With the beginning of the academic year around the corner, college union professionals are starting to plan for the return of their student staff members and the annual staff training ritual. These trainings often may be formulaic, mixing sessions on facility policies, customer service skills, and crisis management role-play along with the basics of day-to-day job task completion. However, staff training should not just be basic; training can be a transformative learning experience.
Planning student staff training
The primary focus of many student staff training sessions is often position-specific. Whether it is serving customers at an information desk, assisting student organizations with program planning, or setting up audio-visual equipment, supervisors may be overwhelmingly concerned with ensuring student staff are able to complete the daily components of their work. This addresses the immediate needs of the organization and fulfills the basic intention of training, but a deeper need may be overlooked. Staff training presents a unique environment for student employees to receive vital leadership skills development that benefits the individual, the organization, and the campus community.
Leadership development as a focus in student employment
In the Handbook for Student Leadership Development, John Dugan and Susan Komives address the evolving nature of leadership theory. Each campus, staff member, and student defines leadership differently. Given these varying levels of understanding in a group, tackling the concepts of leadership and leadership development in a short-term training environment may seem daunting. However, when done with intentionality, addressing and operationalizing a common definition of leadership within a college union can add universal language that establishes higher standards and expectations, builds a shared vision to advance the organizational mission, and empowers staff to excel and thrive in their work.
When designing staff trainings, be intentional about engaging student employees in conversations around a common definition of leadership. This definition may be one already used within the organization or may be co-constructed as a joint effort between administrators and student employees. Emphasizing that leadership is not simply positional and that every individual has the ability to lead creates an opportunity to engage students about this topic. Regardless of the campus-specific environment at play, when addressing the topic of leadership, college union professionals should be able to answer the question: leadership, for what purpose?
Leadership, for what purpose?
The answer may be for the purpose of creating positive social change. Komives, Wendy Wagner, and associates address this question in the 2009 book Leadership for a Better World, which acts as a guide for higher education professionals to teach students about the Social Change Model of Leadership Development. Created in 1996 by an ensemble of college faculty and administrators from around the U.S., the Social Change Model is a tangible and easily understood model of leadership that focuses on the actions and intentions of individuals working together in groups as part of contemporary society for the purpose of creating positive social change.
To enhance the focus on personal leadership development as a component of staff training, address a variety of important leadership topics and draw connections to practical applications both in the workplace and in life. The Social Change Model provides a contextual theoretical framework to guide intentionality behind selecting particular topics. Some possible session topics include:
Consciousness of self
Understanding one’s personal strengths and weaknesses allows for the creation of personal development goals and professional development plans for use in the staff evaluation and staff promotion processes.
Values congruence and integrity
Identifying and clarifying personal values allows student staff members to share more about themselves with their coworkers and supervisors to create rapport and build greater levels of camaraderie and understanding. Identifying and clarifying organizational values with student staff members affords organizations an opportunity to share the espoused mission, vision, or core values.
Asking students what motivates them to be a part of the staff and encouraging them to share what keeps them committed to the organization creates an environment of honesty. Instilling a spirit of engagement and commitment from the organization to its employees may increase staff morale and desire to engage at greater levels within the organization.
Clarifying the organization’s mission and vision and engaging student staff in understanding their individual role in living out that mission and vision is an intentional way of building a common purpose amongst all staff members. This is also a process that can be done with student staff in various units within the organization as each smaller team of coworkers creates a community around
Encouraging communication and collective action across unit and functional lines within the organization creates an environment rich for collaboration. By initiating conversations about collaboration during staff training, student employees—particularly returning employees and student managers—may create synergy by working together to achieve shared goals within the organization.
Managing controversy with civility
Openly addressing how the organization expects staff to manage controversy and conflict allows students the opportunity to practice skills around holding each other accountable to the established standards, even when it is uncomfortable.
Fostering a true sense of team during staff training by focusing less on task-specific instruction and more on team-building may create an opportunity for students to take intentional ownership over their unit’s function. When supervised and nurtured, this engagement and commitment of a student staff team can lead to active citizenship within the organization.
While social change is most often associated with tackling social justice issues, student staff within an organization may approach other types of large-scale systemic change that benefits the organization, students, and the campus community.
Designing an intentional student staff training
While many organizations conduct staff training within the union, utilizing meeting and office space to gather everyone together, some organizations are reconceptualizing trainings. This means varying both the location and delivery methods. By creating a new, more intentional experience for student staff members, training may become an opportunity for personal growth and development rather than a tedious, required task.
