Conducting Surveys and Focus Groups: Insights Gained

By: Joanne Minh Triet Lieu

Developing tools to collect insights for program improvement is not an easy task. Learning how to conduct surveys and run focus groups that inform your work is a skill that is shaped and re-shaped by practice in the field. Here are five key insights I learned as a Student Affairs professional conducting assessment to inform professional development service delivery during a pandemic.    

I began as the Coordinator for Professional Development Initiatives at the Canadian Association for Colleges and Universities Student Services (CACUSS) at the beginning of March 2020. One of the projects that fell under my portfolio was revisiting the 2016 Member Professional Development Survey conducted by Jennie Massey and Kyle D. Massey. As four years had gone by since the last assessment, CACUSS looked forward to revisiting the needs assessment to ensure that the association’s current and future programming reflects the needs of its members. Eager to shed light on the voices of Student Affairs professionals across Canada, we anticipated launching the survey in mid-May with focus groups running into mid-June.

Then the pandemic hit.

With many of our members finding their world of work and life shifting rapidly, CACUSS decided to momentarily pause its delivery of the member survey. CACUSS learned and grew as the entire world adjusted. The anticipated annual CACUSS Conference: “Learn, Unite, Act” led by colleges was cancelled, alongside upcoming in-person fall professional development opportunities. In place of the conference was the growth of CACUSS ON-Line. CACUSS extended its membership renewal deadline and whereas possibly make individual accommodations.

We recognized that acknowledging and documenting this change was more important than ever if we were to continue supporting the future of Student Affairs in Canada. From early June to the end of July, a national survey was released and nine focus groups were conducted with members on professional development. The focus groups supported the survey and supplemented the results with rich, descriptive dialogue that was aimed to:

  • Identify improvements on how we currently deliver professional development programming to CACUSS members
  • Determine the membership’s understanding of the CACUSS competencies in programming
  • Identify new programming for members

Here are five key insights that we learned along the way:

  1. Adapt survey instruments to the changing times

While we had a strong foundation from the 2016 Member Professional Development Survey, we needed to adjust questions to capture the nuances of professional development in the here and now. The changes included additional questions such as members’ experiences using our new platform, and questions related to the impact of COVID-19. Another large update to the survey was the new professional development competencies that CACUSS did not have in 2016. We were interested in knowing: Which professional development competencies did members recognize as a priority? Were there regional differences in what members identified as a priority?

2. Revisions, revisions, and revisions

Jennifer Hamilton, Executive Director of CACUSS, and I exchanged numerous calls and emails as we revisited and re-envisioned the survey and subsequently developed the focus group questions. The goal was to ensure the questions measured what we intended and that the survey presented all possible response options. The questions were grouped into three themes,

I) CACUSS’s professional development opportunities

II) Professional development outside of CACUSS

III) Existing and future gaps.  

3. Survey and focus group instruments are growing and living documents

As one of my professors shared, there is no such thing as a perfect survey. Throughout the process, I learned how accurate that was; surveys grow with feedback. One memorable moment of learning was when Jeff Burrow, Manager of Assessment and Analysis at the University of Toronto, reached out to let me know that respondents were required to answer all questions in order to proceed through the survey. He suggested that making the questions optional would elicit more responses, although some would be incomplete. After sifting through the copious amount of data, this early advice was on point! A similar truth could be said of focus group questions. The purposeful placement of prompts resulted in participants sharing more in-depth experiences.   

4. Creating community in a virtual focus group

Virtual focus groups offer a new set of opportunities and challenges that in-person focus groups do not.

First, facial cues and gestures made by focus group members are not as easily perceived in virtual calls, regardless of whether the camera is on or off. In a more massive virtual call, it becomes harder to know when someone will speak and yes, the awkward unmute at the same time will happen. Two strategies to work around this is to set ground rules early on as a friendly reminder to allow a person to finish their thought before contributing or use existing features such as the raise hand function in Zoom.

