The TRU Consent Tea: Fostering Dialogue about Consent for Sex and Sexualized Violence one Cuppa at a Time

By Chelsea Corsi and Meaghan Hagerty, Thompson Rivers University, Kamloops, BC, Canada


For people who know us well, or have just met us for that matter, one thing we believe resonates is that we are passionate about health and well-being on our campus! 


For me (Chelsea), working with students in my role as Wellness Coordinator inspires me every day. My experience over the past 15 years has shown me that the hearts and minds of students are open to learn more about themselves; they are open to critically reflect on their current values, beliefs, and perspectives; and they are ready to challenge the social and political context we live in…even when the issues, such as consent for sex and sexualized violence can be difficult to talk about. I believe students to be brave, courageous, and vulnerable, more so than I was when I was a student. Working alongside students to support their health and well-being fills up my cup and motivates me to do my best work!


For me (Meaghan), I scored the jackpot when I landed a position at TRU’s Wellness Centre as my first job post-graduation, and my luck continued with an opportunity to temporarily take on the Sexualized Violence Prevention and Response Manager position. It’s one thing to learn about program development and community engagement in a classroom, but actually facilitating space for challenging conversations and hearing the rich dialogue and learning that follows is what professional dreams are made of in my world. We’re working to change some deeply entrenched social norms with topics like sexualized violence, but the energy and drive to shift the conversation exists and is growing. Learning from the students, as well as staff, faculty, and community organizations, through events provides motivation to keep looking for those creative ways of opening space for dialogue and learning.

We are fortunate in our roles at TRU because we are able to collaborate on health promotion and sexualized violence prevention programming in a way that brings creativity and innovation to the work. We utilize key pieces of evidence and theories in a way that engages student learning and, as we have noticed, improves the culture of health and well-being at TRU. Developing programming and outreach events about sexual health and sexualized violence prevention that have the capacity to captivate students is one of the most exciting, rewarding, and nuanced pieces of health promotion work at TRU. For us, this is the stuff that sleepless nights are made of! 


In case you, or anyone else on your campus, need more convincing that this is important work for us to be doing, let’s recap what we know. Our campus understands sexualized violence as, “an umbrella term that encompasses any sexual act or act targeting a person’s sexuality, gender identity or gender expression, whether the act is physical or psychological in nature, that is committed, threatened or attempted against a person without the person’s consent.” According to the Ending Violence Association of British Columbia, up to 25% of females report experiencing sexualized violence during their time in post-secondary education. On our campus this means over 1,800 females are pursuing their studies while navigating an experience of sexualized violence. While this statistic is staggering, it does not capture other gender identities or those who decided not to disclose for a variety of great reasons. This is a real and impactful thing that is happening on every campus. Post-secondary institutions are increasingly taking responsibility to provide dedicated response and support services on campus, and in parallel, education and prevention programming is growing.

But let’s be honest…while we know sexualized violence is a critical health issue impacting university culture, sometimes the education and prevention work can be heavy. It can be loaded with stigma, partially because talking about sex in general is often taboo and also because there is still a strong tendency to blame the victim while protecting the perpetrator; it can be uncomfortable to talk about; and it can potentially trigger those who have lived experience. However, if done well, it can be a catalyst for personal reflection, growth, and change as well as a positive shift in culture. 


Consent education is recognized as a cornerstone in creating that culture shift, and at TRU, our Annual Consent Tea has become one of our programming success stories. Capitalizing on pop culture, creative program implementation, activity-based learning, and peer-led dialogue, we have successfully navigated campus discussions on consent for sex and sexualized violence broadly. Instead of metaphorically pulling teeth and/or speaking to silent workshop participants, we took inspiration from the viral “Consent: It’s as Simple as Tea” video to develop a ‘Consent Tea’ event, approaching conversations in a trauma-informed, anti-oppressive, and survivor-centred way. Tables decorated with fresh flowers, tea, and treats at a central campus location invite students into this peer-led space for learning and open dialogue.

The table is set.

The idea first came from a thoughtful reflection about how to help students ‘get’ or better understand the idea of consent for sex. How could we encourage student praxis (the practical application of learning) about consent in a meaningful way? How could we bridge the theory/concept with action and inspire reflection and dialogue about a difficult topic? 

Opportunities for applied learning are woven throughout our Consent Tea event. We provide a safer, open environment that is foundational for reflection about key messages brought forth in the Consent: It’s a Simple as Tea video. For example, if someone is unconscious you wouldn’t force them to drink tea, and similarly if someone is passed out you wouldn’t force them to have sex. By physically drinking tea while discussing the fact that you wouldn’t force someone to drink tea with you, participants are ‘acting out’ part of the message. This helps to solidify the underlying concept that you also wouldn’t force someone to have sex or assume that they wanted it.

Some critics of this video believe the message is too ‘juvenile’ and doesn’t go far enough to address the complexities of consent. In our experience, we have found that because the key messages in this video are approachable and use plain language, it acts as a terrific entry point that resonates with varying levels of participants sexual consent literacy. 

True Dialogue theory also underpins this event. The process is designed to increase empathy and understanding, promote self-reflection, and raise awareness that different cultures and communities have varying perspectives and practices. The Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research (CISUR) explains that the key components of dialogue are to:

  • Inquire and learn
  • Discover shared meaning
  • Integrate multiple perspectives
  • Uncover and examine assumptions

While we recognize that different perspectives shape the dialogue about consent, we also know that it is our responsibility to educate about the definition and absolute requirement of consent in sexual activity.

Having peers act as dialogue facilitators helps to decrease or remove power imbalances that can be present in different contexts. Our trained peer-leaders have been key to our event success as they help create a safe, welcoming space at each table; bring knowledge about sexualized violence and consent; facilitate meaningful dialogue; and support students to access campus and community resources if and when needed. This past year all 11 students from the Student Wellness Ambassador Team (SWAT), as well as Student Services’ practicum and work-study students served as peer facilitators at our event. 

During the Consent Tea, the use of visual, written, and activity-based aids prompt courageous consent conversations that challenge rape myths, develop understanding for how to support survivors, and increase awareness of campus and community support services.

The 2018 Consent Tea introduced Blackout Poetry as the primary tool for facilitating reflection, expression, and dialogue. This semi-structured, introvert-friendly art form proved to be an accessible vehicle for health promotion, emotional expression, and sharing one’s voice. Participants tore a page from a book and repurposed the words to create their own poem about consent and/or sexualized violence.

An example of a student black-out poem from our 4th Annual Consent Tea in fall 2018:

As student affairs/health professionals coordinating this event, we have seen a high degree of engagement and heard rich conversations each year. But don’t just take it from us. Nicole Stanchfield, a student survivor who was at the event and helped facilitate dialogue, wrote about her experiences. She writes:

“Through the blending of art and conversation, this tea party provided a safe and supportive space to share my story. Events like this are essential to understanding our collective responsibility to engage in an ongoing conversation about consent, sexualized violence, feminism, body autonomy, and the dismantling of my arch nemesis, the patriarchy.”

You can read her full narrative here.

