When institutions accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) had large self-study initiatives as part of the Program to Evaluate and Advance Quality (PEAQ), it was relatively easy to include students in the process. However, as HLC attempts to streamline quality assurance procedures in the pathways, many institutions are limiting the number of people involved. Among other things, the Assurance System allows only 15 contributors per institution. Therefore, other ways of involving students should be explored.
There are several reasons for involving students in the process. Much of the Assurance Argument is meant to summarize issues of immediate concern to students. Documenting student learning is arguably the most important goal of the Assurance System. Having students as part of the process provides opportunities for students to help verify the accuracy of the summaries made by faculty members and staff members. Further, the work of creating the Assurance Argument itself provides opportunities for students to work as professionals alongside faculty members and staff members. Educating students is our business: if we can turn the work that we need to do into learning opportunities for students, we should.
How Students Can Contribute Meaningfully
With clear tasks and deadlines, students can provide support in building the Assurance Argument. Following are tasks necessary for the Assurance Argument, and students are capable of all of them.
- Verifying that required policies are prominent on the institutions’ websites and the URLs (website addresses) of those policies
- Serving as runners to help information and objects arrive swiftly during the visit
- Visiting key student organizations to explain accreditation
Where to Find Students and How to Compensate Them
Every institution has outstanding students. However, finding those with the time and aptitude to contribute to the reaffirmation of accreditation process can be challenging. Effective recruiting strategies may vary substantially across types of institutions. For example, large doctoral institutions may be able to find graduate students in education who have a vested interest in learning more about accreditation. Community colleges would be much less likely to have graduate students. Medical schools may have high-level students but very few with substantial time to donate to reaffirmation of accreditation. For any institution, recruiting through existing structures is likely to be easiest. It is important to think carefully about what skills and abilities will be required and which can be learned during the task so that the position can be advertised accurately. Recruiting students is directly tied to what they get out of the process, so these two issues are discussed together.
Student governance is likely the most universally appropriate suggestion. Students involved in governance have already demonstrated a commitment to the institution and are likely to understand more of the institution’s policies and procedures than the average student would. If a request is made well in advance, the governing body may be willing to elect or appoint a special representative to the accreditation team. These students are especially well placed to help gather information and to help publicize the visit.
Internships are another suggestion that many kinds of institutions may be able to use. A graduate-level intern would be invaluable and able to contribute at many levels. Undergraduate interns could also be very useful for a variety of time-intensive tasks. Students from education, statistics and the social sciences may be especially well placed to gather information, organize data and run focus groups.
Planning well in advance and working with the instructor may offer some accreditation-work overlap with coursework. For example, a statistics class may help design and analyze the results of a student survey. A communication class may run focus groups on a particular topic of concern.
Work-study and similar programs may also be an excellent way to find students. Each institution likely has some recruiting and time-card structures in place to facilitate supervision of these students. Because the students are compensated monetarily, it is easier to recruit them for less-interesting tasks, such as proofreading and formatting.
For all participating students, it is important to emphasize the skills and abilities they can gain through their involvement. Many students will also be interested in the opportunity for a letter of recommendation from someone who has seen a different set of professional skills than their professors have observed.
The following specific suggestions are offered to those typically involved in coordinating the work of building an Assurance Argument in the Assurance System. If you decide to recruit students for this work, there are some points to note before you begin. First, consider how much mentoring you are willing to trade for tasks accomplished. If you need students to save you time, recruit only highly qualified students who have a clear reward structure and can work with you for multiple academic terms. Because there are clear benefits to students, you may choose to include students so long as the time cost to you is less than a few hours per week. This broadens the circumstances under which you can recruit students. Having clear standards in mind helps you communicate your expectations to students.
If you are working with larger numbers of students, consider grouping them into teams. For example, you might group students who are working on clerical tasks into the same team but group those working on marketing into a different team. With a large team, it may be useful to recruit students who are available for a specified weekly meeting time. The weekly meeting minimizes the time you spend explaining similar issues. It allows students to support each other and develop a sense of engagement with the process as a whole. Having a weekly meeting also creates natural deadlines for both you and your students that can keep everyone on task.
In managing the teams, be clear about the time expectations and deadlines for each task. To help students get more out of their experience, frequently explain how what you are doing is like and unlike your other professional work. Have students reflect together on their biggest challenges and successes. When the experience is tied to a course or internship, make the reflection on what they are learning a weekly activity. Where appropriate, incorporate other professional development opportunities into your meetings. For example, you might have students share examples of their resumes, showing how they are showcasing their current work or new skills.
Finally, be sure to build in time for failure. In the early stages of working with a new student, emphasize that this is a joint project. State that you are not asking them for finished, perfected products but for drafts that you can discuss at the next meeting. This reduces the chances that they will work for many hours in the wrong direction. In the current zeitgeist, some higher education officials are worried that students have too few opportunities to learn from failure. This can be one of the exceptions. Students can learn to fix their own mistakes and can learn from you as you go from initial outline to polished draft. In extreme cases, this is also a good place to set guidelines about what kind of work or problems would lead to termination of their position.
Involving students not only helps ensure that your Assurance Argument adequately represents students, it is rife with opportunities for engaged student learning. In completing the Assurance Argument, many of the necessary tasks can be completed by students. Including students requires more advance organization from the team leader but, done right, can also save time and lead to a better Assurance Argument.