Second, virtual engagement calls on participants to provide more space and energy than in-person focus groups demand. Participants are calling in at their homes where they may be a caregiver, parent, or attending to other needs that require their attention. It is essential to remind yourself that participants are inviting you to their personal space, and it is important to understand and acknowledge that interruptions may happen. Your role is to facilitate a space that is warm and welcoming to members who may be meeting you for the very first time after exchanging several emails. 

Internet meme created by Sarah Woodard, director of development for Spectrum Youth and Family Services in Burlington, Vermont, USA captures the many thoughts that happen during a Zoom call.

In the focus groups, I make the main question available in the chatbox after I have read it aloud, so that if a person needs to switch for a moment or recall the question asked, it is available in written format. Using prompts also helped members to provide and me to gather detailed and descriptive responses. I refer to Merriam and Tisdell’s guide (2015) in framing questions such as:

Tell me about a time when…

Give me an example of…

Tell me more about that…

What was it like for you when…

Always must introduce my handy dandy voice recorder at the beginning of the focus group

5. Connecting nationally offers great perspective and appreciation

Lastly, virtual focus groups offer an exceptional way of connecting with participants across geography. We had members calling in from coast-to-coast, morning and afternoon. To connect with so many people across geography and time zones is genuinely remarkable. Just be sure to include your time zone in emails!

Throughout this process, I enjoyed listening and learning from CACUSS members. It is a reward and privilege to be in a virtual room of thoughtful student affairs leaders. Transcribing and reviewing the transcript for themes on professional development served to reinforce the importance of connecting, especially during this time. Thank you to all the CACUSS members who were part of the focus group and survey process! While conducting surveys and focus groups using telecommunications is not a novel concept, it does bring new challenges during a pandemic. At the same time, now more than ever we need to employ thoughtful assessment instruments to inform our future work.

The author at her computer on a Zoom focus group call.

Most profound appreciation to Jennifer Hamilton and Jeff Burrow for your insights and feedback throughout this process, and to everyone for sharing your incredible experiences, learning, and vision for CACUSS’s future professional development programming.

Joanne Minh Triet Lieu is the Coordinator of Professional Development Initiatives (Coordonnatrice des initiatives de perfectionnement professionnel) for the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (l’Association des services aux étudiants des universités et collèges du Canada).


Merriam, S. B., & Tisdell, E. J. (2015). Qualitative research: A guide to design and implementation (4th ed.). San Francisco, California: John Wiley and Sons.

Great Times #CACUSS15

The Supporting Student Success research team had an amazing time connecting with old friends and making new ones this past week in Vancouver. A big thank you to SFU and the #CACUSS15 conference planning team for putting together such a tremendous professional development event. Looking out what is arguably the most beautiful window in Canada, it gave attendees place and space to reflect on how the whole campus can support the whole student.


We were thrilled to share tips on survey design, findings from Phase 3 of the research study and opportunities to highlight innovative programs and initiatives on the Blueprints for Student Success website. In rooms that had people standing as well as sitting on the floor, conference attendees talked about developing better student surveys and improving outreach to faculty and other student affairs and services staff. Throughout the conference, folks stopped us in the hallways wanting to talk more and asking for our slides. We will post these in the coming week to the main portion of the blog as well as to the Publications/Presentations tab. So stay tuned!

If you came to one of our sessions and have suggestions on how we can better present the content, please “leave a reply.” We are putting together an infographic and would love to incorporate your thoughts and ideas.

Finally, we invite you to take a look at the awesome poster that Diliana Peregrina-Kretz and Kim Elias shared on how people feel encouraged to partner to support student success on their campus. CACUSS 2015 Poster Presentation_SSS


It was a time of great celebration. Although some of our team members weren’t able to join us, they were definitely there in spirit. Thanks to all who made this such a special conference.


Working Smarter not Harder: Communities of Practice and Organizational Learning

If there was ever a time in which higher education administrators were asked to work smarter and not harder, it is now. One need look no further than to the numerous examples of institutions involved in some form of prioritization planning process (PPP) to see that efficiency and accountability to institutional mission and mandate rule the day.

