"Enriching the Student Experience"

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October 2006

The Quality Advocates met on Friday, October 20, 2006 to discuss some of the initiatives, opportunities and challenges in enriching the student experience.  Panelists included Philip Burlingame, Associate Vice President for Student Affairs; Robert N. Pangborn, Vice President and Dean of Undergraduate Education; Blaine E. Steensland, Senior Director of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management at Penn State Berks. Louise Sandmeyer, Executive Director of the Office of Planning and Institutional Assessment moderated the session.

The second goal in Penn State’s 2006-07 to 2008-09 strategic plan is to “Enrich the educational experience of all Penn State students by becoming a more student-centered University.”  The session focused on increasing student involvement in cocurricular learning experiences, developing a culture of greater student responsibility, helping students to make connections between out-of-class and classroom learning, and better preparing students for active citizenship. The three panelists addressed the question “What does it mean to be a student-centered research university, and more especially, learner-centered?”

BurlingameBurlingame first discussed the important transformations that are occurring in Student Services at Penn State. (view slides) Burlingame stressed the need for the University to develop a “culture of assessment” including assessment of learning outcomes both in and outside the classroom, and the need to be more intentional about outcomes.  Increased attention to assessment and outcomes has emanated from President Spanier, the 2005 Middle States accreditation, and the recent work of the Coordinating Committee on University Assessment.   Another need is to focus the college experience on learning, especially how programs and services connect with what happens in the classroom.  According to Burlingame, “Our greatest responsibility is to provide a vibrant learning environment that really presents the students with the ability to get the most out of their college education and to really think about learning in a broad-based way.” Along with this, Burlingame stated that students must clearly understand expectations for learning both in and out of class.

We have some education to do with our students communicating high expectations, making it really clear what we expect them to learn outside the classroom, just as we now make it clear what we expect students to learn inside the classroom.

Previous research has found that academic and cocurricular activities which support each other lead to better outcomes and thus, it is vital to engage students both within and outside of the classroom. The Penn State Assessment Plan for Student Learning sets a goal for cocurricular experiences, with outcomes such as knowledge acquisition and application, intercultural development, and leadership, and the University will be assessing these outcomes and the level of engagement in the future.  For Burlingame, the main implications for Penn State are: 1) the quality of undergraduate education will be assessed mainly through the quality of student learning; and, 2) in order to focus on student learning, Penn State will need to build capacity in its staff through professional development, recruitment, support and rewards.

PangbornAt the University level, Undergraduate Education supports initiatives to enrich student experiences, but Pangborn pointed out that the actual implementation occurs at the unit level. (view handout) Pangborn mentioned three areas where current initiatives are underway and where opportunities lie. These include: 1) assessment of general education; 2) discoveries at the boundaries and intersections of established fields; and, 3) expanding horizons

Pangborn mentioned the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) and e-portfolios as two initiatives which will help to enrich student experiences. The CLA, an instrument which assesses student ability to think critically and analytically, is being piloted this year to evaluate student learning.  E-portfolios provide a way to encourage students to reflect on what they are doing and what happens after they graduate. Using e-portfolios also provides advisors with opportunities to help students in their academic and career plans. In addition, Penn State can use the e-portfolios to evaluate how students are putting together their in class and out of classroom experiences.

Students need to be able to think beyond the confines of what is happening in the classroom and their very narrow academic disciplines and bringing all of their cocurricular experiences into the act is an important part of their educational experience.

According to Pangborn, intercollege programs and interdisciplinary programs are becoming more important in undergraduate education since the intersection between fields is where many of the important research discoveries are being made. Pangborn gave several examples of programs and minors including, the Center for Sustainability, the Laboratory for Public Scholarship and Democracy, the Bachelor of Philosophy, and the Civic and Community Engagement Minor.  Through programs such as these, students can interact with their peers in other disciplines.

Broadening student experiences is the motivation behind cooperative education, internships, education abroad, undergraduate research, and e-learning all of which serve to expand student horizons. All of these opportunities couple classroom learning with real world experience. For instance, the practical experience that students receive from co-ops and internships serves them well in the classroom and recruiters recognize the value of this experience. Funding for undergraduate research is available through the President’s Fund, the Summer Discovery Grant program and a program for undergraduate conference travel. E-learning provides a gateway to lifelong learning: more and more students are accessing courses online and their experiences now will affect their lifelong learning.

SteenslandSteensland discussed the initiatives that Penn State Berks has undertaken to enrich the student experience. (view handout) One initiative in the campus’s 2005-06 through 2008-09 strategic plan was to develop a culture dedicated to student learning, a culture which included goals, assessment and continuous quality improvement. To implement this initiative, one area on which the campus focused was the first year experience. The campus realized the first year was a critical period of engagement, that student learning occurred in multiple places, and that multiple learning events increased the likelihood of successfully engaging students. Through the First Year Experience and Orientation Committee, a number of actions were undertaken. These included such actions as: integrating student processes which occurred from admissions to the time of their first year experience, addressing special population needs, such as commuters, adult learners, provisional students, etc., developing a retention plan, and establishing a Common Reading Program for all first-year students.

We know that all aspects of a student life are complementary to the educational process and the learning process, yet we don’t really look for those other pieces … I think to truly be effective, we have to structure a means by which we can individually assess and work with students in terms of where they are when they hit the front door, where do they want to be …

The Common Reading Experience program was a large-scale effort involving faculty, students and staff from across the campus. First year students read a common book (The Kite Runner) and could participate in activities as diverse as an ethnic meal, based on the Afghani culture of the book, a kite building contest, a lecture from a photojournalist who had spent 3 years in Afghanistan, and weaving workshops. The purpose of the program was to make connections between classroom and out of class activities, and provide a common academic experience for first year students. The campus will be assessing the outcomes of this program through evaluations of orientation and the FTCAP program, and through the National Survey of Student Engagement.


The Quality Advocates Network meets several times each semester to share ideas and examples of improvement and change. To join the Quality Advocates Network mailing list or to learn more about the meetings scheduled, contact the staff at psupia@psu.edu.

The Quality Advocates Network is open to all Penn State faculty, staff, administrators, and students.