Additionally, this is what one of our student leaders had to say:

“Shockingly, the Consent Tea is where I had my first ever conversation about consensual sex. I learned the basics about rape and assault in high school; but at 22, I found myself unsure of the true meaning of consent. During the tea I was captivated by the bravery of the students who shared their stores, and so impressed by the nuanced and thoughtful discussions that took place. The opportunity to share insights with my peers at this event gave me the education and confidence I needed to have a healthier understanding about sexual consent. I know that I was not the only one there learning about it for the first time, and for that I am grateful for the awareness that this event offers because the concepts I learned will have a lasting impact on my life.”

– Angela Kadar, Student Wellness Ambassador

If you are interested in learning more specific details about our Consent Tea event, or want to host one on your campus, we have created a toolkit that outlines our experiences of running this event for the last 4 years. It is accessible through this link.

As professionals working with students, we hope that this has inspired you to reflect on your own practice and share some ideas with colleagues. How do you encourage open and accessible dialogue that challenges the current discourse about stigmatizing health issues faced by students, yet is also empathetic and caring? How can you inspire a positive change in campus culture? Please “leave a reply” so we can learn from each other.

Like we said, these are the thoughts and ideas that keep us passionate about the work and up at night planning our next outreach adventure!

The Story Behind the College Student Success Innovation Centre at Mohawk College

How broad institutional support, strategic partnerships, and opportunistic student affairs professionals launched the only research centre focused on student success – at a 2-year or 4-year institution – in Canada.

By Tim Fricker, Dean of Students at Mohawk College who also leads the College Student Success Innovation Centre (CSSIC).

To the best of my knowledge, the College Student Success Innovation Centre (CSSIC) at Mohawk College (in Hamilton, Ontario) is one-of-a-kind. We have had a great deal of success in a relatively short period. Since 2015, we have received external funding for 7 research projects totaling 1.7 million, and we were just recently awarded the Program Innovation Award from the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS), which is an association similar to NASPA and ACPA. And, as a community college offering primarily 1-, 2- and 3-year credentials, our graduation rates have steadily risen from 60% to 65% since 2012, a rate of improvement unmatched by our key comparator colleges.

I have been asked many times in recent months how we got to this point, and truthfully, it is difficult to distill our journey down into a couple of key determining factors. There are a few things that I continuously point to including: 1) unbridled institutional support, 2) a host of key partners, and finally, 3) the unique ability of our Student Affairs team to see and respond to potential student success research opportunities. At every single stage of our work over the last seven years, each of these three elements has played a critical role in paving the way for the CSSIC to become a reality.

The purpose of this article, with the invitation from Tricia Seifert, is to share the lessons we have learned that could be useful for others wishing to put more energy into Student Affairs and student success assessment or research. As Student Affairs professionals, our strength is our focus on students and day-to-day practice, which means we also do not naturally celebrate or share our successes publicly. We are humble practitioners by nature. This creates a scenario where our institutions could forget how core Student Affairs work is to the academic mission, which in times of fiscal restraint (such as what is occurring in Ontario right now, which is another story and blog altogether), we risk diminishing resources that could increase barriers and reduce support for our students. With those caveats, here are three foundations of our College Student Success Innovation Centre at Mohawk College.

Broad Institutional Support

I am not entirely sure where this research centre had its true beginnings, but since I joined Mohawk in 2012, a few important things occurred. Perhaps one of those items was the creation of my role at that time – Director of Student Success Initiatives – which was designed to coordinate new campus-wide efforts to improve student outcomes. Around that time, our then President made a public call to action, challenging all faculty and staff to work harder to improve student persistence and graduation rates.

In 2014, we launched our first Student Success Plan to guide our institution on this journey. As part of this work, we committed to more purposeful data capture activities, which was more than just counting participation rates; it was our way of starting on an important assessment, evaluation, and research journey. This included introducing and using new advising software and dedicating a lot of energy toward supporting our staff with training as they evolved their practice and reporting.

Institutional support in these efforts spanned all traditional college silos. We had committees that included membership from academic, student, and corporate services. We had – and still have – a strong relationship with our Mohawk Students’ Association, too. With these close partnerships, requests for data with our corporate partners in the Institutional Research office were easy to navigate, and collaborations with faculty, our Deans, and the Centre for Teaching and Learning also proved to be quite natural, especially when we began our work with HEQCO’s Learning Outcomes Assessment Consortium later in 2017.

In 2016, with a new President, we doubled down on our commitments to students in a few meaningful ways. First, our new Strategic Plan included pillars such as student success and graduate success. Second, our new Strategic Mandate Agreement (a process directed by our provincial government) included a pitch for a new provincial student success innovation and research centre to build off the momentum we had gained over the last few years. Each of these institutional commitments, pillars, and ideas created a strong foundation of support to allow our team to take risks, say yes to new opportunities, and start to build the collective experience in student success research that we have today.

Strategic Partnerships

The first partnership we formed, which is still a critical partnership today, was with Dr. Ross Finnie at the Education Policy Research Initiative (EPRI). Dr. Finnie and his team of researchers helped ‘mine’ some of our data to help us learn more about our students. Seven reports were produced between 2012 and 2014, including the first drafts of a predictive model that would later be critical to our early research efforts.

Many interesting partnership opportunities presented themselves to us during this time, including participating in the Supporting Student Success research, and some additional projects with EPRI. For each, we simply offered our support ‘in-kind’ and received no payments. Much of this work was done off the side of my desk and those of my Institutional Research colleagues. In other words, as new additional work that was not formally planned in annual work plans, we fit it in wherever we could. With Dr. Finnie, for example, he brought in partners from Statistics Canada and Employment and Social Development Canada (both federal government agencies), for what eventually resulted in some fascinating research about the labour market outcomes of Canadian students. We also needed to develop data sharing, transfer, and privacy agreements, and go through the research ethics process. These experiences helped us learn even more about our students, our institution, and how the research process should work at the community college level. Understanding how to structure partnership and data sharing agreements also became an essential element of future collaborative research with other institutions and our local school boards.

Our partnership with EPRI included participation in HEQCO’s first Access and Retention Consortium, and a number of publications, including one on a new approach to proactive advising. As an aside, HEQCO’s approach to funding research through participation in consortiums has been a tremendously productive practice, fostering a network of partnerships across the province. HEQCO has been our largest funder and an enormously supportive partner for many years. Our success would not occur without the funding opportunities or the partners we met through them. For example, we met a number of incredible researchers through HEQCO, who we then joined forces with when HEQCO launched their second Access and Retention Consortium. This resulted in new Online Goal Setting interventions for our students, based on the work of Dr. Patrick Gaudreau at the University of Ottawa, and a new, ‘psychologically attuned’ way to communicate to students on probation implemented with the expertise of Dr. Shannon Brady at Wake Forest University. New publications with both Dr. Gaudreau and Dr. Brady via HEQCO are forthcoming later this summer or early in the fall.

The largest partnership we are a part of today, however, is one that we are leading with funding from the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities in Ontario. With EPRI as a research analytics partner, we are replicating our proactive advising study from 2015 at Humber College, Centennial College, and Fleming College. In doing so, we are trying to support them in their student success research in much the same way that we have received support in the past from HEQCO and so many others.

