for the time spent at the retreat and looking forward with excitement to the group’s upcoming plans.
Assessing student learning
When implementing the PARC model in student organization advising, it is important to assess the learning and development that has taken place through the four stages of preparation, action, reflection, and celebration. Assessment can occur during each individual stage of the model over the academic term or year as well as at the final stage of implementation. Following the preparation stage, learning assessment might take the form of a program evaluation or an assessment of skills and knowledge learned during transition programming such as retreats, officer training programs, or individual meetings. Assessment following the action stage might feature evaluations of completed student programs and projects, or it might include assessment of the group’s goals and objectives. Assessing learning in the reflection and celebration stages could include individual reflections about self-knowledge, skill development, or working with others, as well as evaluations of the group’s progress and comparisons to mission statements and goals. Assessment of learning also can occur at the final stage of the model’s implementation, perhaps as an overall assessment of intended learning outcomes or the final part of a pre- and post-test assessment.
One reason the PARC model is such an effective and transferable advising tool is because it provides a framework to ensure that advisors are achieving identified learning outcomes and meeting the needs of their students and organizations. The concepts identified in the PARC model are probably already part of any effective advisor’s strategy; however, the method articulated by the model provides accountability and structure to ensure that student reflection and learning are maximized.
Arguably the component of the PARC model that best encourages student learning is reflection. In their 2004 writings on the leadership development process, Ellen Van Velsor, Russ Moxley, and Kerry Bunker suggest several means through which to facilitate types of learning, including providing students with structured opportunities to reflect on their experiences as student leaders. However, reflection also may be the component that is most easily overlooked because the cocurricular structure of student organizations may tend to focus more on programming, awareness, and connecting with like-minded friends. Although curricular settings may lend themselves more easily to reflection through assignments and classroom discussion, cocurricular reflection provides an additional venue for student learning. Without intentionally including reflection in all student organization activities and programs, key learning opportunities will be missed, both for individual students and for the organization as a whole.
As an introduction to the PARC model, John Briscoe describes the benefits of service-learning pedagogy and contends that, “John Dewey was basically right, that education is ‘reflection on experience’ and that service learning provides a rich, compelling, and self-enhancing base on which to build learning.” By effectively preparing for and engaging in experiences, making meaning of those experiences through reflection, and celebrating accomplishments, involvement in student organizations can be a richer and more intentional learning experience for students. Utilizing the PARC model as a framework for student organization advising is one way to incorporate components that will directly result in student learning and help inform practice as student educators.