The Student Learning Imperative: Implications for Student Affairs
THE LEARNING-ORIENTED STUDENT AFFAIRS DIVISION
"The interval between the decay of the old and the formation and the
establishment of the new, constitutes a period of transition which must
always necessarily be one of uncertainty, confusion, error, and wild and
fierce fanaticism." -John C. Calhoun
Higher education is in the throes of a major transformation. Forcing
the transformation are economic conditions, eroding public confidence,
accountability demands, and demographic shifts resulting in increased
numbers of people from historically underrepresented groups going to
college. More people are participating in higher education than ever
before, yet the resources supporting the enterprise are not keeping pace
with the demand. Because of these and other factors, legislators,
parents, governing boards, and students want colleges and universities
to reemphasize student learning and personal development as the primary
goals of undergraduate education. In short, people want to know that
higher education is preparing students to lead productive lives after
college including the ability to deal effectively with such major
societal challenges as poverty, illiteracy, crime, and environmental
Both students and institutional environments contribute to what students
gain from college. Thus, the key to enhancing learning and personal
development is not simply for faculty to teach more and better, but also
to create conditions that motivate and inspire students to devote time
and energy to educationally-purposeful activities, both in and outside
the classroom. The recent focus on institutional productivity is a
clarion call to re-examine the philosophical tenets that guide the
professional practice of student affairs and to form partnerships with
students, faculty, academic administrators, and others to help all
students attain high levels of learning and personal development.
This document is intended to stimulate discussion and debate on how
student affairs professionals can intentionally create the conditions
that enhance student learning and personal development. It is based on
the following assumptions about higher education, student affairs, and
- Hallmarks of a college educated person include: (a) complex
cognitive skills such as reflection and critical thinking; (b) an
ability to apply knowledge to practical problems encountered in one's
vocation, family, or other areas of life; an understanding and
appreciation of human differences; (d) practical competence skills
(e.g., decision making, conflict resolution); and (e) a coherent
integrated sense of identify, self-esteem, confidence, integrity,
aesthetic sensibilities, and civic responsibility.
- The concepts of "learning," "personal development," and "student
development" are inextricably intertwined and inseparable. Higher
education traditionally has organized its activities into "academic
affairs" (learning, curriculum, classrooms, cognitive development) and
"student affairs" (co-curriculum, student activities, residential life,
affective or personal development). However, this dichotomy has little
relevance to post-college life, where the quality of one's job
performance, family life, and community activities are all highly
dependent on cognitive and affective skills. Indeed, it is difficult to
classify many important adult skills (e.g., leadership, creativity,
citizenship, ethical behavior, self-understanding, teaching, mentoring)
as either cognitive or affective. And, recent research shows that the
impact of an institution's "academic" program is mediated by what
happens outside the classroom. Peer group relations, for example,
appear to influence both affective and cognitive development. For these
reasons, the terms learning, student development, and personal
development are used interchangeably throughout this document.
- Experiences in various in-class and out-of-class settings, both on
and off the campus, contribute to learning and personal development.
Indeed, almost any educationally purposeful experience may be a
precursor to desired outcomes. However, optimal benefits are more
likely to be realized under certain conditions, such as active
engagement and collaboration with others (faculty, peers, co-workers,
and so on) on learning tasks.
- Learning and personal development occur through transactions between
students and their environments broadly defined to include other people
(faculty, student affairs staff, peers), physical spaces, and cultural
milieus. Some settings tend to be associated with certain kinds of
outcomes more so than others. For example, classrooms and laboratories
emphasize knowledge acquisition among other things while living in a
campus residence, serving as an officer of a campus organization, or
working offer opportunities to apply knowledge obtained in the classroom
and to develop practical competencies. Environments can be
intentionally designed to promote student learning. For example,
students learn more when faculty use effective teaching techniques and
arrange classroom space to promote interaction and collaboration;
similarly, when student affairs staff discourage students from spending
time and energy on non-productive pursuits, and encourage them to use
institutional resources (e.g., libraries, student organizations,
laboratories, studios), to employ effective learning strategies (e.g.,
study time, peer tutors), and to participate in community governance and
other educationally-purposeful activities, students learn more.