An Opportunistic Student Affairs Team

Every time an opportunity to participate in research presented itself – one that provided the chance to learn more about student success – we said yes. This would not be possible without broad institutional support, or strong partnerships inside and outside of the college; however, this also required a willingness to work extremely hard (often off the side of our desks) to complete the work. While research was envisioned within the Director role when I started in it, the projects were often not a part of our regular operational work plans. So, I needed to find ways to make it happen.

One of my early approaches was to create a new part-time staff positon in my department to support the operations of the projects. I cobbled together funds from within my budgets, secured small amounts from our Vice President’s contingency fund, and built in staffing dollars into funding proposals. I also pitched this new role as a support for divisional assessment, evaluation, and special projects to have a more current and tangible set of outputs. In many ways, this staff position and the projects themselves were like a set of pilot projects. And, due to the success of the research and the local assessment projects, I was able to propose and secure this as a full-time permanent role. We used a similar approach to create our Learning Outcomes Assessment Consultant role just this past spring.

We have continued to build an incredible research team, for which I am grateful to work with every day. These wonderful people include faculty and Student Affairs professionals alike. Each person and each role contribute to the work of the centre in important ways.


The formal launch of the CSSIC was only a year and a half ago, but we had been on the research path for quite some time before that. This started with the College investing in new and strategic leadership roles. Some of the next critical milestones included the investment in external reports to understand our students better. Then, we invested time and resources into data capture initiatives and staff development. We started to support external researchers who were doing research on student success, and provided them with access to our data and student population. Through all of this, we learned many critical lessons, and forged partnerships that prepared us to apply for research funding. The opportunities continued to present themselves, and we continued to apply (to receive funding) and re-invested in more roles on campus and with more partners. This was the point when the Ministry funded our Centre, and we have continued our momentum since then. Some of it still happens off the side of our desk, too, but we are passionate about understanding ‘what works’ in our student success programming.

There are two final reflections that I think are important. First, while the Centre is led by Student Affairs, the vision was one that was collectively endorsed and has been continuously supported across our institution. Faculty and our partnerships with Ideaworks (our Applied Research department), the Institutional Research Office, and the Centre for Teaching and Learning continue to play an increasingly important role.

Second, there are no shortage of articles and books that express the role of institutional culture on the outcomes of students. Project Deep and the work of George Kuh immediately come to mind. The idea that there is a pervasive student success ideology and approach on campus that everyone understands that ‘this is the way we do things here’ has been shown to be a defining factor of institutions that have strong student outcomes relative to others.

So, on that note, last month when I was cleaning out some old files in my office, I came across a 2007 concept paper from a large committee on campus titled, The Centre of Excellence for Students, Access, and Success. Perhaps our Centre really isn’t so much of a new idea. Leading in student success is part of our ethos at Mohawk – and I suspect it will continue.


By: Tricia Seifert

A couple of years ago I had the great pleasure of serving as a “conference weaver” for the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS) annual conference. Along with Neil Buddel, we went to sessions, listened carefully, and took note of the threads that wove the conference together.

CACUSS 2019 concluded two weeks ago and it has taken me that amount of time to think, digest, and process all of the professional learning that comprised my four days in Calgary. I’m not alone in stepping back and making meaning of such a valuable opportunity to connect with colleagues. Chris Vera of ANZSSA (the Australia and New Zealand Student Services Association) recently posted how this experience was like drinking from a fire hose. You can read his reflection and what he took away from the conference here. I agree completely with Chris’ identification of key threads that comprise student affairs and services work today. I invite you to take a moment and read his awesome insights.

What sticks with me from #CACUSS19 and which I can’t stop thinking about is the number of times I jotted in my journal the hashtag, #ListenToStudents. At one point, I asked on Twitter how people are connecting with students and really listening to them. I was blown away by the crowdsourced response.

Straight out of the gate, John Hannah shared the arts-based approach that he and Tesni Ellis used as part of the Student Experience Research Team at Ryerson University. Check out the blog post about their work on SA-Exchange. The image below captures the ideation and creation process of making sense of the student experience. And give a listen to the videos the students made that tell their story as researchers.

Making sense of the student experience may not be a linear process.

Next up was Lesley D’Souza noting that ‘listening as empathizing’ is foundational to the assessment framework at Western University.

Then in the CACUSS program on Tuesday afternoon was a session on the development of a student-ready rubric led by York University, along with Trent, Queen’s, ON Tech and Nipissing. The group was initially asked to develop a single student-ready campus metric for Ontario’s Strategic Mandate Agreement 3 but their work quickly evolved into a rubric for institutional self-assessment.

Okay, this blew my mind! Literally!! I couldn’t go to the session as I was presenting at the same time but WOW! Thank you, Brendan Schulz, for sharing.

Example of increasing levels of student involvement for contributing to the type, form, implementation, and evaluation of transition support.

Student involvement is the leading domain with three articulated levels across seven areas of practice: 1) policies & procedures; 2) financial literacy & support; 3) transition support; 4) career and academic goal clarity & exploration; 4) learning opportunities (outside the classroom); 5) cohesive student supports; 6) wellness education & support; and 7) peer support & mentoring.

In the above slide, you can see how student involvement is defined for transition support. What stands out to me is that students are first invited to provide feedback but this is recognized as only the most basic level of involvement. The next level seeks input into the development of the policy or program. The third level includes students in the evaluation and assessment of policy/program implementation. This takes student voice up a full octave AND it demonstrates clearly that students matter.

The student experience is at the centre of what we do.

This commitment to student involvement and engagement in policy making is at the heart of Jacquie Beaulieu’s doctoral research and was echoed by Atifa Karim from the University of Toronto who noted it is PRIORITY within her unit’s strategic plan.

So you might be in the choir already and don’t need to hear me preach. But sit with this Tweet from the #ContentEd19 conference in which my friend Liz Gross and Stephen App, from Campus Sonar, presented recently. Students talk. They create content and post it publicly on Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and platforms we haven’t even heard of yet.

It’s up to us to LISTEN.

I suggest it is not only our opportunity but our obligation to #ListenToStudents. They are the center of our work and listening to them and responding with policies, programs, and services that address their concerns leads to continuous improvement.

We can’t underestimate the value of learning from students as a means to improve our practice. But it is also important we invite students to #ListenToStudents. As the Supporting Student Success team published in Higher Education Research and Development last year, students are coaches, confidantes, co-constructors, and students copycat those who model and mentor the way.

Students are the threads that form the tightest woven fabric of support for each other. Yet, they need to be invited to see themselves in this light. It is this notion of embracing the mantle of informal peer mentor that was the key implication and close of our session at #CACUSS19.

I would love to continue the crowdsourcing of how student affairs and services staff members #ListenToStudents. Please share and “leave a comment” below.

And stay tuned for the paper that details the advice the everyday student gave to those just starting their postsecondary journey by David Aderholdt, Christy Oliveri, Jen Clark and Tricia Seifert, the Blueprints for Student Success team, to be published in SEM Quarterly this fall. Stated simply, it pays to listen.