Postsecondary institutions are in the midst of substantial organizational change, in large part as a result of financial constraints. Administrators are looking for ways to serve more students (I’m unaware of any institution recruiting fewer students) and typically students with more diverse backgrounds (first generation students, international students, mature learners, Aboriginal students, students with disabilities) but often with a budget that isn’t any larger than the previous year.

How to support a more diverse student body in achieving their personal and academic goals on a reduced budget (whether that reduction is in real or proportionate terms) while doing so in a way that is efficient and aligns with the institutional mission and mandate. These are challenging questions and ones that the Supporting Student Success research team heard at a number of institutions during our site visits.

It’s interesting how postsecondary institutions and postsecondary professional associations face related challenges in terms of meeting needs and expectations in ways that are flexible and nimble. Like many colleges and universities in the Supporting Student Success study, the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS) is in the midst of organizational change. From six divisions affiliated under a broad umbrella, CACUSS is responding to member interests and needs through the organic development of Communities of Practice (CoPs).

Etienne Wenger and colleagues (2002) define CoPs as “groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis” (p. 4). They can connect people, provide a shared context, enable dialogue, capture and diffuse existing knowledge, stimulate learning, and generate new knowledge (Cambridge, Kaplan & Suter, 2005).

I had the opportunity to facilitate a dialogue at #CACUSS2014 about CoPs and how they can be effective in both meeting members’ professional development needs and advancing CACUSS’ goals. Similar to postsecondary institutions where an issue like supporting student paraprofessionals spans across functional areas like orientation, residence life and health promotion (to name a few), interest in this and similar issues spans across CACUSS divisions. Rather than duplicate the conversation across multiple divisions, the CoP model allows members from across the association to find one another, share practices and develop resources that inform and advance one’s practice.

The Supporting Student Success team heard about the power of CoPs during phase 1 and 2 data collection. At one institution, a respondent shared about the value of bringing people from across the division together to discuss student leadership development. The perspectives varied and from learning together the staff were able to work efficiently and synergistically to strengthen the support they provided student leaders.

At another institution, we experienced the potential forming of a CoP as a result of the focus group. In this situation, focus group participants learned that they both were involved in developing peer mentoring programs but didn’t know of the other person’s work. At the end of the focus group, they exchanged information and set a time to meet to discuss developing joint training materials.

I’m a big advocate of finding ways to work smarter rather than harder. For me, this naturally means looking for opportunities to partner, collaborate, share resources, and look for synergies of what I’m doing with what others are doing. I see Communities of Practice as a means for community members to learn from one another in ways that inform and improve practice. From a higher education administrator perspective, CoPs may provide additional knowledge and ability to leverage resources to best support a more diverse student body. From a CACUSS member’s perspective, engaging in a CoP (or several CoPs) may allow one to seek professional development and contribute to the professional development of others along the multiple facets of one’s professional identity.

I think we are in for many more days of fiscal restraint. In the current political climate, the pressure toward efficiency and accountability is likely to grow stronger. This has implications for both higher education administrators and the professional associations that aim to meet the professional development needs of those administrators. As Cambridge, Kaplan and Suter note, CoPs have the potential to help people organize, introduce collaborative processes, share existing knowledge and generate new knowledge — all important aspects in today’s world.

I want to hear from you! Please share your experience as a member of a CoP in the comments section below.

By Tricia Seifert, Primary Investigator for Supporting Student Success research study.

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!

#CACUSS2013: Re-living the Passion! in Three Acts

Like any romantic drama, #CACUSS2013 has been full of Passion!, this year’s annual conference theme. Befitting of Montreal, conference attendees experienced this passion in a multitude of ways. Over the course of the next three posts, the Supporting Student Success research team will share their perspective on how Passion! radiated from this year’s conference presentations and activities.

