Exploring the Muddy Waters and Blue Skies of Supporting Student Success

By Jacqueline Beaulieu

Last week, I had the wonderful opportunity of presenting alongside Tricia Seifert at the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services’ (CACUSS) Annual Conference in Winnipeg, Manitoba (June 19-22, 2016). The theme of the conference, Muddy Waters, Blue Skies, supported conversations on the many challenges encountered when aiming to support student success as well as the blue skies of opportunity and possibilities of what could be for students, staff, faculty, and community members. In our presentation titled Principles for Creating Student Focused Postsecondary Organizations, we examined how communication, resource allocation, and institutional culture are perceived as shaping the development of student-focused organizational approaches.

The current study was initially undertaken as part of a case study research methods course. Data from two institutions were analyzed as part of the class project; data from two additional institutions have since been analyzed to develop the broader set of findings presented at the CACUSS Conference. Data from an additional 1-2 institutions will be analyzed prior to presenting overall findings at an upcoming scholarly conference (to be determined). If you attended Tricia Seifert’s recent CACUSS presentation on publishing in student affairs, you likely recall her encouragement to “never let a good class paper go unpublished”. This blog post represents one of many ways to disseminate findings and concepts developed during course and work-related projects.

The purpose of this blog is to provide an overview of the study, current findings, and a working set of principles for creating student-focused postsecondary organizations derived from the findings. It will explore some of the “muddy waters” (challenges) of supporting student success as well as how communication, resource allocation, and institutional culture can come together and create “blue skies” (opportunities and possibilities) for all students.

About the Current Study

The findings in this study were derived from an analysis of data collected during the first phase of the Supporting Student Success study. During this phase, qualitative interviews and focus groups were conducted with nearly 300 student affairs and services staff from 9 universities and 5 colleges across Ontario. The purpose of the original study was to develop a more complete description of how Ontario’s post-secondary institutions are formally and informally structured as well as how staff perceive these structures as supporting and/or creating challenges for their ability to support student success.

This research focused on the larger research-intensive universities included in the broader sample given the range of centralized to decentralized organizational structures within this subsample and the range of stakeholders groups within each of the institutions and complexity of relationships between the many constituents.

Several theoretical frameworks including resource dependency theory (eg. Hillman, Withers, & Collins, 2009; Leslie & Slaughter, 1997; Tolbert, 1985), organizational ecology (eg. Carroll, 1984), and institutional logics informed the current study (eg. Thornton & Ocasio, 2008; Thornton, Ocasio, & Lounsbury, 2012). The current study tested propositions stemming from these frameworks as advanced by Pitcher, Cantwell, and Renn (2015).

Research Questions and Design

Central research question:

How do student affairs and services staff perceive their institution’s organizational structure and culture with respect to the development of a student-focused approach for program and service delivery?


  1. How are communication and resource allocation perceived as interacting with the development of student-focused organizational approaches?
  2. How do perceptions of communication, resource allocation, and institutional culture compare between more centralized and more decentralized organizational structures?

In terms of analysis, NVivo software was utilized to analyze interview and focus group transcripts as well as strategic planning documents. Open coding was utilized (Corbin & Strauss, 2014) followed by a theory-driven approach to collapse codes into categories. Themes within cases were identified by the researchers and then analyzed across cases. Pattern matching techniques (Yin, 2014) were utilized to examine if findings reflected perceived opportunities and challenges of centralized and decentralized organizational models as identified in the literature.

Institutions were placed along a continuum of organizational structures, ranging from more decentralized to more centralized, for the purposes of comparing findings across the institutions. Two of the institutions were categorized as highly centralized (Centralized University A and B) in which nearly all of the student affairs and service areas reported to the senior student affairs and services officer. An additional two institutions were identified as having a combination of centralized and decentralized features (Federated University A and B). Decentralized features may include units like career services that exist at both a university-wide and faculty-specific level. The number and nature of reporting lines as well as the distribution of student services determined degree of centralization.


Building Relationships and Communicating

At all of the institutions, participants perceived relationship building and communication as critical to one’s ability to support students. That being said, how informal networks developed varied in terms of:

Inward versus outward facing focus:

  • At the Centralized Universities and within centralized units at the Federated Universities, participants focused on internal communications with fellow centralized staff
  • At the Federated Universities, more examples were provided regarding relationship building and communication that was outward facing (eg. cross unit; with faculties)

Role of physical spaces and proximity of services:

  • Participants at the Centralized Universities as well as participants working in centralized units at the Federated Universities spoke of the importance of physical placements of services and how location influenced the development of relationships

Strategies utilized to foster positive relationships:

  • Participants at the Centralized Universities and Federated University A commented on the importance of forums, town halls, and socials
  • Participants at Federated University B described fewer campus-level initiatives, however, mentioned many meetings amongst staff working in the centralized unit

Interpreting the Relative Value of Resources

At all of the institutions, concerns were expressed regarding perceived declines in fiscal and human resources as well as subsequent impacts for students and staff.