Tricia Seifert is Principal Investigator on the Supporting Student Success and Blueprints for Student Success research teams. She is Associate Professor in Adult & Higher Education at Montana State University and Associate Editor for International Research and Scholarship for the Journal of College Student Development. Email her at

Exploring Canadian Practitioners’ Personal Values that Connect to Student Affairs & Services

By Brandon R. Smith, M.Ed.


Higher education research focused on Student Affairs & Services (SAS) is broad globally (see Osfield and colleagues, 2016) with the greatest volume of literature examining the American experience. To date, little research has been conducted regarding SAS in the Canadian context (Fricker, 2017, pp. 27-28). Furthermore, the documented experiences of Canadian SAS professionals and/or practitioners also is limited. With significantly fewer higher education institutions by comparison than the United States, Canada is the second largest country in the world and ranks within the top five countries with universities topping international rankings (QS University Rankings, 2018; Times Higher Education, 2018). While there is contention with how post-secondary education rankings are viewed or perceived, it’s interesting to note that there is a lack of research supporting Canadian SAS: research, evaluation of programs, experiences of our students – and those of the lived experiences of SAS practitioners.

As a Master’s level, two-credit qualifying research project supervised by Dr. Stephanie Waterman, I decided to explore the experiences of Canadian SAS professionals; specifically, that related to how their personal values connect to their work. While an ethically approved research project was necessary for me to earn my Master’s degree from the leadership cohort at The University of Toronto – Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), my hope was that research on this topic may bring greater meaning to the work we do in SAS from the Canadian perspective, and perhaps be a beginning of new research. I also want to acknowledge that this project stemmed from Dr. Nona Robinson’s work on values of student affairs practitioners (2011), and Dr. Kyle Massey also provided a ‘sneak peek’ of his doctoral research on professional identity in Canadian SAS (2018), which contributes to a chapter in the forthcoming book Preparing Students for Life and Work (2019). Both studies supported the goals of my research project.

From my position as a SAS Practitioner, I wanted to explore themes related to people working in SAS; specifically, how their values, assumptions, and knowledge influences their work and practice. Weighing the current state of the world, with provincial context, and how this fits within a broader SAS perspective outside of Canada, it’s interesting to explore how Canadian SAS practitioners’ knowledge, assumptions, and values work together, or ‘rub’ or conflict depending on different factors. These influences may include, but aren’t limited to general characteristics (i.e. age, experience, education) or more complex, deeper qualities regarding identity (i.e. gender and sex, race and ethnicity, privilege, socio-economics) which is just the beginning. In all, I argue that our personal values are the root to our practice as a SAS practitioner, and our knowledge and assumptions connect to this which ultimately influences how we approach and view our work.

Purpose and Significance of the Study

I feel research on this topic could provide greater meaning to the work we do in SAS in Canada.  By bringing preeminent attention to needs related to individuals’ values, assumptions, and knowledge about SAS work in higher education, practitioners could have an opportunity to ‘make meaning’ of their own experience. I wanted to deconstruct notions of ‘professionalism’ and ‘practice’ and explore themes related to SAS Practitioners; particularly how our values, assumptions, and knowledge influences our work and practice.

While there is a myriad of information, data and research focused on this topic, it is focused on specific or broad populations by age and demographic focusing mostly on the United States as a whole. Without comparison, how can we use current research to develop, or perhaps understand our own identity? Who are we as Canadian SAS professionals and practitioners? How do we actually bring our ‘whole selves’ to work? Do we feel like we can? What does this mean and why does this matter? Does it matter? Each are important questions not only for individuals, but insofar as these questions shape our professional identity; particularly considering how we engage within our institutions and how the field and higher education is viewed from a governmental policy perspective.

This image represents my argument: one’s values ground their work, and connect equally to one’s knowledge and assumptions. In essence, these connect to inform a SAS professional’s practice, which is at their core as a SAS practitioner. All of the elements noted above connect to the notion of intersectionality, which is an important lens of this study.

Intersectionality and Qualitative Inquiry (QI)

Scholar and advocate Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw familiarized this term (2016) from the idea of social structures and cultural discourse, and how this influences intersectionality. Intersectionality in educational research is “descriptive representation” (p. 93) and all connects to qualitative inquiry (QI).

My research is grounded in Davis and colleagues’ research (2016) defining intersectionality as “…interrelations among gender, sex, race, class, ethnicity, and sexuality.” (pp. 93-95). While there are several appropriately broad, and many finite definitions of intersectionality in the social sciences and specifically higher education, I felt this definition connects most to ‘self’.

QI welcomes a researcher’s experience and in-depth understanding of an issue or phenomenon, and “…allows the researcher to approach the inherent complexity of social interaction and to honour the complexity, to respect it in its own right to do justice to the complexity, researchers avoid simplifying social phenomenon and instead explore the range of behaviour” (Glesne, 1999, p.6). QI research needs to include: (i) naturalistic settings, (ii) researcher as the instrument, (iii) inductive data analysis, (iv) participants’ meaning-making, (v) emergent design, (vi) interpretive inquiry, and, (vii) holistic accounts (Davis, et al., 2016).

For this project, QI related to my lens as a practitioner in SAS. Specifically for this research project, I used my own experiences to influence and execute the research (i; ii), my processing of information was structured and limited despite bias (iii), the analysis wasn’t documented specifically from the practitioner context in Canada (iv; v) aside from macro research with a Canadian lens of SAS practitioners perspective of values (Robinson, 2010), and questions the understanding of SAS practitioners/professionals on a national level (vi), while integrating Phase 1 of the study (survey) and Phase 2 (interviews) (vii).

Competencies /Values

Both the United States and Canada have professional associations that developed specific competencies which are nearly identical by label, but but are specific to their respective context in how the competency is described . Perspectives on competency development can be contentious (Jamil, 2015). Competencies in the field provide individuals a foundation of understanding of the values, skills, attitudes, and behaviours SAS Practitioners are required to possess at a minimum level through to advanced proficiency. Both models are evolving; however, while the ACPA/NASPA competencies have been reviewed, assessed, and edited over nearly a decade, the CACUSS competencies were only launched a few years ago and plan to be assessed over time.

Competencies provide individuals a common language to communicate their skill, personal, and professional development. The Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS) competency model was developed in 2016 long after the American College Personnel Association (ACPA) and Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education (NASPA) competencies in 2010. The CACUSS competencies are indicated below, with asterisk indicating competencies that do not share a similar label/category than the current American models:

  • Communication
  • Emotional and Interpersonal Intelligence
  • Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion
  • Indigenous Cultural Awareness*
  • Intercultural Fluency*
  • Leadership, Management, and Administration
  • Post-secondary Acumen
  • Strategic Planning, Research, and Assessment
  • Student Advising, Support, and Advocacy
  • Student Learning & Development
  • Technology and Digital Engagement

While there are similarities among labels, each competency model is unique to their association through description and outcomes associated with application, intersections, and proficiency.