The curtains went up on the first act displaying a Passion for wellness. In collaboration with the Canadian Mental Health Association, CACUSS released their Post-Secondary Student Mental Health: Guide to a Systemic Approach. The press has been out in force covering the story on the launch of this much needed suite of resources, including a webinar learning series. Check out articles published in the Globe and Mail and the Ottawa Citizen.  Congratulations and thank you to CACUSS and CMHA for developing a resource that will provide students and postsecondary staff and faculty with tools to address one of the most significant issues on postsecondary campuses today. 

But mental wellness was only part of this act’s passion for wellness. There were several sessions on physical, sexual and emotional health and wellness, including sessions on movement (check out @MoveUofT), on-campus sexual health resources at McGill (@ShapShop) and UBC, and a research study conducted at the University of Toronto-Scarborough’s Health & Wellness Centre which examined the relationship between students’ strengths and their ability to flourish.

And while student health and wellness is important, it is difficult to support students if we are not healthy and well ourselves. This act of the play, Passion!, came to a close with a number of sessions focusing on staff and faculty members’ exercising self-care so that we can be more present and available for supporting students. There was a session titled, “ComPASSION . . . the essential fuel on the road to fulfillment” and another titled “Come Alive – Integrating Personal Passions into your Professional Role to Create an Exceptional Environment for Students.” Couple these with the session, “Get the Health Outdoors” and it was clear that taking care of oneself is necessary (albeit often overlooked) part of the supporting student success picture.

Personally, I started some of my self-care program while in Montreal. I ran to the top of Mount Royal behind McGill several times during my visit. I breathed in the crisp morning air while my lungs burned with the exertion. It was a perfect way to begin the day. I also began the daily examen, a reflective practice of reviewing the day with gratitude.

So as we move into summer—that time where we can breathe and reflect on the past year while simultaneously planning  for the year to come— I invite you to share your strategies for taking care of yourself this summer: physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually.Please leave a comment so that we might learn from and inspire each other.

The passion for wellness was alive and well at CACUSS 2013. Check in Monday, June 24 when we share the second act of Passion! from CACUSS 2013.  


Teaser Video: Two Roads Met in a Yellow Wood

We look forward to seeing you at CACUSS 2013 for our presentation Two Roads Met in a Yellow Wood: Faculty and Staff Perceptions of Student Success. The team is presenting on Tuesday, June 18 from 4-5:15PM in room W215 Arts. Please see page 35 of the conference program for more information.


Finding Your Way During Conference Season: A first time attendee looks back at AERA13

In late April I attended the American Educational Research Association conference in San Francisco. It was nearly a month ago, but with a few conferences coming up in June I wanted to reflect on what I remember.AERA2013_Banner_Homepage

I remember it was BIG. The largest conference I have ever been at. I think at the #ACPA13 keynote address they said there were 6,000 or 7,000 guests including the NIRSA delegates. AERA was more than twice that size with about 15,500 registrants. It’s a monster and had2,400 sessions and 6,000 presenters scattered over at least 6 hotels. And at 452 pages, the program guide was bigger than most municipal phone books I have seen.

It was BROAD & DEEP. AERAs’ divisional structure covers nearly any angle of academic research you can imagine. K-12, curriculum studies, social contexts of education, teaching to teacher education. Post-secondary education (#AERADiv_J) is what I would call ‘home’. But even Division J has 6 sections within it! However I am also attached to the Measurement and Research Methodology group, which is Division D and, as a current doctoral student I am a member of, the very large (and well organized) Graduate Student contingent.

Wait there’s more. AERA also has a very large number of Special Interest Groups (SIGS).  There are at least 100 of these and they cover issues that cut across the divisional structures like Private Education, Survey Research, or Post-Colonial Studies. So there are no shortages of places for newcomers to use as a ‘base’ for the conference.

It was FORMAL. By this I mean that the most common session was 3 or 4 papers grouped into similar topics like one session Tricia Seifert presented in called ‘Assessing Teaching Contexts, Strategies & Outcomes’. Each paper (they are presentations based on pre submitted academic papers) had about 15 minutes to present, followed by 15 minutes from the discussant talking about each paper’s (strengths/weaknesses) and common themes, followed hopefully by a few minutes of questions from the audience.