Impact on relationship building and communication:

  • At Centralized University A and B as well as Federated University A, human resources were viewed as influencing the amount of available time for communicating with stakeholders and participating in socials

Impact of space and proximity of services on students and staff

  • At Centralized University A and Federated University A, participants discussed the appropriateness of types of spaces for programs/services offered, whether spaces were viewed as welcoming, and if proximity of locations supported informal relationship building

Viewing Students and the Role of Student Affairs and Services

At all of the institutions, providing the best possible support to students was considered a top priority. Yet, the focus of support varied. At Federated University B, students were often described as clients and customers and educating students regarding why and how to get involved was considered a strong emphasis of student affairs and services’ work. At Centralized University A and B and Federated University A, students were often described as co-facilitators and co-decision makers and students’ holistic development was prioritized.

Utilizing Strategic Planning to Offset Organizational Weaknesses

At Centralized University A, Federated University A, and Federated University B, strategic plans were described as providing clarity and direction regarding how the unit and institution would navigate critical issues. Strategic planning was also described as helping to mitigate tensions over resources by conveying priorities and creating fewer unknowns. At Centralized University B, participants referred less to strategic planning, however, staff members engaged in comparable levels of discussion related to departmental and institutional values as conveyed and fostered by senior leaders.


On that note, we have attempted to summarize our learning thus far in a working set of principles for student-focused postsecondary organizations.

Principles for Creating Student-Focused Postsecondary Organizations

As a student affairs unit,

  1. Strive towards achieving “optimal” balances of inward versus outward facing communication
  2. Enable and empower stakeholders to develop ongoing communication and relationships that support student success… and themselves! Support stakeholders towards feeling comfortable and confident in reaching out to one another.
  3. Consider how current space allocations and proximity of services influence communication, organizational culture, and student success.
  4. Use strategic planning processes and outcomes to augment organizational strengths and offset organizational weaknesses or gaps. Unify stakeholders, create conversations, bring clarity to change and in doing so, reduce tension and competition.
  5. Work as a community to define and co-create the learning environment that you aspire to become.
  6. Invite, listen to, and engage with the perspectives of faculty, students, and other community members.
  7. Foster individual and organizational resilience so that “when the going gets tough”, student success and learning remain paramount as organizational values and overall objectives.

Navigating the Muddy Waters, Blue Skies of Creating Student-Focused Postsecondary Organizations

Organizational shifts, not to mention organizational change, can be downright difficult. During the conference presentation, attendees discussed how to employ the principles outlined above in hypothetical case studies. When immersed in our own institutions, it may be challenging to see the possibility of the principles at work. Sometimes it is easier to think about organizational shift at a distance, which is precisely what case studies offer. We share the case studies, one situated at Centralized University and the other at Decentralized University here. With staff retreats just around the corner, we invite you to use these case studies with your staff. Having discussed the principles in the safety of a case study, it may open up the possibility to imagine applying these principles to your daily work and organization.

During the closing session of the conference, our Conference Weavers, Tricia Seifert and Neil Buddel provided an analysis of overall themes within conversations that unfolded during the week. Tricia and Neil encouraged conference participants to commit and take responsibility for creating change on our campuses and asked what we would commit ourselves to doing post-conference. In a similar spirit, I would like to close this blog post with a simple question:

What can you commit to doing to shift your postsecondary institution towards an increasingly student-focused approach?

One of my post-CACUSS commitments: writing this blog post with the hope that our findings will support colleagues in their efforts to support student success ☺. If you are willing, share your commitment(s) by “leaving a reply” in the space below or tweeting us @CdnStdntSuccess; we look forward to retweeting as many of these as possible!




Carroll, G. R. (1984). Organizational ecology. Annual Review of Sociology, 10(1), 71–93.

Corbin, J., & Strauss, A. (2014). Basics of qualitative research: Techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Hillman, A. J., Withers, M. C., & Collins, B. J. (2009). Resource dependence theory: A review. Journal of Management, 35(6), 1404-1427.