I was curious to explore how this contributes to meaning making for SAS Practitioners; specifically, related to Intersectionality and identity development. Competencies are skills and particular qualities that are desirable for a practitioner to possess. While the CACUSS Competencies are not necessarily ‘values’ of everyone, I want to explore if or how practitioners consider these areas/definitions to be a value to them – while considering their intersectionality.

This project was not intended to assess or evaluate benefits or challenges regarding competencies specifically; however, I decided to use the CACUSS competencies, or ‘labels’, as a common language to define specific values regarding our professional work and practice.

Research Design and Methodology

Of the survey’s design, QI influenced the open-ended questions asked in the instrument and interviews for the research. The methodology of this study was mixed-methods in nature. This was reinforced with my worldview being transformative and pragmatic (Creswell, 2014), as I looked to examine an issue related to understanding behaviour that is connected to an on-going issue where there is a lack of data; specifically, Canadian SAS. Data consisted of survey results and interviews, all related to practitioners connected to SAS (i.e. Student Learning Support, Career Education, Housing & Residence Life, Student Health & Wellness, Student Life Programs). Consenting, anonymous participants were invited to share their views related to values through the survey and could opt in to be randomly selected to interview. Of the sample, more than 75% of the participants volunteered to be interviewed.  Data collection for this project was carried out in two phases: first, a survey targeted to Canadian Student Affairs and Services (SAS) practitioners, and second, interviews with consenting participants who have completed the survey.

Phase 1 –Survey

The survey allowed participants to rate – not rank – values that are generally associated with SAS from a broad description of SAS specific competencies. Using a 5-point Likert Scale, participants rated the specific value and their importance to the participant. This scale was also influenced by Alwin’s work (2004) on ratings over rankings, which replicates O’Brien’s work (1979) assessing values through ratings. Values were assessed as being (i) not at all important, (ii) not too important, (iii) fairly important, (iv) very important, (v) extremely important (p. 540).

Regarding the measurement and assessment of values in surveys/interviews, ‘ratings’ are scientifically less rigorous and stressful for a participant, as opposed to ‘rankings’ (Alwin, 2004). Further, rating allows participants to be more decisive and is generally three-times faster for a respondent to complete ratings over rankings. Last, my goal was to permit epidemiological factors and bias, which is better achieved through rating and further embraced QI.

Phase 2 – Interviews

QI shaped the interview questions involving a random selection of consenting participants which registered through the CACUSS list-serve. Interviews were transcribed and coded to connect and bridge themes, commonalities, and understanding discrepancies through integration of this data with survey results. Using a random sub-sample through Microsoft Excel, I planned to interview ~10% of survey participants with varying levels of professional experience.

Sample and Results

Using the CACUSS list-serve and Twitter to invite participants to participate in the study, the survey was open for 10 days. Participants were categorized using the CACUSS definitions for level of experience:

new professionals (0-5 year of experience), mid-level (5+-15), and senior professionals with 15+ years.

Sample (n=72) for Phase 1 – Survey consisted of:

  • New Professional: 18
  • Mid-level Professional: 30
  • Senior Professional: 24

Sample (n=7) for Phase 2 – Interviews was a random group selected from Phase 1, including:

  • New Professional: 2
  • Mid-level Professional: 3
  • Senior-level Professional: 2

Survey Results

In order to assess any variance among survey results (ANOVA), I conducted a one-way Kruskal-Wallis analysis. This method allowed me to test differences to survey responses between each of the experience levels; for example, comparing results of new professionals to mid-level, and then again separately with senior-level. More information regarding these statistics and this analysis is available upon request.

There was no statistical difference among groups for most of the competencies; specifically:

  • Communication (p=0.558)
  • Intercultural Awareness (p=0.574)
  • Postsecondary Acumen (p=0.519)
  • Leadership Management (p=0.178)
  • Strategic Development (p=0.590)
  • Advising (p=0.139)
  • Technology (p=0.729)

There were, however, statistically significant differences among treatment groups for:

  • Emotional and Interpersonal Intelligence (H=6.48, d.f.=2, p=0.039): new professionals assigned more importance to EI than senior professionals (p=0.036), while there was no difference in EI importance between junior and mid-level professionals (p=0.290), or between mid-level and senior professionals (p=0.257).
  • Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion: similar results to Emotional and Interpersonal Intelligence (H=6.52, d.f.=2, p=0.028).
  • Indigenous Cultural Awareness (H=7.62, d.f.=2, p=0.022): new professionals assigned more value to the Inidgenous Cultural Awareness competency than mid-level professionals (p=0.028), while there was no difference between juniors and seniors (p=0.599) or mid-levels and seniors for this competency (p=0.327).
  • Student Learning & Development (H=7.79, d.f.=2, p=0.020): for the SLD competency, senior professionals assigned less importance both new (p=0.017) or mid-level professionals (p=0.038) did.

Raw data results are available upon request.

Interview Results

I conducted interviews following the survey in January 2018. As a limitation, it’s important to note that these interviews are captured in a specific moment in time. There could be certain factors that can influence responses to a survey or in an interview setting, including but not limited to: time of year, change (i.e. local/institutional level, government), etc.

Using a random sub-sample through Microsoft Excel, I interviewed seven participants with varying levels of professional experience: two new professionals, three mid-level professionals, and two senior-level professionals. Participants included representation from Ontario (2), Alberta (2), British Columbia (1), and east-coast representation from New Brunswick (1) and Prince Edward Island (1). The seven participants had experience in any/all of the following areas of SAS: Student Learning Support, Housing & Residence Life, and Student Life Programs. Therefore, there was no representation from Career Education, nor Student Health & Wellness.

Interviews lasted between 45-90 minutes and the following questions were provided to participants in advance for discussion:

1. How do you, as a SAS Professional or Practitioner, value your work, personally and professionally?

2. What intersectional aspects add to your lenses as a SAS practitioner/professional?

3. What influences and motivates you as a SAS practitioner?

There were clear themes from the interviews among all experience levels, which are described in the table below through coding; specifically, open (labeling concepts; categories), axial (core themes), and selective coding (core of overarching theme). Codes were synthesized at each phase by integrating my own lens as a SAS practitioner.

All individuals interviewed described identities that connect to Crenshaw’s definition of intersectionality, particularly regarding how participants value their work both personally and professionally. Values seem to be regarded highly at both the individual level and how they connect or conflict with an institution. Among the new professionals in the study, intersectionality seems to have played some role these participants’ decisions to choose this line of work; however, both mid-level and senior participants noted this work connecting more to helping students succeed out of the formal classroom setting. A notable quote from one individual that generally encompassed all participants’ responses: “I wouldn’t be in this field if my values conflicted with this work.” It could be argued that intersectional identities play a different role for new professionals than those with more experience. There are many possibilities for why this happens: direct-entry from post-secondary to first career placement, institutional history and differentiation, priorities, generational perspective, etc. However, we are working toward the same goal so a shared perspective is important. In all, this would be an interesting area of research as representation of individuals working within a SAS divisional varies and can be quite broad. This could impact expectations, communication of vision and goals, understanding of ‘wants’ versus ‘needs’, and perhaps enhance and overall understanding and connection to our work holistically despite years of experience.