Developing learning outcomes
Intentionality in conducting student staff training is important. Before the first educational session or activity is planned, the desired learning outcomes should be determined. What should student staff members be able to do by the end of the training experience? What are the critical skills and concepts of which students should have a better understanding? What are the components that students need to learn most? How can the training support and align with the broader learning outcomes identified by the institution?
By developing learning outcomes, staff trainings are provided with direction and intention. All sessions and activities can be compared to the outcomes to determine which, if any, are achieved. This is often a good measure of determining what to include or not include in the overall training. The use of learning outcomes also allows college union professionals to conduct a comprehensive assessment to determine the level of achievement.
Inclusive design focuses on recognizing, incorporating, and engaging marginalized student populations. The term is best defined as the purposeful construction of programs and services that recognizes how social identity frames the ways in which students perceive, interpret, engage with, and learn in the college context. For college union professionals, this means that students’ perceptions of the organization and its work are shaped by the nature of the content and design of the training program. Staff training should focus on seven key components of inclusive design addressed by Art Munin and Dugan in the 2011 Handbook for Student Leadership Programs.
Create welcoming spaces
Acknowledge campus climate and build an inclusive and inviting environment for the student staff to learn how to engage with others who are different. This will create the opportunity for the construction of a welcoming space for all student populations.
Diversify pathways of communication
Expand the ways supervisors communicate with their student staff to provide opportunities to engage across difference and create an environment rich for giving and receiving feedback.
Provide equal opportunities for growth
Provide broad access for student staff from diverse backgrounds to participate in training and excel within the college union. Consider the barriers that might limit participation and take into account if staff policies and practices are equitable to students with varying external obligations.
Expose students to a wide array of perspectives by engaging presenters from a variety of campus offices. Emphasize diversity whenever appropriate.
Provide natural supports for learning
Address the multiple learning styles and educational needs of students. Engaged teaching methods are necessary to involve students in experiential learning.
Make time for student managers or student team leaders to present sessions or provide personal insight to promote peer-to-peer interaction. When possible, intentionally create small groups to discuss topics of importance and areas of difference, acknowledging that leadership is both an individual and group process.
Consider implicit messages
Examine training schedules and curriculum to determine what implicit messages may be sent about the organization and those it serves. Content that is not included can matter as much, if not more, that what is included.
The most logical location for student staff training is likely a space that is self-managed and self-regulated. However, organizations could consider if that space makes the most sense. Instead of utilizing indoor meeting room or classroom spaces, hold staff training at an outdoor education center where experiential education is fostered. By taking student staff out of the immediate college union setting, training can focus on individual growth, personal development, and building a sense of team and less on conversation around specific job-related tasks that often fill training days.
Learning happens in many places—the classroom, the residence hall, and the cocurricular setting are just three examples. Regardless of the location, one common denominator is the existence of an engaging teaching pedagogy. How one teaches or delivers important training content matters. Each student learns differently and will connect with a teaching method in a varied way. In the Handbook for Student Leadership Programs, Cara Meixner and Dave Rosch address a number of pedagogies that are useful in the delivery of leadership education. Five key pedagogies are:
In Experiential Learning Experience as the Source of Learning and Development, David Kolb noted that learning is often conceived as a holistic process that results from students testing their knowledge and adapting it to their environments. Engaging students in active learning environments that allow for the practical application of skills often produces greater retention of training materials and better preparedness to put skills into action.
The creation of a team atmosphere is often critical for a successful operation. During training, consider emphasizing activities that practice problem solving, communication, crisis response, and conflict management. Creating environments in which students are engaged in meaningful group activities with intentional reflection and application to the college union as a workplace may lead to more developed group dynamics, greater levels of interpersonal comfort, and a stronger commitment to the staff team.
Allowing returning student staff members to play a role in training is both practical and empowering. Before being placed into the role of trainer, students should have an understanding of the developmental level of their peers, the ability to work with those who are different than themselves, a degree of interpersonal communication skills, knowledge of problem solving, an understanding of group process, the ability to role model, knowledge of resources, and an understanding of organizational mission and ethics.
Mentoring and advising
Utilizing the entire professional staff within the college union creates opportunities to engage with student staff on an informal level, supporting social integration into the organization. By creating formal or informal mentoring and advising relationships—distinct from supervisory relationships—professional and student staff can learn from one another and develop strong bonds that may lead to increased commitment to the workplace, greater comfort in offering and receiving feedback, and stronger affinity to the organization’s mission and values.
Adding intentional opportunities for reflection into any staff training is both practical and potentially transformative. Providing students with time to think about what they are learning in a guided manner affords individuals an opportunity to critically engage with how the material is influencing their knowledge, perceptions, emotions, and actions. This process often encourages students to modify behaviors, reconceptualize processes, critically evaluate previously held perspectives, and engage in action planning with greater thought and intention.
