About Supporting Student Success

Tricia Seifert is an associate professor in the Adult & Higher Education program at Montana State University and maintains a faculty appointment the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. She uses sociological theories and principles to examine issues related to postsecondary student learning and success. Her interest in understanding the organizational structure of student affairs and services divisions stems largely from her administrative background working in residence life, student leadership programs, and fraternity/sorority life. Having worked at both large and small postsecondary institutions, Tricia witnessed the interplay between formal and informal organizational structures and their influence on staff’s ability to support student success.

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 https://www.naspa.org/images/uploads/main/ACPA_NASPA_Professional_Competencies_FINAL.pdf

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 https://www.timeshighereducation.com/sites/default/files/2018-wur-methodology-pwc.pdf.2018-11-28.

Robinson, N. (2011). Values of Canadian Student Affairs Practitioners. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from: https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/bitstream/1807/29934/1/Robinson_Vanda_WH_201106_phD_thesis.pdf


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 www.lse.ac.uk/wideningparticipation and LSE LIFE at www.lse.ac.uk/lselife

[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 Timeshttps://www.seattletimes.com/education-lab/are-you-a-student-with-something-to-say-apply-for-the-2018-student-voices-program/

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

Lessons from a “One-Stop Shop”

Happy New Year, 2019! The Supporting Student Success blog is trying something new for the coming year. We want to highlight the amazing work that is going on around the world to support post-secondary students to achieve their academic and personal goals. We want to hear from you! Have you, your co-workers, or the students with whom you work done something interesting? Have you developed a new program, enhanced your own practice in a meaningful way, collected and analyzed data that has led to other institutional improvements? Essentially, do you have a story to tell?

To kick us off, I am excited to share a story of a “one-stop” comprehensive student center at a university in Mexico.

It’s interesting when a campus has undergone such a physical transformation that you are unsure if you have been there before. This happened to me as I walked through the halls of Mohawk College. The first time I had been on campus was to collect data as part of Phase I of the Supporting Student Success project. The next time was to collect Phase II data. In the intervening 18 months, the campus had transformed. My memory of 14 or more individual offices where students registered for classes, received financial aid, paid their tuition bill, learned about student clubs and organizations, and met with a career counselor were replaced with a sleek central location that was well-lit and inviting.

This was more than five years ago but I remember that day like it was yesterday. The look and feel of that single, central location beckoning students—many of whom are adult learners—to engage and take charge of their educational experience is something that I haven’t forgotten.

Locations such as the one at Mohawk College have sprung up across North America. Recently, I attended AACRAO’s Strategic Enrollment Management conference in Washington, DC and re-connected with my colleague, Francisco Maldonado, from UPAEP (Universidad Popular Autonoma del Estado de Puebla), who presented on lessons learned from 20 years of running a “one-stop shop” comprehensive student center.

For the last decade, the concept of the “one-stop shop”, which may include registrarial, financial aid, financial services, academic advising, career services, and opportunities for student engagement, has grown in popularity. In fact, it seemed that every attendee in the room either had a “one-stop shop” on their campus or were in the process of developing one. The interest in the “one-stop” concept made Francisco’s list of 15 “musts” even more salient.

I asked Francisco if he would share his slide show for the Supporting Student Success blog and he has graciously agreed. Below are his slides from the AACRAO SEM conference along with his perspective informed by nearly 20 years on the journey.

15 Musts to Design and Keep Efficient & Satisfactory Service in a One-Stop Shop

How did we design, and try to maintain, an efficient and satisfactory service in our one-stop shop? It is important to note that we speak here of our experience and what we have learned along the way. What you see in these slides is not taken from any book, or manual; it is only what we have learned along the way.

According to this, we have come to identify 15 “musts” that we think must be borne in mind when it comes to implementing a service, from assuring the need for it to continuous improvement, going through various stages among which we identify the sale of the idea, what is related to the service processes, the database, the IT tools and the necessary personnel, the branding, the promotion, the fulfillment of the promises, the service evaluation, the participation of the stakeholders and the joint decision-making that leads us to continuous improvement.


First of all, we had to be sure that this is what we wanted and what our students needed, because once we started and generated expectations among both students and university staff, there is no way back. We could not say “let’s go back to the previous situation”. The fact of implementing almost any service, but especially as a one-stop shop for students, is a point of no return.

It is convenient to remember here that these kind of offices are known as “hygiene” … are any of you familiar with the term or concept?

A department or office of “hygiene” is one that, while it works no one notices, but as soon as it fails or it doesn’t exist anymore, everyone realizes. And that happens with the one-stop shops, particularly in the universities. That is why its implementation is a point of no return.