But it had VARIETY. In any 90 minute block there were usually 80 sessions, plus any 60 or so roundtable discussions. These also had 3 papers, a discussant, but the audience, sat around them, making it a little less formal and more conversational. There were poster sessions with maybe 50 presentations several times a day usually organized around a few themes. There were keynote lectures. There were invited responses to conference themes. There was a Film Festival.

It was very active in SOCIAL MEDIA. Search Twitter for #aera13 and you will see what I mean. Also a number of the very large keynote addresses had hashtags set up in the program beforehand.

It had some BIG NAMES. Depending on your line of work and research, many of the big names were present. For those interested in research methods you could see presentations by John Creswell. Interested in critical theory? Michael Apple and Peter McLaren were presenting. And in the higher ed world Laura Perna, Adriana Kezar and Kristen Renn were each a part of numerous sessions. And from what I saw and experienced, everyone was very willing to take time to talk.

There was some CONTROVERSY. (Search Google/Twitter for Arne Duncan AERA).  That particular controversy was given a forum, and a process to discuss the issues was set up. Surely, not everyone was satisfied with that process, or the outcome, but AERA recognized how important the discussion was for many members.

I enjoyed AERA this year, but know there was lot of unrealized opportunity. All conferences need a plan, and this is especially trye for for me and AERA14. And with the annual Congress/Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education and CACUSS  coming up I’ve thought a bit about how to have a better conference experience; especially when it’s your first time attending.

What You Can Do

  1. Review the program schedule carefully, identify your preferred session and have a backup in case you get sidetracked or something gets cancelled. With that read the abstract and the title carefully.
  2. Talk to people who have been there before to learn about the key events, experiences, cultures and people that you may not know about or don’t jump off the page while you are planning the sessions you will attend.
  3. Have a 30-second talk ready for when someone asks you about your research and/or work.
  4. Try to engage deeply with a few people, rather than meeting everyone.
  5. Attend orientation and welcome sessions, roundtables, panel discussions, and anything with free food! These are some of the best places to meet new people.
  6. Think about your networks. They are larger than you realize. Both your institution and your area of work or research.
  7. Follow up during and after the conference.
  8. Volunteer. Most divisions, interest groups etc are always looking for volunteers to help out.

What the Conference Can Do

  1. Host 1st-timer and newcomer sessions – Both before the conference and as the conference begins. Kristen Renn hosted a great webcast for newcomers to AERA13 that really helped me plan my time there.
  2. Mix up the program with large plenary talks, paper/presentations, roundtables, films, Pecha Kucha sessions, learning labs. Recognize multiple learning styles!
  3. Ask for feedback! AERA_DivJ had a full session on improving the conference experience.
  4. Give some of the conference away for free. Pick a few sessions, have them webcasted for free to anyone – member or not. This is a way to introduce your organization and conference, and encourage participation and attendance next year.
  5. Set up hashtags for each session and put them in the program guide. A+ to ACPA 2013 for starting this!

These are just a few random thoughts as we move deeper into conference season. We would love to hear what advice seasoned conference-goers and newcomers have for maximizing their conference experiences!

Student Affairs and Services in Global Perspective

Typically our blog focuses on research, findings, presentations and musing related to the ongoing Supporting Student Success research project. As we wrap up sharing preliminary findings with each of the participating institutions, we will begin our cross-site analysis and continue to plan for presentations at Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education in Victoria and CACUSS in Montreal in what promises to be a very busy and exciting summer.

However, this week we wanted to share something a little different. The International Association of Student Affairs and Services (IASAS) has started a research project to look at the practice of student affairs and services around the globe. Some of you may have already received this invitation and we are grateful to the nearly 100 people who have already responded. If you have not participated yet, we encourage you to do so. Either way we want your voices included as part of this project and hope you can share this message broadly with your colleagues, locally, nationally and beyond!

The formal invitation and survey link are below. Thank you again for reading and participating.