Leslie, L. L., & Slaughter, S. A. (1997). The development and current status of market mechanisms in United States postsecondary education. Higher Education Policy, 10(3-4), 239-252.

Pitcher, E. N., Cantwell, B. J., & Renn, K. A. (2015, November). Inside access: Examining the promotion of student success through organizational perspectives. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, Denver, CO.

Thornton, P. H., & Ocasio, W. (2008). Institutional logics. In R. Greenwood, C. Oliver, R. Suddaby, & K. Sahlin-Andersson (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of organizational institutionalism (pp. 99–129). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Thornton, P. H., Ocasio, W., & Lounsbury, M. (2012). The institutional logics perspective. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc..

Tolbert, P. S. (1985). Institutional environments and resource dependence: Sources of administrative structure in institutions of higher education. Administrative Science Quarterly, 30(1) 1-13.

Yin, R. K. (2014). Case study research: Design and methods (5th ed.). Los Angeles: Sage Publications.


Student Success: What employers are looking for.

By: Kimberly Elias

Through the Supporting Student Success research study, we have explored how various stakeholders define student success and how organizational structures can support or hinder those definitions. While there are varying interpretations of ‘student success,’ getting a job is surely an element of most students’ definition. Our role as student affairs and staff practitioners is to support students in their academic pursuits, while encouraging students to engage in meaningful opportunities beyond the classroom—which will support their success during and after their studies. To support our students in their pursuit of a career, it is useful to have an understanding of the labour market and what employers are looking for in the hiring process. Do employers look at grades? Do employers value co-curricular experiences? This post will highlight some results from my master’s thesis titled, “Employer perceptions of co-curricular engagement and the Co-Curricular Record in the hiring process.” I conducted a survey with employers from the University of Toronto Career Centre database and received responses from 110 employers from various industries. Employers were asked to reflect on current hiring practices, including the skills they look for, and their perceived value of the new Co-Curricular Record program. So what do employers value?

1. Skills, skills, skills Both the academic literature and my research highlights the importance of core skills, and employers use the resume and interview to discern whether or not candidates have those skills. In my survey, employers were asked to select the competencies/skills they look for in the hiring process. The top five competencies (in order) included: communication, professionalism, teamwork, critical thinking, and collaboration. Competencies When I analyzed responses across five industry groupings based on the National Occupation Classification, the top three selected competencies from the aggregate level were also in the top five across all industry groupings—communication, professionalism, teamwork. Other literature supports the value of these skills, where other studies have found communication, work ethic, teamwork, and leadership among the top desirable skills (National Association of Colleges and Employers, 2008; Peter D. Hart Research Associates Inc., 2006; Canadian Council of Chief Executives, 2014). This suggests that regardless of the industry, there are core skills that employers look for in the hiring process.

2. Educational credentials…but not really grades Employers were asked to identify the importance of various factors in the hiring process. While all factors were considered important by some employers, when ranked by importance, previous work experience was at the top followed by educational degree, references’ feedback, academic subject focus, extracurricular participation, grades, awards/official recognition. Factors One can assume that a level of knowledge and skills has been developed through academic credentials, and so employers do value the educational degree in hiring. However, GPA plays a limited role. In this study, it was ranked 6/7 factors, and the literature suggests that GPA is often not asked for in hiring, and if it is, it may be used as an initial screening tool rather than a deciding factor (Causer, 2009; Hutchinson & Brefka, 1997; University Wire, 2014).

3. Co-curricular experiences!? In student affairs, we often preach the value of a well-rounded education, and how engagement in co-curricular opportunities can influence the student experience, development, and success. In my survey, I used the term “extracurricular” rather than co-curricular, since that is the language more prevalent in labour market research. While nearly half of employers (49%) identified extracurricular participation as very important or important in the hiring process, it was ranked fifth out of seven factors, while previous work experience was ranked first. This suggests that employers may not necessarily see extracurricular experiences as a primary indicator for developing the core skills that they look for in hiring. Yet we know through student development theories that co-curricular engagement can help students develop core skills such as communication, leadership, and teamwork. This is where the Co-Curricular Record (CCR) can come into play. In my survey, employers were provided with a definition of what “co-curricular” means, along with a description and sample of the CCR. Employers were then asked a series of pointed questions about their perceived value of the CCR. When asked how likely they are to review the CCR, 77% of respondents said they would be very likely or likely to review a CCR if it is attached to an application, and 73% if it is brought to an interview. The gap between the value employers placed on extracurricular participation (49%) to their likelihood of using a CCR (73-77%) suggests that employers may not inherently understand the value of these experiences, and it is important to provide information about how co-curricular experiences can foster the development of desirable core skills. Since the CCR produces an official record of involvement, this demonstrates institutional recognition of the value of these experiences. At an institutional level, the CCR should be promoted to employers as a means to demonstrate the value and importance of co-curricular experiences in developing skills. Whether students submit a CCR, or use it as a preparation tool to help them write their resume or prepare for an interview, the CCR is a visible initiative that can help elevate the value of these experiences. CCR sample What you can do