Institutional and student cultures also influence learning; they warrant
attention even though they are difficult to modify intentionally.
- Knowledge and understanding are critical, not only to student
success, but also to institutional improvement. To encourage student
involvement in learning tasks, thereby improving institutional
productivity, the outcomes associated with college attendance must be
assessed systematically and the impact of various policies and programs
on learning and personal development periodically evaluated.
- Student affairs professionals are educators who share responsibility
with faculty, academic administrators, other staff, and students
themselves for creating the conditions under which students are likely
to expend time and energy in educationally-purposeful activities. They
endorse talent development as the over-arching goal of undergraduate
education; that is, the college experience should raise students'
aspirations and contribute to the development of skills and competencies
that enable them to live productive, satisfying lives after college.
Thus, student affairs programs and services must be designed and managed
with specific student learning and personal development outcomes in
A student affairs division committed to student learning and
personal development exhibits the following characteristics:
1. THE STUDENT AFFAIRS DIVISION MISSION COMPLEMENTS THE INSTITUTION'S
MISSION, WITH THE ENHANCEMENT OF STUDENT LEARNING AND PERSONAL
DEVELOPMENT BEING THE PRIMARY GOAL OF STUDENT AFFAIRS PROGRAMS AND SERVICES.
Student affairs professionals take seriously their responsibilities
for fostering learning and personal development. Their efforts are
guided by a holistic philosophy of learning that is congruent with their
institution's mission and clearly distinguishes between the
institution's commitment to process values (e.g., ethnic diversity,
gender balance, equity, and justice) and desired outcomes (e.g. student
learning and personal development). If learning is the primary measure
of institutional productivity by which the quality of undergraduate
education is determined, what and how much students learn also must be
the criteria by which the value of student affairs is judged (as
contrasted with numbers of programs offered or clients served).
Questions and challenges:
- Does the division's mission statement explicitly address student
learning and personal development as the primary objectives of student
- Do staff understand, agree with, and perform in ways congruent
with this mission?
- What must staff know to implement this mission?
2. RESOURCES ARE ALLOCATED TO ENCOURAGE STUDENT LEARNING AND
The division rewards structure values those processes and conditions
that are associated with desired student outcomes. The orientation of
many student affairs professionals, and the activities in which they
engage, emphasize certain aspects of learning and personal development
(e.g., psycho-social) over others (e.g., knowledge application or
intellectual development). For this reason, student affairs divisions
must attract and reward people who design programs, services, and
settings that encourage student involvement in activities that have the
potential to foster a wide range of learning and personal development
outcomes. Staff themselves model such behaviors as collaboration and
reflection that are likely to promote learning and participate in
training and professional development opportunities that focus on talent
Questions and challenges:
- How can student affairs professionals be more intentional about
promoting student learning while continuing to provide needed services
to students and the institution?
- What is the role of professional associations in preparing student
affairs staff to focus on student learning as a primary goal of student
- To what extent do student affairs staff attend institutes and
programs that address the student learning imperative?
3. STUDENT AFFAIRS PROFESSIONALS COLLABORATE WITH OTHER INSTITUTIONAL
AGENTS AND AGENCIES TO PROMOTE STUDENT LEARNING AND PERSONAL DEVELOPMENT.
As with other units in a college or university, student affairs
divisions often are highly specialized compartmentalized, fragmented
units that operate as "functional silos": that is, meaningful
collaboration with other units is at best serendipitous. The learning-oriented student affairs division recognizes that students benefit from
many and varied experiences during college and that learning and
personal development are cumulative, mutually shaping processes that
occur over an extended period of time in many different settings. The
more students are involved in a variety of activities inside and outside
the classroom the more they gain. Student affairs professionals
attempt to make "seamless" what are often perceived by students to be
disjointed, unconnected experiences by bridging organizational
boundaries and forging collaborative partnerships with faculty and others
to enhance student learning. Examples of campus agencies that are
potentially fruitful links include instructional design centers,
academic enrichment programs, and faculty and staff development
initiatives. Off-campus agencies (e.g., community service) and settings
(e.g., work, church, museums) also offer rich opportunities for learning
and students should be systematically encouraged to think about how
their studies apply in those settings and vice versa.