It was also important to persuade the various stakeholders of the idea, but especially those who would be affected in their work, their processes and, above all, in their position of power.

It is not a secret that integrating various services for the first time in one place changes the playing field. For some people, they may perceive this change as a loss of “power” if the specialized service they had previously provided in their own offices is moved. Hence the well-known resistance to change and its consequent obstruction by some people who feel affected.

We had to face this too and it was not easy. I think it was even the most complicated to achieve, that even having already started operations in our one-stop shop, we still found signs of resistance to change and, even today, some comment or symptom still emerges from some people who were working during the implementation over 18 years ago.


The next thing we did, which was not the hardest part, but I would say it was the most laborious and took the most time, was to analyze, simplify and connect our service processes.

Before the one-stop shop, each office had its own processes, requirements, documents and even information systems, linked to those of other offices or departments, but not in a systematized way, which represented for the student having to make a pilgrimage from an office to another to get the paper, the stamp or the document that the next office requested.

To avoid and solve this, the first thing that had to be done was to analyze our processes separately, simplify them and connect them, all with a systemic vision, realizing (all of us who participate) that being part of a whole (systemic vision) an amount of requirements, steps and business rules were not necessary.


However, the analysis, simplification and connection of the processes would have served little or nothing if that had not led us to build a solid and comprehensive database that contained the information of all our students regarding the different offices that make up the one-stop shop. That is, it was necessary to take the information from the different systems and databases managed by each office to a single central database, which was also necessary for the next stage …


… that was to merge or integrate the different systems into one, so that all the requirements and validations that had to be done manually from one office to another, were made directly by the system, without the need for the student to go to each office for the signature, seal or authorization needed.

Among these three steps, I would say this is the core design of a one-stop model. Without an analysis, simplification and connection of processes, a solid and comprehensive database and a single system (or several, but integrated), I do not say that it would be impossible—but surely it would be much more difficult—to implement this service model.

This is how our current SIS was born, called UNISOFT. A comprehensive university management system, both academic and administrative, homemade, which is now also the source from which the rest of our systems are fed.


At the same time, we recruited, selected, and trained the team with the right profile to give our students the service we wanted. We all know that the soul of any service is the people who provide it and that a person with a profile that is not service-oriented can do more harm than simply not having anyone.

Over time we have also learned that these positions turnover often and that even people with the right profile burn out in much less time than in almost any other position. So the team requires very close follow-up, motivation, and constant training (due to everything emerging and changing within the institution) for a dynamic position that allows them not to get bored or burnt out, and requires a high degree of frustration tolerance.


We also found it very useful to create and position a brand within the institution. This was important to do among students and the academic and administrative staff. Branding was key among staff who supported the general strategy of our university as an innovative institution and focused on academic quality as in the service, but who also generated a sense of belonging to something greater, something more important, for the team that participated in this process (those who we had to sell the idea in the first place, remember?)


From our brand strategy arose this logo, which was the one we used when in the year 2000 our small student service center evolved into a comprehensive center under the concept of a one-stop shop.

Since its birth in the mid-90s, its name was “Student Attention Center” (CAE for its acronym in Spanish) and since the name was already positioned in our community, we used the same base adding a “+” sign (that, in addition, being in red color, gives the idea of the symbol of the Red Cross, which is where you go for help) and the words “and better”. In this way, we came up the “CAE + and better”.


We also conducted a dissemination campaign through the internal media of the institution, alluding to the simplification, the elimination of queues and endless visits, and systematization, since at the same time our first self-service consultation system for students was released, so that at least they could solve their doubts regarding their academic and administrative information without depending on us.


And the moment of truth had arrived; the moment to open the doors, which I remember very well, was on September 17, 2001, that was also the moment of …


… fulfilling the expectations and promises we had generated, which is not a single day thing, but every day, student to student, service to service, case by case.

Because as was said before, this is a hygiene service and with only one promise or expectation not fulfilled, 18 years ago or today, it is enough to take down the work of many people and a lot of time.

It is difficult, but it is necessary.


Once we started, we also learned to measure everything, because what is not measured, cannot be managed and improved. But with the passage of time we learned to measure what really matters and not absolutely everything.

It is useless to have very accurate measurements that reveal that, on average, it takes very little time to solve a problem. Rather, we have to focus on measuring what really matters, which in our opinion is the particular experience of each customer and the resources that these experiences are costing us. Measurement is meaningless if the results are unknown.


