The revolution in our understanding of student learning has affected dramatically our thinking about the out-of-class lives of students. If structured properly, campus and community activities, athletics, and residence halls are all potential laboratories for deep student learning and growth. High levels of personal engagement in a range of diverse and challenging activities can support and enhance students’ learning within the academic curriculum.
Bucknell’s goal as a student-centered institution is to provide students with an environment within which learning fills all the dimensions of university life. The Vision’s supporting paragraph states this commitment unambiguously: "Bucknell’s residential life and co-curricular program will fully support its academic program," and will provide an "integrated environment for student learning and growth." This challenging concept will require new levels of collaboration and coordination between academic affairs and student life.
This goal is a worthy one for Bucknell. The University seeks to develop students who will lead productive and satisfying lives that contribute to the betterment of our society. This requires attention to the mind, the body, and the communities in which we live. There are certainly boundaries between these areas of students’ lives, and students value these separations. At the same time, students do not live their lives in isolated compartments; developments in each exert powerful influences on the others.
At the national level, on-line learning, commuter colleges, and honors colleges at large state universities are transforming the competitive environment of higher education. Yet positive student learning outcomes continue to be associated most strongly with a highly personal, residential learning community. This is the kind of environment that students of high ability seek in their college choice, and it is one of the defining characteristics of a Bucknell education that will continue to provide value and competitive advantage in the future.
Systematic out-of-class learning must begin, as in traditional academic settings, with a clear definition of student learning outcomes. Extensive planning and careful orchestration are also required to assure progress toward the achievement of these outcomes. In what ways can student life support what students learn in their classrooms? In what ways can it complement academic learning? What approaches will we choose? What metrics will be used to assess these efforts? What level must these metrics reach for us to consider our efforts a success? From a strategic financial perspective, investment in student affairs initiatives must be driven by careful assessment of their effectiveness in achieving the University’s overall learning goals for its students.
The kinds of outcomes pursued through out-of-class activities are among the most difficult to assess because they often relate to student values. It is far easier to evaluate what students know or the skills they have developed. The end of the senior year is often much too soon to judge the development of certain values in our graduates. After graduation, students are more likely to experience challenges that bring to the fore the values acquired in college. As we develop programs to deepen the residential learning experience, our assessment methods must take a sufficiently long view of our alumni. To truly understand the effectiveness of our educational efforts, we will have to become students of the lives of our alumni.