How values motivate and influence the interview participants were quite individual. New professional participants’ discussions were more exploratory with connections to self-authorship (Baxter Magolda, 2004). However, discussions with mid and senior-level participants broached challenges regarding adapting to change, how this can impact SAS mission and vision at an institution, and needing to adapt to this change in order to communicate needs. One notable quote from a participant was “…there is a difference between value and approach. Values will influence approach. This could be different from the person and the campus.”

From all participants, there was discussion regarding changing climate to higher education in Canada and in some cases abroad, describing change to the work in SAS and responsibilities in response to emerging needs, such as mental health/illness, sexual health and violence, new and changing policy, performance indicators, and emergent need defined by institutional leadership. One participant noted “…our work is changing and moving beyond [Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education].”, yet no participant described wavering from their commitment to their work in SAS.

It’s important to note that while there is statistically significant variance among some professional levels, all participants rated all values highly. However, those that had no variance have been ‘day-to-day’ in our work in a clear way (i.e. CAS Standards, training and development, and/or skill preparation), where most of the four that presented variance – specifically Emotional and Interpersonal Intelligence; Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion; Indigenous Cultural Awareness – have also always been day-to-day, but less privileged and talked about until recent years. It’s clear these are important values to practitioners, but perhaps newer professionals are seeing this differently or more clearly due to their day-to-day.

As this was a Master’s level research project already beyond necessary scope, a deeper analysis, opportunity for follow-up interviews, etc., did not occur at this time.

Implications & Conclusion

Integrating results from the survey with interview responses, I’m curious to learn more about preparation among professional levels, and how we can better connect perspectives between new and senior professionals, but also better support the broad group of mid-level professionals – also broad with more than five to fifteen years of experience. While we are all supporting student success outside of the classroom, all experience levels have different needs and priorities depending on responsibility level. This is fair; however, how can we better illuminate needs regarding these professional levels but also create a better, equitable understanding of their professional priorities? What are feedback loops that can be developed to connect ideas and perspectives of front-line staff to inform senior members of SAS without completely depending on ‘those in the middle’, meaning the mid-level practitioner? Last, while there are clear supports in place to introduce and support a new professional to our work in SAS (i.e. new professional training institutes, mentorship programs), what supports are in place to help and advance mid-level and especially senior-level administrators who are leading and advocating our work at our campuses?

Though this project was not intended to assess the current competency model, there is a differentiation among values that are also competencies regarding out work. Naming competencies and developing a path for levels of skills, knowledge and attitudes is an important step, but how can we support practitioners at all levels to self-assess an accurate understanding and ability of essential skills and understanding regarding our work. 

From the survey and interviews, it’s clear there is ‘heart’ connected to our work but conflict with changing needs of students, our priorities, and responsibilities of SAS. For those who prioritize personal values as high, it is important to consider how you are positioned to do your best work and bring your best self, but also what are limitations or rubbing of personal ethics. This is particularly timely with shifts in government, challenges to access and funding, while all priorities need to connect to supporting the needs of our changing students.

This research project barely begins to explore issues, needs, successes, challenges, and ‘meaning-making’ associated with the Canadian SAS practitioner. Our values matter and will always influence our lens, work, and approach. While a gap is anticipated among what new and senior professionals may expect or value, my hope is this project opens a door to new opportunities to explore issues regarding not only the values of SAS practitioners, but their needs as well in order to support the students we are here to serve.

Brandon is a first-generation student with 11 years of professional experience in Student Affairs & Services from Ontario and Alberta, Canada. Specifically, Brandon has worked in progressive leadership roles within Housing & Residence Life and Student Affairs; collaborating with students, faculty, administration, and the local community to enhance the student experience and engagement outside of the classroom. Currently the Associate Director, Residence Life & Education at Ryerson University, Brandon will be leaving Canada to begin the Ph.D. in Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education full-time at Michigan State University in fall 2019 to ‘make meaning’ of his own experience as an emerging scholar-practitioner. You can contact Brandon on LinkedIn or on Twitter @brandonrgsmith.


ACPA—College Student Educators International and NASPA—Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education (2014). Professional Competency Areas for Student Affairs Educators. Retrieved from

Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2004). Making their own way: Narratives for transforming higher education to promote self-development. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education (2019). CAS professional standards for higher education (10th Ed.). Washington, DC.

Davis, D. J., Brunn-Brevel, R. J., & Olive, J. L. (2016). Intersectionality in educational research. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Evans, N. J., Forney, D. S., Guido, F., Patton, L. D., & Renn, K. A. (2009). Student development in college: Theory, research, and practice (2nd ed). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Fernandez, D., Fitzgerald, C., Hambler, P., Mason-Innes, T. (2016). CACUSS Student Affairs and Services Competency Model. CACUSS/ASEUC.

Fricker, T. (2017). Components of a Canadian Student Services Research Agenda. Communique, 18(1), 27-31.

Glesne, C. (1999). Becoming qualitative researchers: An introduction. Boston: Pearson/Allyn & Bacon.

Jamil, R. (2015). What is wrong with competency research? Two propositions. Asian Social Science, 11(26), 43-51.

Jones, S. R., & Abes, E. S. (2013). Identity development of college students: Advancing frameworks for multiple dimensions of identity. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

O’Brien, R. (1979). The use of Pearson’s correlation with ordinal data. American Sociological Review, 44(5), 851-857.

QS World University Rankings (2018). Retrieved from

Robinson, N. (2011). Values of Canadian Student Affairs Practitioners. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from:

Start with the Beginning in Mind

By Kirsty Wadsley, Head of Widening Participation

Dr Claudine Provencher Head, LSE LIFE
London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)

Challenging the structures that enable the current inequalities in access and success in higher education in the UK is not a small undertaking. This blog post explores an example from the UK where colleagues at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) work together to deliver transition and academic skills support to students whilst they are still in the final years of their high school study. The work is specifically targeted at students from backgrounds currently under-represented in higher education in the UK with a focus on their successful progression and transition to studying in higher education. The programme aims to move away from a deficit model approach and focuses instead on providing a level playing field to high school students who don’t have access to the academic and application support some of their peers might. In the UK this work falls under an umbrella term of widening participation (WP)[1].

The Widening Participation team at LSE runs a suite of activities specifically designed to support access to higher education institutions, especially those that, like LSE, have very high entry grade requirements and high levels of competition for places. We work with children as young as nine years old as we believe that inequalities must be addressed from an early age. Once working with older students, especially those in their final two years of high school, our engagement becomes more intensive and subject focused. At this point we have 300 students each year from across London schools and colleges attending programmes based around their potential future higher education subject of interest and/or future career (E.g., law, finance, government, economics, and sociology to name just a few). Depending on the specific programme, students will join us for between 8 to 16 months during which they will attend sessions taking them beyond high school to their subject of focused study (i.e. major) in higher education.