In recent years, two books have provided an organizational perspective of student affairs and services practice from around the world. Whether you work in residence life, career or job placement services, academic learning support services, counseling or in another area that serves to support students, we would like to hear from you!

This research study seeks to understand the experiences of postsecondary/tertiary staff members. As a subscriber to a listserv for student affairs and services practitioners, we invite you to help develop this understanding by completing a brief 15 minute survey in which you will be asked about your job position, duties and background. We intend to use the results from this survey to share information about student affairs and services work in a global context and provide resources and a support network for those working in the field.

We invite you to share the survey link with other staff colleagues not part of the listserv. A copy of the results from this study will be available on the IASAS Web site. You will be notified through this listserv when the results are available.

To access the survey, please click here. If the survey does not open automatically, please copy and paste the following link to your Web browser’s address bar.

If you have any questions regarding the content of the survey or want to know how we intend to use the data, please do not “reply” to this email. Rather, direct all study questions to Dr. Tricia Seifert at

Please help contribute to our understanding of the experiences of student affairs and services staff by completing the survey.


Tricia Seifert, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto
Brett Perozzi, Weber State University
Mary Ann Bodine Al-Sharif, Florida State College
Katie Wildman, Hamad bin Khalifa University, Qatar Foundation

New Perspectives on Supporting Student Success: #ARUCC2012

In the course of the Supporting Student Success project, we have noticed the frequency in which participants depict and describe how their institution supports student success as the work of distinct groups of people. Student success may be a shared responsibility of multiple institutional actors but it is shared as compartmentalized functions. One group recruits students. Another group teaches them in the classroom. Another group houses students and provides them with co-curricular learning and leadership opportunities. Still another group focuses on insuring students’ health and well-being. As the Supporting Student Success research team has travelled across Ontario, we have taken note of the places where these compartmentalized functions come together in conversation as it seems to be more the exception than the rule.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how staff, administrators and faculty work separately and collectively to support student success. We are engaged in important work and yet, at institutions across Ontario, across Canada and indeed, across the continent, we often work in relative isolation.  And this relative isolation is not limited to our work day but extends to how we engage in professional development opportunities. Faculty members attend their disciplinary conferences; student affairs and services staff attend umbrella student affairs conferences (like CACUSS, ACPA or NASPA) or a more specific functional area conference for residence life (ACUHO-I), career services (CACEE), or orientation (NODA); administrators attend conferences for business officers (NACUBO), Deans, and institutional researchers (AIR).

I recently attended the conference of the Association of Registrars of Universities and Colleges of Canada in Ottawa. It was my first time at this conference and it got me thinking about what we could learn as educators if we stepped out of our comfort zone and attended conferences that push us to think of our work from a different perspective. We might start small. Faculty from the disciplines could attend a conference on the scholarship of teaching and learning. It is invigorating to think how attending a conference from a perspective focused on pedagogy might stimulate how faculty approach teaching their subject matter. Similarly, student affairs and services practitioners who work in residence life and housing, career services or counselling might attend a conference on issues common to registrars and the broader enrollment services realm. Two days at a conference walking in another’s shoes, learning their language and challenges, may excite diverse groups to think about new collaborations to support student success, drawing on their respective areas of expertise.

I make this suggestion because I was struck by how similar the conversations on student success held at #ARUCC2012 were to the ones that I had earlier in the month at #CACUSS. And yet for all of the similarities, there were a host of times when I was gaining insight from a different vantage point.  Jay Goff, Vice President of Enrolment and Retention Management at St. Louis University, shared data from a Noel Levitz report that found 92% of students would remove an institution from their list of potential postsecondary institutions if they couldn’t fine what they are looking for on the institution’s website. This statistic got me thinking. Beyond the main “recruitment” pages of the website, how much attention do other areas of the institution pay to design and ease of navigation in communicating their programs and services to students? Most colleges and universities have staff dedicated to designing and maintaining  the web pages for prospective students but is a commensurate level of attention paid to web pages that assist in retaining those students? This strikes me as a perfect place where cross-fertilizing professional development may invigorate institutions’ efforts to support student success. 

