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Student Workers Can Learn More on the Job

By Jonathan S. Lewis
From on June 17, 2008.

Students work all around us, in classrooms, labs, and libraries. But in addition to their schoolwork, they also work as employees — in the college union, the athletics center, the dining hall, and administrative offices. For the most motivated students, employment in campus offices and labs can advance their chosen career tracks, including opportunities for graduate school.

It's not a bad arrangement for either side, provided you don't look behind the curtain and notice the reality: Many student positions are one-dimensional jobs where the chief criterion for hire is a student's willingness to sit behind a desk for hours on end. How can we — staff and faculty members alike — infuse learning into our student employees' experience?

To begin with, we need to understand how students learn when they're not in the classroom or lab. We also need to identify what we want our students to learn outside the classroom, and how we can effectively go about teaching those lessons. Student-affairs officers and researchers have sought to better define, understand, and promote learning within our co-curricular and extracurricular programs. Student employment has the potential to be a significant developmental experience for many students.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 50 percent of undergraduates work in part-time jobs while enrolled as full-time students. Those jobs provide an excellent extracurricular setting in which to promote learning after class has ended — and not only in areas related to job performance. Students grow as leaders, develop career paths, and discover how to balance courses, work, and personal lives. Yet as supervisors we often show concern for little more than satisfactory job performance. How do we better uncover the learning already occurring in our workplaces?

In 2007 I conducted a study at Northwestern University's college union in an attempt to find out. The study determined which workplace activities were significantly related to students' learning, focusing particularly on experiences that might produce growth in five key areas: leadership, career development, civic engagement, ethics and values development, and responsible independence. (Those are considered key areas of development by student-affairs researchers and organizations focused on student learning.) Student employees were asked to report the extent to which they engaged with certain developmental experiences on the job, such as opportunities for collaboration, receiving feedback from their peers, and making decisions intuitively. Students then rated their competency in each area after reading a prototypical description of each (e.g., "Career Development entails establishing an understanding of yourself in relation to your professional life choices. It includes gaining knowledge and experience related to preparing yourself for your emerging career path"). To what extent, we wanted to know, do they believe their engagement with such workplace experiences influenced their level of learning in the five major areas?

Students' staff supervisors completed a similar survey, offering an outside perspective on the students' own reports. The results showed that both student employees and their supervisors believed that work tasks and behavioral components encountered during the students' jobs produced learning in those five key areas.

Those who supervise student employees can better promote learning with a careful structuring of workplace tasks, interactions, and processes. Some easy, concrete suggestions for accomplishing that include:

Increase opportunities for peer collaboration and evaluation. Too many students work in relative isolation, even though the benefits associated with working and solving problems as a team are well known. Supervisors should create ways for student employees to work with their peers, which can lead to growth in leadership skills. Solo positions or those that don't require skilled labor — such as the student who swipes ID cards at the gym — can pose a challenge. However, regular team meetings, opportunities for shadowing, and virtual methods for collaboration like online discussion groups or message boards can help employees feel connected to their distant co-workers and the larger goals of the group.

Additionally, student workers should be given the chance to give and receive evaluation from their peers. With proper coaching from supervisors, peer evaluation can refocus team members on common goals, provide perspectives to which we as supervisors may not be privy, and give students the chance to practice giving feedback that is dynamic, meaningful, and growth-orientated. At the University of Chicago, for instance, student building managers give objective verbal and written feedback to new trainees on their performance, which helps those trainees develop as responsible, independent workers.

Create occasions for informal interactions between students, faculty members, and administrators. Research has shown that students learn from such interactions, so supervisors should arrange shared projects, team meetings, and group gatherings or meals outside of working hours. At Northwestern's college union, student employees who are promoted to supervisory positions join the professional staff in a retreat each September, which includes football and Frisbee alongside workshops on leadership and workplace ethics. The results of the study at Northwestern suggested that students felt that they learned more from situations like those that included informal interactions than from other, purely formalized training.

Encourage more congruence between the curriculum and the co-curriculum. Such meaningful congruence can lead to greater learning. To create it, faculty and staff members must work together to structure courses, activities, internships, and projects that catalyze growth in similar knowledge areas. That challenge can be particularly vexing when students work in a position that may appear to be light-years away from what they are studying in the classroom. In such situations, we must uncover and make explicit the learning opportunities that cross even the largest content gaps, such as growth in communication skills, learning to work with diverse populations, and developing a personal system of ethics and values. Faculty members should ask their students to include "real world" experiences during discussions in classes or as part of their written assignments. In the workplace, staff supervisors should help student employees sharpen their skills in verbal and written communications, follow-through, public speaking, and idea generation by assigning them to lead meetings, manage special projects, mediate disputes, or write proposals.

Pair faculty and staff members in learning-focused research teams. Learning must be the ultimate goal of a well-designed student-employment program, so it's up to us as supervisors to start conducting empirical research on learning in the workplace — perhaps with help from research faculty members at our institutions. A thoughtful study will provide data from which to create positive changes in a student-employment program. While educating staff members in proper research methods may be an unwelcome distraction for some professors, everyone — including department chairs and senior administrators — should recognize that supporting a learning-focused, research-oriented relationship with student-affairs professionals is a wise long-term investment.

To best serve our students and respond to calls that we be accountable for our use of their time and tuition dollars, those of us who work with student employees must refocus on learning as the core of a thoughtful student-employment program. In so doing, we can foster the transformative educational experience that our students deserve.

Jonathan S. Lewis is assistant director for the Reynolds Club and Bartlett Hall at the University of Chicago.

Last Updated 7/8/20

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