A major objective of these programmes is to support students’ application and transition to higher education programmes and, to that end, a core focus of our work has been on providing practical information and sessions to ensure a successful application, and raise awareness of what students could expect whilst at university. Participants also get introduced to possible career pathways connected with their subject of interest and, depending on the programme they are attending, might undertake in-depth work experience in a vocational area. Whilst none of the programmes have any credit bearing element, attending participants are registered as associate LSE students; this gives them access to LSE Library and the myriad online resources available. Interestingly, many attendees utilise these resources to prepare assignments and revise for their high-school exams.

However, recently, we have been able to raise our ambitions and to enlarge the scope of the work with these students thanks to the establishment of LSE LIFE, a centre for the academic and personal development of students, which opened its doors in September 2016.

Right from the start, colleagues complemented the efforts of the Widening Participation team by hosting and delivering sessions that focus on the key academic skills that pre-entry students will need while completing their high school and later on, once they’ve been admitted to university, such as preparing for exams and networking. Critical thinking is yet another example of such sessions. For instance, in the Practice your Critical Thinking workshop offered to students on the Pathways to Law programme this academic year, 30 A-level (high-school) students worked collaboratively to deconstruct the following contentious argument: “race is no longer the key determinant of life chances.” After a short presentation on critical thinking (e.g., what is it, what are the skills required), students set about scrutinizing the statement. Drawing on their own experiences and empirical data, the students added layers of details to arguments for or against the proposition, first in small group conversations and then in a larger workshop discussion. The second part of the workshop was a free-flowing discussion that built on the questions that had come out from the first part, such as: Where geographically is the scholar basing their statement? What time frame are they working in? What does life chances even mean?

These sessions are also an opportunity for these students to reflect on the type of skills they will need to develop going forward, to take ownership of their development, to become more familiar with the expectations that universities have vis-à-vis their students, and to get familiar with a new learning environment. From a staff point of view, they represent a great opportunity for colleagues to become more familiar with the challenges faced by different students and to adapt their approach and the service development and delivery to be ever more inclusive. Interestingly, this reflection is also proving useful in terms of identifying initiatives that could have a positive impact on the mental health and wellbeing of our student community as a whole.

Proof of impact to date, obtained through student feedback, pre and post testing, is positive with students commenting on feeling more prepared for the transition to higher education, understanding what is needed and being able to look at subjects in ways they hadn’t previously. Progression to higher education is another useful indicator and, again, points towards the positive impact our programme is having with 80% of the students we are able to track post attendance going on to higher education, of which over 60% are going to Russell Group universities (24 leading UK universities) including LSE.

We are now working on a quasi-experimental evaluation of at least one programme to further ascertain its impact on students’ overall attainment prior to higher education typically A-level results and their critical thinking skills, two aspects that we know are key to unlocking future education opportunities.

You can find out more about LSE’s Widening Participation work at and LSE LIFE at

[1] For anyone interested in more information about the policy drivers behind WP might wish to explore a research briefing by the UK Parliament and explore the regulator of English higher education the Office for Students (OfS). There is of course an entirely separate literature on the reasons for the differences in participation and the efficacy of the current activity aimed at addressing these inequities.

We Hear You: Incorporating Student Voices into our Work

By Diliana Peregrina-Kretz

If you have been following our blog and research, you probably know that we love talking to students.  We believe that students’ perspectives are crucial in our understanding of how to improve academic and co-curricular services and incorporating their voices and experiences in our work is essential.

During phase II of the Supporting Student Success study, we spoke to 128 students across 12 institutions in Ontario (4 colleges and 8 universities). We held both focus groups and individual interviews where our main questions focused on students perceptions of student success at their institution. We learned so much from our conversations with students; from their understanding of how organizational structures promote (or hinder) their success, the role of peers in their lives, to their own definition of student success. Speaking to students energized us, not just as scholars but also as practitioners. Interview after interview, we learned so much from speaking to students; their perceptions provided us with a different angle from which to understand how colleges and universities can improve and simplify their organizational structures to support their success.  We left each interview wanting to know more, wanting to hear the voices of more students in order to incorporate these findings in each of our institutional reports and publications to highlight how important their opinions were for our research.

Student voices enhance our knowledge and understanding of what is working and not working at a college campus. Students have an insider perspective that is invaluable in designing, revamping, and improving both academic curricula and student services. More importantly, students have particular knowledge about the trends, culture, and values of our institutions, making them essential partners in any effort to design or re-design programs and services that will improve the student experience. As educators and practitioners, we need to take the time to listen.  

Image credit: Seattle Times

There are many ways that college staff and faculty can gather student perspectives to improve programs and services. Surveys are a powerful tool that are commonly used across colleges and universities to gather student data. One of the benefits of student surveys is the flexibility one has to administer and analyze the information. Surveys can be sent electronically to hundreds (even thousands) of students at once, or they can be administered in-person. If your institution does not have a “home-grown” survey tool, there are some options for survey development like SurveyMonkey, SurveyGizmo, and Qualtrics to name a few.  While we are not going to get into details about survey design or usability (see Lesley Andres), we can agree that surveys can be a powerful tool to gather and analyze student input. However, surveys can often be a little rigid; that is, that students must choose from very specific response options that have been carefully crafted by the researcher. Even where there are opportunities for respondents to write-in a response, we are often unable to follow-up on that response to gather rich data to help us understand what the respondent truly meant. Thus, if you are looking to gather rich and thick data to design, revamp, or improve a program or service, consider interviewing your students.

There is tremendous value in speaking to students and gathering their perspectives and input through student interviews. In particular, focus groups can be an amazing tool to allow students an opportunity to provide both their individual perspectives and collective experience. Like with surveys, you have the ability to develop the questions you will ask them, but you have the advantage to ask participants to expand on their responses to get deeper into the topic at hand. Additionally, as you probe participants to expand on their answers, you may find that there is new information that needs to be explored that you had not considered when developing your interview questions. This flexibility allows you to gain a deeper understanding that may better equip you as you incorporate student feedback into your programming. Finally, in our experience interviewing students for phase II of our study, we found that students appreciated and valued the opportunity to be heard. While many students are accustomed to being surveyed by their institution, few have been asked to voice their experiences and perspectives in detail.  There are several things you should consider if you are thinking of conducting student interviews/focus groups:

1. Explore your institution’s Ethics Review Board (ERB) to ensure that you are following appropriate policies and procedures to conduct student interviews. While ERB is typically required for research-based studies, you want to make sure that you are following the appropriate protocol to ensure the safety of your participants.

2. Develop a list of questions that get at the heart of who, what, when, where, and how of students’ experiences/perspectives.

3. Promote focus group participation to students and explain why their input is important for the program/service.

4. If you are able, provide an incentive for students to participate. An incentive can be lunch during the interview, coffee and donuts, or a gift card to the school’s bookstore.

5. Keep the focus group manageable (6-10 participants) and if possible, enlist the help of a colleague to help you manage the logistics (e.g. sign-ins, food set-up, note-taking, etc.).

6. If you are recording the interview, you should identify and be comfortable with the technology that you will utilize. Always ask participants’ permission to audio record before doing so.