I attended a session titled “Evidence-based Proactive Student Relationship Management” presented by Shekar Kadaba of Rethink55 and Glenn Keeler of King’s University College. I’m not a data management specialist by any stretch of the imagination but I appreciate the value of easily accessible information to answer the questions students and co-workers ask me daily. This session motivated me to think more about searchable databases and how institutions organize, update and provide information to students, staff and faculty. But disseminating information is just the tip of the iceberg, I started considering how campuses invite their various stakeholder groups to engage with and add to institutional knowledge. In terms of developing community and creating buy-in to the institution’s mission, vision and objectives for realizing that vision, this session made me think about how institutions can more intentionally co-construct institutional knowledge with their students, staff and faculty. Another session presented by Kate Ross, Simon Fraser University, and Alan Wiseman, University of the Fraser Valley, focused on scheduling for course accessibility and resource optimization. In a time when deans, administrators, and faculty must work in concert to best use resources and facilities to meet student learning demands, this session would have been a great opportunity for stakeholder groups to learn the language of and challenges faced by the “other.”

Vincent Tinto, Distinguished University Professor at Syracuse University, presented the closing keynote session. Drawing from his recently published book, Completing College: Rethinking Institutional Action, Dr. Tinto called on institutions to focus on communicating high expectations, providing academic and social support, frequently assessing and giving feedback on student performance, and engaging students in a way that students feel they are a valued member of the campus community. Clearly these conditions cross the student success silos – they are in the wheelhouses of faculty, staff, and senior administrators.  Institutions should have high expectations for course work and contributing as a citizen of the campus community. With high expectations and the challenge that accompanies them, institutions must also provide support. Giving feedback on performance is a natural extension of having high expectations. It is hard for students to know if they are meeting expectations if they are not provided with regular feedback. Moreover, students engage when they are provided feedback because they feel that what they are doing matters.

Communicating expectations, providing support, giving feedback and engaging students in their learning are conditions at the heart of supporting student success. Whether one teaches in a classroom, develops service learning partnerships with community organizations, maintains the living/learning environment in the residence halls, or insures the information technology systems are functioning and secure, these conditions cut across our institutional silos and call on the entire community to commit to supporting student success.

Perhaps if we engaged in a little more cross-functional professional development, we might see and hear these ideas from a new perspective — one that compels us to action.

CACUSS 2012 Overview

CACUSS 2012 was a wonderful end to the academic year for the Supporting Student Success research team (although we are working diligently throughout the summer analyzing new data!). We look forward each year to the CACUSS conference as it’s a chance to re-connect with many of our study participants, share our research with our colleagues from across Canada and meet wonderful new people. This year at CACUSS we delivered a presentation titled How Senior Leaders Support Staff Collaboration, which highlighted various forms of communication and leadership styles that support staff and facilitate collaboration and innovation. We were very excited to see many familiar, and many new faces in the room (we had a packed room with over 70 people). Despite the cramped space, it was amazing to see how engaged everyone was during our small group activities in the session.

This year’s CACUSS was special for several members of our team: one attending the conference for the first time, another as a new professional in student affairs, one after a ten-year gap, and finally one of our team member’s who is currently serving as the CACUSS Intern. Each of our experiences were unique, as we experienced the conference sessions and networking opportunities through different lenses and with different purposes. We enjoyed our time together as a team at the conference but also capitalized on the networking opportunities to make connections with colleagues from across Canada. We all felt a warm welcome from the CACUSS community and made new friends and met new colleagues.We enjoyed a variety of sessions at CACUSS and learned a great deal about what colleges and universities across Canada are doing to support student success. Here is a just a brief highlight of some of the sessions we attended:

Choosing Your Own Adventure: Self-Authorship’s Provocative Moment – Tim Tang & Claire HookerQueen’s University 