These measurements must be shared with those who matter, both to celebrate what is good, congratulate and reward, and to correct what is necessary, much of which is not entirely in the hands of our team, but it is in our hands to seek the solution with whomever we should do it. For example, when it comes to something related to the systems, or when resources of all kinds are required in order to continue fulfilling our promises, we have to negotiate with whomever is needed in order to solve the problem to our students.


But more important than measuring and sharing information is to make decisions based on it. It is useless to measure if that does not lead us to make decisions that allow us to …


continuously improve. These services quickly become obsolete and have to be renewed continuously to meet the expectations of a changing student body.


And perhaps one of the most important things we have learned is that there is always the temptation, for other stakeholders, but also for us, to put processes or systems ahead of or above the interests of students. It is common that in everyday life we lose focus and look for the simplest or most efficient for us, although this is not necessarily for the student, so we have to be alert all the time and fight against each threat so that, others like ourselves, keep our students at the center of everything.

Wrapping Up

What an honour to share Francisco’s lessons with the Supporting Student Success blog readers. Thank you, Francisco.

It is fitting that the final “must” focuses on staying student-centered. At the end of the day, students bring us to this work. Their stories, their experiences must be at the center of what we do and how we do it.

As we begin a new year and launch into 2019, I invite you to take a moment and reflect on how you demonstrated a student-centered approach in your work in 2018. What will you do in 2019 to maintain and advance your student-centered practice?

If you wish, please “leave a comment” so that others might be inspired by your words and commitments to supporting student success in 2019.















Success Begins with a Blueprint

It is an honour to have the Supporting Student Success research project covered so thoughtfully in the current issue of University Affairs.

University Affairs Logo

Sparrow McGowan did a great job of sketching the trajectory of this multi-phased project. What came to light over the course of the project was that setting students up for success starts in high school. Interactions with counselors, teachers, peers, and parents set the stage for how students engage the post-secondary application and transition process.

An extension of the Supporting Student Success research has been the Blueprints for Student Success project which seeks to build a bridge between high school and post-secondary. The project demystifies the “hidden curriculum” and helps high school students learn about the people and programs on post-secondary campuses who are committed to student success. One might say the objective of the Blueprints project is

To help students learn how ‘to do’ college before being ‘done in’ by college.

One of the ways the Blueprints project accomplishes this goal is through game-based learning. We have teamed up with Magic Sails game design company to create Tabletop University, the college transition board game.

Rather than being told about time management, players are tasked with managing their time to optimize both their academic performance and social connections. It was amazing to hear a Grade 10 young man comment on how valuable it was to hold “time” in his hand. Tactile and tangible, he could feel time and see how his choices had consequences in the game.

Time In Hand

We are excited by players’ and teachers’ responses to the game. We expect to launch a Kickstarter campaign to support Tabletop University (the Blueprints for Student Success college transition game) by the end of the year. You can learn more about the game and rules here.

Follow the Blueprints for Students Success project on Facebook or on Twitter (@_blueprints).


U Pick the Conference Proposal – Transatlantic Gaming for Higher Ed Student Success

Rather than a group of faculty members determining which proposals make it on the conference program, potential attendees at SXSW EDU review proposals and vote on what they want to see presented. Think academic conference meets American Idol; crowd support is paramount for being selected.

Kirsty Wadsley (@KirstyWadsley) and Tricia Seifert (@TriciaSeifert) wish to share the Blueprints college transition board game we have been playing with high school students on both sides of the Atlantic but WE NEED YOUR VOTE!

Voting for our proposal is easy but best done on a computer than phone.
1. Click on the this link: https://www.sxsw.com/apply-to-participate/panelpicker/

2. Create an account. You can do that by clicking Sign In or Sign Up in the upper right. Then you’ll need to verify the account via a link sent in email. If your link isn’t hyperlinked, copy and paste it into the browser.

3. Select “Vote Now”PanelPicker-Select Vote Now

4. Search “Transatlantic”

Search Transatlantic

5. Click “Vote Up”. While you are there, check out the additional supporting materials.Click Vote Up

6. And then leave a comment if you are so inclined.

We are absolutely thrilled to share what we have learned from students who have played the @_blueprints college transition game thus far. Comments like, “this game helped me realize there is more than one way to be academically successful in college” to “the game gave me an idea of what time management will really be like.” Students have raved about the games’ fun, interactive nature.

The Blueprints post-secondary/college transition board game is experiential learning at its finest. Students play, fail, learn, and advance. They strategize around time management and learn of the amazing people and programs that exist to help students succeed.

Going to college and/or university is a tremendous change for students. We hope to share the game with high school counselors and student affairs & services professionals. If the old saying “practice makes perfect” holds into today’s post-secondary context, then there is no better way for students to be successful in college than through practiced play.