  1. Encourage engagement: Whether or not your institution has a Co-Curricular Record, there are a myriad of experiences beyond that classroom that you can encourage students to participate in that will help them develop core skills.
  2. Facilitate reflection: Once students participate in these opportunities, it is important to help students reflect on their experiences and the skills that they developed. In the media, we hear concerns about a “job skills gap”. In my survey, when I asked employers to rate the ability of students/recent graduates to describe the competencies/skills they developed outside the classroom, 4% of employers selected excellent, 35% very good, 49% satisfactory, and 12% needs improvement. This highlights that we can help students improve their ability to articulate relevant skills. If a student is an Orientation Co-Chair and cannot articulate the value of that experience on their resume or in an interview, and if an employer does not know what it means to be a Co-Chair, then the value of that experience is lost in the process and the assumption is that the candidate does not possess the necessary skills. Again, whether or not your institution has a CCR, you can help students think through their experiences, so that they can describe the value.
  3. Join the movement: If your institution has a CCR, is in the process of developing one, or thinking about developing one—this recommendation is for you. A Canadian CCR Professionals Network has formed, and I encourage you to join. The network has 150 professionals across the country, and is intended to provide a space for open communication and dialogue through a listserv, workspace, and regional and national meet-ups. To join, email kimberly.elias@utoronto.ca.


Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE). (2014, January). Preliminary survey report: the skills needs of major Canadian employers. Retrieved from http://www.ceocouncil.ca/skills.

Causer, C. (2009). G.P.Eh? Grading the attributes that set candidates apart. IEEE Potentials, 28(3), 17-18. Doi: 10.1109/MPOT.2009.932462.

Elias, K. (2014). Employer Perceptions of Co-Curricular Engagement and the Co-Curricular Record in the Hiring Process. Unpublished master’s thesis, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada.

Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. (2013). Welcome to the National Occupational Classification 2011. Retrieved from http://www5.hrsdc.gc.ca/NOC/English/NOC/2011/Welcome.aspx

Hutchinson K.L., Brefka D.S. (1997). Personnel administrators’ preferences for resume content: Ten years after. Business Communication Quarterly, 60, 67-75.

National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). (2008). Experiential Education Survey. Retrieved from http://www.naceweb.org.

Peter D. Hart Research Associates, Inc. (on behalf of The Association of American Colleges and Universities). (2006, December 28). How should colleges prepare students to succeed in today’s global economy? Retrieved from http://www.aacu.org/leap/documents/Re8097abcombined.pdf

University Wire. (2014, Jan. 9). GPA isn’t everything when it comes to finding careers. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1476250337?accountid=14771

Share your great work – ACPA 2015 Call for Proposals and Reviewers

In the last few years, ACPA has highlighted a significant interest and movement in understanding how student affairs and services practitioners and educators from around the world support student success. As such, ACPA Commission for the Global Dimensions of Student Development (CGDSD) invites you to submit a proposal and/or to become a reviewer for the 2015 Conference in Tampa, FloridaTampa2015OL385x118

Specifically, the CGDSD seeks innovative proposals on topics related to how student affairs and services (SAS) staff support student success from different or comparative geographic areas and varied professional contexts.

If you are currently developing a proposal that focuses on:

– The practice(s) of student affairs globally,

– Interesting/innovative work in education abroad and/or international student and scholar programs,

– Examples of intercultural competence development at home or abroad, with students, staff or in graduate preparation programs, or

– Ideas and discussions on working with diverse populations of students

Then, you should consider submitting your program for sponsorship with the CGDSD.

Why Submit a Sponsored Program? Sponsored programs receive additional visibility among Commission members and receive greater promotion to all conference attendees though dedicated and additional spaces in the conference program and online. If you want to maximize your program’s exposure at Convention, there is no better way than as a sponsored program.