This was a hands-on presentation by Tim and Claire from Queen’s University provided participants with the opportunity to reflect on a time when they had to make important decisions in their lives (e.g. going back to school after a long period of time, quitting a job, moving to a new country etc.) and think about what the decision-making process entailed—feelings, emotions, fears etc. Situated in Baxter-Magolda and King’s (2004) Learning Partnerships Model (LPM), the presentation highlighted how we can help students make sense and find meaning during crucial crossroads in their lives by utilizing the three principles of the LPM: 1) validating learner’s capacity as knowledge constructors, 2) situating learning I n the learner’s experience, and 3) helping students understand their role in learning. Participants were provided with a wonderful and thought-provoking case study to discuss in small groups, each which provided thoughts on how to apply the principles of LPM in helping the protagonist of the case study. This wonderful presentation reminded us about the importance of validating students’ experiences and the crucial role students play in constructing meaning and learning.

Canada’s Got [writing] Talent: Publishing in Student Affairs – Carney Strange – Bowling Green State University, Tricia Seifert – OISE/University of Toronto, Marty Williams – Editor of Communiqué

This was a wonderful session with three presenters talking about different avenues for CACUSS members to share their work outside of presenting at the annual conference. Carney Strange focused on the wide range of publication opportunities available for those working and researching student affairs and services. He provided an extensive list of venues including Communiqué, The Canadian Journal of Higher Education, University Affairs, The Canadian Journal of Career Development in Canada. He also highlighted U.S publications like the Journal of College Student Development, Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, and About Campus. This sample covers a range of publication types from more practitioner based, to peer-reviewed research articles and monographs. All three presenters talked about the importance of looking at these various publications to find a venue that best suits the audience you want to communicate to. Tricia Seifert talked the process of writing and finding a method and style that works for you; but to also view the writing process as a highly iterative one. The drafts you submit for publication is not the final draft, that everyone gets submissions rejected, and to think about the revision processes as a way to clarify and strengthen your work. She suggested that when attempting to revise a paper that sometimes putting it aside for a week and coming back to it later can make the revision process easier. Finally Marty Williams, discussed the different types of submissions that he would like to see in Communiqué these include program descriptions, best practices, research projects, book reviews and even opinion pieces.  This session really opened up my eyes to the importance of making time for writing in my schedule and how many different venues there are to publish beyond research articles.

Student Services? Let Me Google That…

This SASA preconference was presented by Blaine Jensen (or BJ as he is known and loved) and Lisa Endersby together with students attending Brock and due to the wonders of technology, three students from Douglas College in BC. A group of around 40 of us explored student expectations of online student service delivery. We looked at some innovative programs such as York’s YUConnect and Red Zone student bloggers as well as Ryerson’s RUStudent Life run by a “Digital Community Facilitator.” Is there a new brand of student life professional emerging? The student panel portion of the pre-conference workshop was most fascinating. The students broke down some common myths for us (I don’t read blogs, I don’t want you to text me) and painted a picture of what their ideal interaction with the university would be (put it all in one place, send me a reminder on my phone, don’t make me come in person to do anything).

YU Connect—York’s Answer to Digital Student Engagement

The Co-Curricular Record—a new craze in Canada that universities and colleges have either developed, are about to launch, or are in conversation about. This presentation was the start of (what I am sure will be many) conversations about how institutions are formally recognizing student engagement in co-curricular activities. This team from York University talked about their new digital student engagement platform, offering tips about how they implemented it, and the different technology systems that are out there. What was especially great was the audience, which was made up of individuals from a range of institutions who were either interested in or involved in similar projects. The conversations were interesting, and the material presented was informative. Thank you to the presenters for facilitating a great session!

We are very grateful for the wonderful hospitality of Brock University and Niagara College and for the wonderful volunteers, staff, and conference leaders who made CACUSS 2012 a special and memorable experience. We look forward to presenting our findings of phase two at CACUSS 2013 and re-connecting with all of you as well as meeting new colleagues and friends. Keep checking our blog for our summer postings and follow us on Twitter @CdnStdntSuccess and Facebook.