7. Consider transcribing the interviews (or at least portions of it). Incorporating students’ direct voices into reports, flyers, or grant proposals, can play a strong role in highlighting students’ opinions and perspectives.

Like with student surveys, conducting interviews/focus groups with students has some limitations. One thing to consider is how time-consuming conducting interviews and focus groups can be. Planning, promoting, recruiting, and conducting the interviews can take a substantial amount of time. Once the interviews have concluded, you also need to consider how you will move forward in capturing what students shared (e.g. transcription, notes, reporting, etc.). Another possible limitation to focus groups is that you cannot generalize your participants’ experiences as a shared experience of all students at your campus. However, what focus group data can provide you with is a window of knowledge of what your students experience, perceive, and understand about your programs and services and how you may enhance these. This information can be invaluable from a programmatic perspective as you design or re-design programs that are student-centered with students’ voices at the forefront.

Content credit: Victoria Romano

One example of how I have used focus group data to improve a new initiative was at my previous institution at a California State University. The institution, piloted a college-level course for local high school students, where students would have the opportunity to receive both high school credit and college credit at the same time (dual enrollment). With the help of graduate assistants, we interviewed 30 students who had participated in the dual enrollment course. The purpose of the interviews was to learn about the experiences, challenges, and student opinions on how to improve future course offerings. From the interviews, we identified several themes that helped us understand students’ motivation to participate in the course; their experiences in the course, including what they found most valuable and most challenging; and the support that students wished they had received from both their high school and the university. From the interviews, we were able to pull direct examples to share with administrators and faculty that would improve students’ experience and success in the course. One main finding was that while students thoroughly enjoyed learning about the subject matter and engaging in dialogue with their peers and their instructor, they had limited knowledge about how to read and write at the college level. Students wished that there was more information at the beginning of the course about the expectations to read and write as a college student (as compared to their high school curriculum) and timely support available to help them in the process.  Another finding was that some students were not aware that because they were “dually enrolled” that they had access to the university’s resources (for example, library, tutoring, etc.). This information was extremely useful for administrators who incorporated the feedback in subsequent student orientations and informational materials. Additionally, administrators and faculty got a better sense on how to provide resources for students to help them gain academic skills in high school to read and write more proficiently in their college-level courses.

Whether you want to develop a new program, improve a service, or you want confirm that what you are doing is working to promote student success, consider talking directly to your audience (consider this as a form of market research). Focus group interviews provide you with an excellent avenue to get direct feedback from students and incorporating this feedback can have a remarkable impact on their success. 

If you would like to learn more about how to conduct successful focus groups, consider reading Successful Focus Groups: Advancing the State of the Art.

We would like to hear from you. What ways have you reached out to students to gain their perspective? How have student voices informed your work? Please reply and let others learn from you.

Gaming the Transition to Post-secondary

“The first week was confusing.”

This was overheard from a student playing the first round of Tabletop University, a game designed to simulate students’ first semester in college or university.

“You know what else can be confusing?” asks the game master.

“The first week of college.”

Social events, the start of classes, and the litany of questions: What’s your name? What’s your major? Where are you from? Figuring out what to do and with whom can be bewildering for students in their first year of post-secondary study.

Players confront all of this and more in Tabletop University, the Blueprints for Student Success college transition board game. The object of the game is for players to manage time strategically with the goal of maximizing GPA and social connections while earning enough money to pay tuition and managing life events and stress. Simulating students’ first semester, it’s a lot to manage in a game. But it’s also a lot to manage in real life.

In addition to time management, players (or teams of 2 to 3) learn about the student success programs and services that exist on college/university campuses. Dr. Seifert’s research team has shown that students may be unaware of these supports and benefit from peers who connect them with campus services. By playing Tabletop University, students are introduced to areas such as Financial Aid and Supplemental Instruction. Players choose whether to allocate time to take advantage of their benefits, like grant monies/bursaries or enhanced peer-to-peer tutoring.

Tabletop University is the result of a collaboration between Dr. Tricia Seifert, Associate Professor of Adult & Higher Education and Principal Investigator of the Blueprints for Student Success project, and Magic Sails game development company. Dr. Seifert approached the Blackstone Launchpad at Montana State University where she met Waylon Roberts venture coach and game developer. After sharing an early prototype, Waylon suggested Magic Sails could bring to life a game focused on the college transition.

After several iterations and game play with hundreds of students in Montana’s rural communities, the verdict is in. The game is fun AND students learn from playing.

Grade 12 students playing Tabletop University

Recently, Dr. Seifert and Wendi Fawns of Valley Oak Education Resource Center played with students at Darby High School, Florence High School, and Victor High School, small rural schools in Montana’s Ravalli County with fewer than 30 students in their graduating class, as part of an #iGraduateMT grant project.

One of the school counselors observed,

Anyone who has ever worked with high school students knows you can tell them a piece of information and a month later some will tell you they never heard that piece of information before. Watching students play Tabletop University, I could see the information being imprinted in a different way than just informing students about college.  For example, students were able to hear about academic advising, and then make a strategic decision about how to spend their time and money that week in the game.

Students at our school were paired in teams, so they were able to discuss strategy with each other.  It was obvious that this information was being imprinted on students watching them play the game for a second time when they were advising each other and talking strategy about the nuances of the game. One student was overheard saying; “Last time I played I did academic advising and my GPA rose, so we should definitely do that.”


Meeting with an academic advisor and identifying a good academic fit ignites interest in the subject matter and results in a higher GPA. Students learn this and other strategies through repeated play. The first time students play the game they may spend all their time in academics and have no friends at the end of the game. Let’s face it; it is hard to be successful in college with no friends. The next time students play they allocate their time in a way that balances academics as well as social life. Moreover, they realize they don’t have to do it all alone; they recognize the people, programs, and services on campus that can help them along the way.

Games allow students to try, fail, learn, and succeed in a space where the consequences are as simple as a ‘do over.’ This is the beauty of game-based learning. This is not the case when students are flung onto a post-secondary campus without the practice and knowledge of how to ‘do college.’ The consequences in this case can be dire. Students try college for a couple of weeks, fail to connect academically and socially, and deem they are simply not ‘college material.’ The key motivation for the Blueprints for Student Success project is to assist students to develop what David Conley and others refer to as the ‘college knowledge’ they need for early and ongoing success. This contributes to students persisting and achieving the academic and personal goals they set for post-secondary study.

It’s exciting times for the Blueprints for Student Success project with plans to make Tabletop University available for high school, college and university educators. It’s not enough, however, to make the game available. The long-term plan is to follow-up with students as they transition from high school to college, examining if they engage differently as a result of game play. If you find this as exciting as we do, we would love for you to be a part of this project. Let us know of your interest by leaving a comment and stay tuned!

If you would like project and game updates, follow Blueprints for Student Success – Montana on Facebook or @_blueprints on Twitter.

Generous funding to support the development of Tabletop University and the Blueprints for Student Success research project has come from:

igraduatemt logo

A collaborative grant project of the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation, Office of Public Instruction, and Montana Department of Labor & Industry


College of Education, Health & Human Development at Montana State University

Montana State University’s Outreach and Engagement Council