Questions and challenges:
- What are promising strategies for developing collaborative projects
between student affairs and other campus and off campus agencies
committed to enhancing student learning and personal development?
- How can student affairs professionals help students and faculty to
intentionally connect academic work and out-of-class experiences?
- What is the role of professional associations in establishing
linkages with other organizations with similar interests?
4. THE DIVISION OF STUDENT AFFAIRS INCLUDES STAFF WHO ARE EXPERTS ON
STUDENTS, THEIR ENVIRONMENTS, AND TEACHING AND LEARNING PROCESSES.
Student affairs staff should know how students spend their time and
whether students are using the institution's resources to educational
advantage. They share responsibility for initiating conversations--with
students and other institutional agents--about how students could make
more effective use of their time and institutional resources. They
monitor whether institutional policies and practices enhance or detract
from learning and personal development. More over, they integrate data
about student performance from faculty and others with their own
observations of students' experiences and disseminate this information to
Questions and challenges:
- How can student affairs staff obtain and synthesize information
about student performance?
- What must student affairs staff know and be able to do to assist
faculty in creating cooperative learning environments?
- What additional skills and knowledge are needed to successfully
translate information about student behavior to faculty and others?
5. STUDENT AFFAIRS POLICIES AND PROGRAMS ARE BASED ON PROMISING
PRACTICES FROM THE RESEARCH ON STUDENT LEARNING AND INSTITUTION-SPECIFIC
Certain conditions promote learning more than others. For example,
learning and personal development are enhanced when students participate
in groups organized around common intellectual, curricular, or career
interests. Student affairs professionals should adapt to their
institutional setting promising practices from those fields that
contribute to the body of knowledge about student learning and personal
development. They should routinely collect information to redesign
institutional policies and practices and rigorously evaluate their
programs and services to determine the extent to which they contribute
to the desired outcomes of undergraduate education. Toward this end,
student affairs staff should participate in institution-wide efforts to
assess student learning and personal development and periodically audit
institutional environments to reinforce those factors that enhance, and
eliminate those that inhibit, student involvement in educationally-
Questions and challenges:
- Do student affairs staff have the knowledge and expertise in
learning theory and student development research needed to shape
policies and practices that will lead to increased levels of student
learning, personal development, and institutional productivity?
- What must graduate programs do to prepare the next generation of
student affairs professionals to base their work on theory and research
on learning and intellectual as well as psycho-social development?
As with individuals, colleges and universities rely on experience to
guide behavior. But when external forces (budget constraints, shifting
demographics, accountability) produce radical changes, familiar,
comfortable practices may no longer work. Change brings uncertainty as
well as opportunity.
Student affairs professionals must seize the present moment by
affirming student learning and personal development as the primary goals
of undergraduate education. Redefining the role of student affairs to
intentionally promote student learning and personal development will be
dismissed by some as a restatement of the status quo ("old wine in new
bottles") or an attempt to rekindle the momentum of a bygone era; others
will interpret the message as forsaking the special humanizing role
student affairs play in the academy; others will conclude that to
proceed as this document suggests will force student affairs to invade
faculty territory; still others will be intimidated by the prospect of
changing their behavior. None of these views speaks to the concerns of
students, parents, and other stakeholders who have high expectations
for higher education. Student affairs must model what we wish for our
students: an ever increasing capacity for learning and self-reflection.
By redesigning its work with these aims in mind, student affairs will
significantly contribute to realizing the institution's mission and
students' educational and personal aspirations.
The Student Learning Project was initiated by ACPA President Charles
Schroeder in the fall of 1993 by convening a small group of higher
education leaders to examine how student affairs educators could enhance
student learning and personal development. The group included Alexander
Astin, Helen Astin, Paul Bloland, K. Patricia Cross, James Hurst, George
Kuh, Theodore Marchese, Elizabeth Nuss, Ernest Pascarella, Anne Pruitt,
Michael Rooney, and Charles Schroeder. Following a three day retreat in
Colorado, a version of this document was submitted by George Kuh to spark
discussion at the 1994 ACPA meeting in Indianapolis. This is a revised
version of the original draft informed by comments and suggestions made
at the Indianapolis meeting, and continuing dialogue since in various
forms and forums.
© 1996 by the American College Personnel Association. All rights reserved.