Submit a Sponsored Program. To have your program considered for sponsorship, simply select the ‘sponsored program’ box when beginning your application. CGDSD has 5 dedicated spots in the 2015 program. If your proposal covers multiple areas (e.g. career planning for international students), you can indicate co-sponsorship (by selecting that option instead of sponsored) and choose the relevant commissions on the next screen. The co-sponsored option means we can sponsor more great work as it only counts as 0.5 of our 5 allotted spots. Please note that proposals not selected for sponsorship will remain in consideration in the general program review!

Guide/Tips on Submitting a Proposal. You can find more information about the program submission process here and watch a great video on developing and submitting proposals to ACPA. All program submissions for the 2015 Convention are due on Wednesday September 4, 2014.

ACPA Seeks Program Reviewers. In addition to the call for sponsored programs, ACPA is also seeking members to review proposals. Reviewing proposal submissions is a great way to get involved with ACPA and help shape the conference program by bringing your international perspective to the review process.  You can sign up here http://cdms.myacpa.org/ and please don’t forget to select “Commission for Global Dimensions of Student Development” when selecting your interests (it is the 5th one down in the list). Those asked to review will receive 6-10 programs early in September.

By proposing sessions and becoming involved as reviewers, we advance the international outlook of ACPA and the other professional networks that we belong to.

Many thanks for your interest and please share our call for sponsored sessions and reviewers with colleagues interested in global practices, perspectives and programs of student affairs and services.

If you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact Jeff Burrow at burrow.jeff@gmail.com

Supporting Student Success Presentations at #CACUSS2014

CACUSS 2014 (#CACUSS2014) is less than a week away and the Supporting Student Success team is excited to present in a number of sessions. This post showcases the three sessions directly related to our ongoing research project as well as other presentations which involve members of the research team. For those who are not able to attend the conference in Halifax, we will post our presentation slides after the conference. Please check out the “Presentations and Publications” tab in late June.cacuss photo

Project-Related Presentations

301 – Blueprints for Student Success: Improving High School Students’ Awareness of Student Affairs And Services: Presented by: Christine Arnold and Kathleen Moore
Student affairs and services (SAS) have become integral components of Canadian colleges and universities. Increasing high school students’ awareness of service areas, programs and initiatives is imperative in order for students to make informed decisions regarding involvement, academics and health/wellness. This presentation will engage participants in our research-based Blueprints for Student Success website and mobile application developed to provide high school students with the knowledge and language necessary to navigate their transition to postsecondary education. Monday, June 9, 3:30-4:00 Session # 301, 200C2

602 – It’s All About What You Ask Them: Using Cognitive Interviews to Improve Student Assessment: Presented by Jeffrey Burrow, Diliana Peregrina-Kretz, and Tricia Seifert
The assessment of programs and services is a crucial step in improving and understanding student learning and development. Cognitive interviews can improve the quality of student affairs assessments by uncovering the cognitive processes participants use in responding to questions. This learning lab will introduce the theory and practice of CI’s and will highlight how they can improve assessment. Participants are asked to bring their own assessment examples so they can conduct mini-cognitive interviews during the session. Tuesday, June 10, 1:45 – 3:00, Session #602, Meeting Room #4

913 – How Do You Know? Why Do You Think So? Using Research to Inform Practice: Presented by: Tricia Seifert, Janet Morrison, David McMurray, and Karen Cornies
This panel presentation highlights the experiences of senior student affairs and services leaders in using research from the Supporting Student Success study. The panelists will share how they have used the findings from this research broadly, and in some cases their institution’s data specifically, to foster conversations with colleagues about the role of student affairs and services in supporting student success, re-organize and structure a division, and influence organizational culture. Wednesday, June 11, 9:30-10:45, Session #913, Suite 307

Members of the Supporting Student Success research team are also presenting in several other sessions. We invite you to check out their great work.

305 – Employer Perceptions of Co-Curricular Engagement and the Co-Curricular Record in the Hiring Process: Presented by Kimberly Elias
Universities and colleges promote the value of co-curricular engagement and the Co-Curricular Record (CCR) as a means to highlight transferable skills to employers. Listen to the results of a thesis study which examines the question: How are co-curricular experiences and the CCR perceived and valued by employers in the hiring process? This study explored current hiring processes, competencies and factors employers look for, and perceptions of the value of the CCR in the hiring process. Monday, June 9, 3:30-4:00, Session #305, Suite 306