Incorporate high-impact practices
In 2008, the American Association of Colleges and Universities released a set of 10 high-impact practices that were widely tested and shown to be beneficial to the learning of college students from many backgrounds. These practices are broad and have application in many aspects of higher education—both inside and outside of the classroom. Four high-impact practices have direct applicability to student employee training and, when implemented, can increase the complexity of training sessions.
Collaborative assignments and projects
Collaborative learning combines two key goals: learning to work and solve problems in the company of others and sharpening one’s own understanding by listening seriously to the insights of others—especially those with different backgrounds and life experiences. During training, consider having students work together on short- or long-term teams to make improvements within their functional unit. Provide staff with opportunities to complete team-based assignments or tasks, which will build the collaborative capacity of the team, foster a collaborative spirit, and encourage the growth of new and sustained friendships.
Diversity and global learning
Many colleges and universities now emphasize courses and programs that help students explore cultures, life experiences, and worldviews different from their own. These studies—which may address U.S. diversity, world cultures, or both—often explore differences such as racial, ethnic, and gender inequality. Utilize staff training to tackle some of these issues within the organization. By working across difference, student staff will become better at interacting with campus visitors and other students.
Service and community-based learning
Field-based experiential learning with community partners is an instructional strategy used in some classrooms, but could be integrated as a component of student staff training. By providing a direct experience with academic topics and community problem-solving, students are able to become more connected with their campus and community, apply what is learned in real-world settings, and reflect in an intentionally facilitated setting on service experiences. These programs model how giving back to the community is an important college outcome and is good preparation for citizenship, work, and life.
Internships are an increasingly common form of experiential learning. Often used in students’ individual academic disciplines, consider allowing student interns to be a part of the staff training planning process for an extended period of time in a meaningful, supervised way. This provides students with direct experience in a work setting—usually related to their career interests—and with the benefit of supervision and coaching from professionals in the field. When possible, collaborate with faculty to approve course credit for the experience, coupled with a project or paper.
On many campuses, the utilization of these active learning practices is unsystematic, which works to the
detriment of student learning. Finding meaningful ways to integrate these high-impact practices into annual sessions creates an intentional, systematic, and effective training program, or these strategies could be used for ongoing training throughout the year. Further, the evaluation of student involvement in active learning practices such as these makes it possible to assess contribution of the high-impact practices to students’ cumulative learning.
Assessment in student staff training
Implementing new and innovative ideas to expand student staff training can improve the quality of the experience for students, lead to personal growth and development, and foster stronger bonds within the campus union team. To see these short- and long-term effects of the training, it is useful to conduct a thorough program assessment to determine if the learning outcomes were met and to what extent the training helped in the achievement. The benefits of collecting this data include measuring the achievement of learning outcomes, gathering evidence of student development, assessing satisfaction with individual training sessions, and justifying budget money spent on training. When planning training sessions, be mindful of utilizing previously collected assessment data.
After learning outcomes for a training are developed, college union professionals should create a personalized assessment tool to measure those outcomes. Using the learning outcomes as a guide, determine the most appropriate way to measure each outcome, whether a quantitative rating scale or open-response questions. And when possible, utilize technology. While paper-and-pencil assessments are still popular in some venues, students may be more apt to type a response rather than write it by hand.
Putting it all into practice
While the task to redesign or reconceptualize a training program may seem daunting, there are a few simple short- and long-term steps that will assist in putting a new training program into practice:
- Expand training from just the nuts and bolts of college union operations to include personal leadership growth and development. By making the training experience more about student learning and less about routine tasks, organizations may see marked improvements in staff engagement, initiative, and personal development.
- Utilize key resources on campus by partnering with leadership educators within academic and student affairs to design and implement training sessions. When in doubt, turn to institutional, regional, and national sources to gain access to the tools and resources necessary to be successful.
- Do not feel isolated in designing and implementing training efforts. Model a team approach to accomplishing this task.
- Engage students in the planning process to determine what skills and concepts matter. Building this partnership increases opportunities for student leadership development and models collaboration within the organization.
- Find creative ways to incorporate inclusive design, different instructional pedagogies, and high-impact practices into training programs.
- Assess the process at all steps to measure learning outcomes and student satisfaction so training will continue to improve and meet the needs of participants.
The once formulaic training program, filled with sessions on facility policies, customer service skills, and crisis management role plays, is no longer enough. College union professionals need to consider engaging students in the training process and amending trainings to add intentionality and relevance. Some campuses are already on the move to make training a transformative learning experience. The time is right to move staff training to the next level.