411 – OPEN BOOK: Recent Literature in Student Affairs: Deanne Fisher, Rob Shea, Tricia Seifert, Ross McMillan, John Austin, Tamara Leary and Jeff Burrow
Each year, the Open Book session introduces participants to relevant and recent literature – good and bad – in student affairs and related fields. Our panel of readers present mini-reviews of books that have influenced our practice and the institutions in which we operate. This usually provokes a conversation about the big ideas that shape our work. Audience participation is encouraged! Monday, June 9, 4:15-5:30, Session # 411 Suite 205

90 Ideas in 90 Minutes: Research and Assessment section: Tricia Seifert and Jeff Burrow: Tuesday, June 10 | 8:45–10:30, 200C2

501 – Moving Forward – Transitioning Beyond the First Year: Presented by: Adina Burden, Diliana Peregrina-Kretz, and Lake Porter
The growing number of students with disabilities enrolling in post-secondary education requires that institutions provide comprehensive and tailored programs to meet their unique needs. Transition programs that introduce students to campus and student life are an integral component in supporting students with disabilities acclimate to the new environment. This session will provide participants with tools necessary to develop a successful transition program for students with disabilities including: planning, executing, and follow-up programming to support students. Tuesday, June 10, 11:15-12:30, Session #518, Meeting Room #4

518 – Understanding Icky: Making Difficult Ethical Decisions in Student Affairs: Presented by Chris McGrath and Tricia Seifert
We all make tough decisions under tough circumstances. But when the difficult choice results in a negative outcome for our students, our personal and professional ethics can easily collide. This is an opportunity to learn about models of moral and ethical decision making in professional practice, and to begin mapping our “moral languages” (Nash, 1996) towards a better understanding of how we make tough professional choices. Tuesday, June 10, 11:15-12:30, Session #518, Suite 202

605 – Navigating Transition Through Online Mentorship: Presented by: Leah McCormack-Smith and Steve Masse
In the spring of 2013, we rejuvenated our student transition program by pursuing a unique experiment with e-mentorship. Informed by current theories of student engagement and best practices emerging from our campus Student Communications Summit, we committed to matching our entire first-year class with successful upper-year e-mentors. During this session we will introduce you to the program, share our successes and challenges, as well as discuss our plans for the future! Tuesday, June 10, 1:45-3:00, Session #605, Suite 306

801 – Transfer Literacy: Assessing Informational Symmetries And Asymmetries: Presented by Christine Arnold
International researchers have voiced concerns regarding students’ understanding of credit transfer and the resulting impediments. An investigation of students’ clarity and confusion with credit transfer processes centers on the existent information system in place and its accessibility. In the Ontario context, this information system includes government/agencies, institutional administrators and students. This research seeks to examine the extent to which the college-to-university transfer information system is performing efficiently and identify (a)symmetries existent in stakeholders’ understanding of this process. Tuesday, June 10 4:15-4:45, Session #801, Room 200C2

1002 – Co-Curricular Record/Transcript: Establishing Standards and a Community of Support: Presented by Kimberly Elias and Chris Glove
The rapid adoption of the Co-Curricular Record/Transcript (CCR/T) program across Canada created a need for the CCR/T Professionals Network to form. This network recently met in May 2014 to develop a framework of recommendations on how CCR/T’s should be structured in Canada as it pertains to quality and standards. Participate in the ongoing discussion and share your thoughts and feedback on the recommendations developed at the Summit. No experience with CCR/T is needed to participate. Wednesday, June 11, 2014 11:15-12:30, Session #1002, Suite 202

We hope your conference is a great one, and that you are able to attend some of the eleven (11!) presentations we have featured here, as well as the dozens and dozens of other, amazing presentations scheduled for CACUSS 2014. See you in Halifax!

Encouraging and Fostering a Positive Peer Culture to Promote Student Success


Posted by Diliana Peregrina-Kretz

Academics and professionals have documented the role of peers in the academic and personal success of students in post-secondary education. There is a consensus in the literature that peers are one, if not the most influential group supporting students succeed in post-secondary education. The role that peers play in the lives of students is integral to their socialization – they provide students with a unique lens from which to examine their academic and personal success; they provide personal insight and advice that students can relate to; and can provide encouragement and guidance that helps students push through in difficult situations. The power of peer relations is so strong in part because they are engrained in every aspect of the student experience; from taking courses together to living in the same tiny room in the residence halls. Peers are in every corner of the institution and whether their role is a formal one (e.g. being a Don or a peer mentor) or informal (e.g. classmate or roommate), they can have a very positive impact on students’ success. Encouraging and fostering a peer culture that enhances peer relations and interactions is a critical step in supporting student success.

During phase II of the Supporting Student Success research study, we interviewed students from a variety of years and majors across 13 institutions (nine universities and 4 colleges); there was a strong consensus that peers played a very important role in the success of students at every institution. Students explained that their peers served as confidants, teachers, counselors and academic advisors, even relationship experts. Students sought their peers to get help with academic work, to seek advice on how to get involved on campus, to navigate the organizational structure of their institution, and often to get a little “kick” of encouragement to help them get through. Peers were influential in every aspect of students’ experience and their support was cited as instrumental in our participants’ success.

As student affairs and services staff and faculty working directly with students, we can be intentional about how we enhance and support a peer culture that cultivates positive interactions and relationships. Peer support thrives in an environment that is supported by faculty and staff that encourage and reward peer support. In the classroom, this is exemplified in structuring courses that involve group work or that encourage the formation of study groups to get the best learning experience. Even beyond the group work dynamic, faculty can encourage students to be responsible for co-teaching their peers a particular module of the course that is assigned to them or encouraging senior students who have taken the course to return as tutors. In a student affairs capacity, cultivating a peer culture that enhances peer relationships extends beyond a formal capacity such as peer mentorship, Dons, and other para-professional positions. It is also about reminding students in our everyday work that peers, all peers, can play a crucial role in student success and that making intentional efforts to work and help one another is critical for their success. Cultivating a peer culture that fosters positive peer support extends beyond formalized programs, it is about the attitudes and messages that we send to our students in our everyday work.

The Supporting Student Success research team will be discussing the important role of peers in more detail at the upcoming ACPA conference on Wednesday, April 2nd, in a presentation titled: Finding Their Way: The Role of Peers in Post-Secondary Experiences. The presentation will take place at the Indiana Convention Center, room 142 from 8:30am to 9:30am. In this presentation we will be discussing a theoretical model that examines how we can understand peer culture and the important role that peers play as connectors, partners, and supporters in supporting student success. If you cannot join us at ACPA, be sure to come back to our blog as we will be uploading our presentation.


3 Reflections on the George Brown Mental Health Conference

Last week I attended the 15th Annual George Brown College Mental Health Conference here in Toronto. The focus for this year’s conference was ‘Post-Secondary Student Success: Fostering Mental Health and Wellness on Campus’. The fact that the conference reached its maximum capacity speaks to just how important the area of student mental health has become. For a breakdown of the conference and some of the themes that were addressed I would encourage you to check out the conference hashtag on Twitter under #GBCMHC or read the Storify of my tweets from throughout the day. Here are three things from the conference that stood out to me.

1. Student Panel Discussion: Think about the ‘5 in 5’. It was quite refreshing to hear directly from students during a panel discussion. The panel featured two current students and two recent graduates who discussed some of their experiences with mental health difficulties and what could be done to create healthier campuses. One panel member noted the importance of institutions not simply focusing on the 1 in 5 people who experience a mental health or addiction issue. Focusing instead on the ‘5 in 5’, which stems from the Jack Project, means that each and every person needs to be aware of their mental well-being and institutions should keep this in mind when developing their mental health initiatives.

2. There is A LOT of work being done to address student mental health.Conferences are an opportunity to see what new initiatives and research projects are being done in the field you’re interested in. With this in mind, I often feel a bit like a kid on Christmas morning when I get a glimpse of new and exciting projects related to postsecondary student mental health. At the GBMHC, I heard about projects that addressed both peer mentoring and technology-based mental health information/support.

Peer Mentoring. In one session I attended called ‘Engaging Student Leadership: Putting Students at the Forefront’ I heard about the M² Peer Mentoring Program coming out of Queen’s University as a result of funding received through the Mental Health Innovation Fund. The purpose of this program is to match students who have mental health difficulties with a mentor who has gone through an intensive training program. There seems to be an increasing number of mentorship programs being established on campuses province-wide and this is likely due to research that suggests students are more likely to seek support from peers prior to seeking professional support. I think this highlights the importance of not only educating faculty and staff regarding student mental health difficulties but the student body as well. Each and every student should arguably have a certain amount of mental health literacy so that they are equipped to support a peer in a time of need and able to direct them to the appropriate services.

Provision of Mental Health Information/Support using Technology.  An emerging area in mental health relates to using technology to provide information or support related to mental health. Interestingly, an online student mental health portal called iCopeU was discussed and an online space called mindyourmind was mentioned. Presenters shared the success that these resources have had so far and emphasized that students have been co-designers in these projects. Some audience members seemed skeptical of the use of technology in addressing mental health, but I would argue that we have only started to scrape the surface of where this area can go in the postsecondary environment. If you haven’t already, I would encourage you to check out the abovementioned programs and consider how your institution uses technology to provide information related to mental health or support for mental health difficulties to students.

3. Using a Whole-Setting Approach. The keynote speaker Jonny Morris (Director, Public Policy, Research, and Provincial Programs at the Canadian Mental Health Association, B.C) discussed the Healthy Minds/Healthy Campuses initiative and showcased a video called “Designing Healthy Campus Communities.” The video speaks to the importance of a whole-setting approach to mental health. Morris suggested that singular, one-off, individual focused responses to mental health done in isolation are not as impactful as whole-setting approaches. It is increasingly important that work is done collaboratively amongst various stakeholders in order to support student well-being and subsequently, student success.

– Kathleen

Communities of Practice and the Ecology of Supporting Student Success

Posted by Tricia Seifert

I had the great opportunity the other week to speak to the residence life and housing professionals at #NWACUHO14 (Northwest Association of College and University Housing Officers) about communities of practices and how they can be instrumental in developing relationships, sharing practices through a variety of means (listservs, twitter chats, webinars, websites to name a few), and creating new knowledge to inform one’s practice. A few days later, I spoke at the Ontario University Registrars Association’s sold-out conference about the ecology of student success. The two presentations are clearly connected. Communities of practice increase the linkages between students’ microsystems, thereby supporting student success.

Okay, let’s take a step back to sketch out the basic tenets of Urie Bronfenbrenner’s theory of ecological human development. The Person-Process-Context-Time model presents individual development as a result of a person interacting with a host of processes within a specific context and time. Bronfenbrenner also states that development is individualized because how one interacts with these processes within the environment depends on that person’s characteristics.

Intuitively, that makes sense. We all know twins who approach the world in vastly different ways despite sharing the same DNA and growing up side-by-side. Bronfenbrenner asserts the twins’ unique characteristics influence how they interact with processes that comprise their immediate environment. Each process within a person’s environment is a microsystem in Bronfenbrenner’s theory.

Imagine these twins are first year students at your university. Their microsystems may consist of friends, family, classmates, job, faculty members, staff in the Registrar’s office, and staff and peers in their residence. Bronfenbrenner argues that the mesosystem is the space in which these microsystems link or connect. Although other systems comprise the full ecological model, I am going to keep the discussion to microsystems linking within the mesosystem. The figure below represents this ecology for a hypothetical situation involving one of the twins, Julia.


In the case of our twins, Julia is not doing well in several of her courses and fears she will be placed on academic suspension. She has mentioned her struggles to her Residence Don but has not confided in her twin sister. Her Residence Don, Mark, knows that he doesn’t have answers to all of Julia’s questions so he takes her confidential inquiry to his Residence Director.

Recently, the Registrar’s Office initiated an early alert system on campus and convened a community of practice across campus to discuss issues related to academic success. Along with staff from the Academic Skills Centre, Accessibility/Disability Services and Counselling, the Residence Life staff have attended community gatherings to learn about the early alert system and how thy can support students who have been identified as experiencing academic difficulty. Because of her engagement with the “academic success” community of practice, the Residence Director provides Mark with information on the programs and services designed for students who have been identified through the early alert system.

In this example, staff from Residence Life, the Registrar’s Office, and the Academic Skills Centre (all members of the community of practice and individual microsystems) interacted in Julia’s mesosystem in way that supported her success. From our data, we found positive linkages across microsystems that support student success like that of this fictional community of practice appear to exist more often at institutions where faculty and staff from across the campus recognize they have an important contribution to make in supporting student success.

What communities of practice exist on your campus? What microsystems do they connect? How has your institution used the relationships and knowledge from this community of practice to support student success?

We want to learn from you. Please leave a comment so that others can learn from the communities of practice you have on your campus.


Communities of practice Step-by-Step Guide

Wenger, Etienne. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, Etienne; McDermott, Richard; Snyder, William M. (2002). Cultivating Communities of Practice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press.

Bronfenbrenner, Urie. (1979). The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bronfenbrenner, Urie. (1993). The ecology of cognitive development: Research models and fugitive findings. In R. H. Wozniak & K. W. Fischer (Eds.), Development in context: Acting and thinking in specific environments (pp. 3–44). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

For a great application of Bronfenbrenner’s theory within higher education, I recommend Kris Renn and Karen Arnold’s 2003 article, Reconceptualizing research on college student peer culture. The Journal of Higher Education, 74(3), 261-291.