Using LEAP to Connect Work and Learning: the University Center at the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater
The University of Wisconsin system has been a partner in Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP), AAC&U’s national initiative to advance the importance of a twenty-first-century liberal education, almost since its inception—the state of Wisconsin became the first LEAP state partner in 2005. But when University of Wisconsin–Whitewater (UW–Whitewater) began the process of adopting LEAP as its campus framework for general education learning outcomes and assessment, the university took an exceptionally inclusive approach to implementing the initiative.
To kick off the LEAP initiative on campus, units and departments from across campus were invited to attend workshops and focus groups. One of those delegations was a group of staff from the University Centers, which provides meeting spaces and oversees a number of campus services, including the contracted dining services. The center also employs over three hundred students, some of them year round, and some staff recognized the LEAP framework as an opportunity to connect liberal education with students’ work experiences on campus. Beginning in those workshops, University Center staff began the development of a program that adapted the language of LEAP to the workplace and asked students to engage in conversations that connect classroom learning with work experience.
Bob Barry, the executive director of the university center, says his enthusiasm for tying learning outcomes to student employment came in part from his own college education, the full value of which wasn’t apparent to him until years after he graduated. “We’re trying to make it more immediate, just how relevant [their education] is to them. I wanted to see if we can’t help all our student employees understand this now, instead of ten or fifteen years later looking back.”
Integrating LEAP across Campus
UW–Whitewater was already working on a plan to strengthen the presence of the liberal arts throughout the University of Wisconsin system before LEAP was formally launched in 2005. After Wisconsin became the first LEAP state partner, a task force charged with identifying baccalaureate learning goals for UW–Whitewater recommended adopting LEAP as the model for general education learning outcomes. The recommendation was endorsed by faculty, staff, and the student government, and the university hosted a series of workshops developed by Greg Cook, professor of psychology and interim director of academic assessment, who became an early champion of LEAP on campus. Representatives from all units and departments across campus were invited to the workshops to learn about LEAP and develop their own plans for incorporating it into their operations. Academic Affairs provided a stipend not just for participants from their own division but for every student, staff and faculty member from across campus that participated in the workshops.
Barry gives much of the credit to Tom Rios, vice chancellor for student affairs, for encouraging the University Center to become involved with LEAP. “Dr. Rios’s philosophy is ‘no matter what we do on campus, we’re all educators,’ and he’s been encouraging all staff to engage with students—to figure out how they learn best—as we go about our day-to-day operations." Still, Barry says he’s seen a number of initiatives come and go on campus without making much impact, and he wanted to be sure this wouldn’t be the case with LEAP. “We thought about how we get more in-depth involvement from staff members at various levels—not just myself as director, or my unit heads—and we went to the LEAP workshop with that in mind.” The University Center staff was joined by Tom Hinspater, resident district manager of dining services, who brought along a team of his managers. “We have about forty student managers, so this was a natural fit,” Hinspater says. “In some ways it’s a big shift … but it’s a way to be a better partner on campus.”
Given the high number of students employed in the University Center and dining services, Barry and the rest of the team members decided a student employment program was the best way to communicate with students about LEAP. This also meant a deep involvement from staff throughout the University Center. They took their time implementing the program, says Tom Pellizzi, the University Center retail coordinator. “We didn’t want this to be a fly-by-night initiative, so we took a lot of time to get staff educated about what LEAP was, and we did a lot of exercises so they could put their own touch to it.”
Part of that process was adapting the academic language of LEAP to the workplace. Central to LEAP are the essential learning outcomes (ELOs) for all college students, and high-impact teaching and learning practices (HIPs) designed to help students achieve these outcomes. Barry and the rest of the staff parsed through this language to identify where, in fact, they were already helping students work toward many of these outcomes. “During meetings we asked our staff, ‘How many of you affect students in this way? How many of you affect students in that way?’ And through that conversation they saw that, hey, we’re already doing that—we’re just going to be more deliberate about it now.”
The liberal education outcomes align well with work place skills and goals, say University Center staff. Knowledge of human cultures and a sense of personal and social responsibility—two of the LEAP essential learning outcomes—are also important capacities for employees working in the University Center. (Photo Courtesy of University of Wisconsin–Whitewater)
Essential Learning Outcomes for Student Work
A similar approach was used to orient student employees to LEAP. Students employed in the University Center or in Dining Services were introduced to LEAP in a series of orientation workshops at the beginning of the 2011–2012 academic year. Managers asked student employees to consider learning outcomes such as “knowledge of human cultures” and “personal and social responsibility”—the same outcomes they are working toward in their academic studies—and discuss how these outcomes are relevant to their work. These discussions continued through the fall semester, culminating in a student employee banquet in December where students discussed the essential learning outcomes and how they applied to the work they’d completed over the semester.
The University Center has also incorporated LEAP into student employee evaluations, says David Halbach, interim associate director of the University Center. “Using our previous [evaluation] model, we saw that we could put in questions and evaluation statements related to LEAP. The other part we did, which we had never done before, was to create a self-assessment worksheet for the employees.” The self-assessment, which students will discuss with their supervisors at the end of this school year, asks students to give examples of what they’ve learned in the classroom and how they applied it to their work in the University Center. “We added about seven questions [for students] that try to get them thinking about LEAP and the fact that we want them to learn skills for the future, to look for ties to their academics,” Halbach says.
Meanwhile, the University Center staff continues to develop new ways to integrate LEAP into student employment, including semester- or yearlong projects, says Barry, who advised a group of students working on a project to brand the University Center. “They suggested they would make some logos in a couple of weeks, and I said, ‘I don’t think that’s what branding is.’ So we had this group of students and the whole staff read a book called The Brand Gap and get a common understanding of it. Then Kat Shanahan, marketing and graphics coordinator for the University Center, put the students to work conducting surveys and working on this branding process, and in May they’ll present [their results] to the whole group of student employees we have. That ties into critical thinking and inquiry, these intellectual and practical skills—so we’re talking to them, again, about LEAP and the essential learning outcomes.”
While educating students and staff in the language of LEAP required some upfront work, Barry and his colleagues have found that the essential learning outcomes advanced by LEAP fit well with their work goals in the University Center. “Knowledge of human cultures—that’s very important given the programs we have here, with the art gallery and the entertainment programing,” Barry says. Pellizzi points to ‘personal and social responsibility’ as a learning outcome that’s important for any kind of employment.
Greg Cook says this strong connection is why “the ELOS and HIPs really resonate well with the value we place on our campus. We have very strong career-oriented majors and minors, but it’s also been a long and strong value on our campus that students be well rounded in their education, with an understanding of the larger world and generalizable skills and knowledge.”
That connection is particularly important for UW-Whitewater’s students, who tend to have a strong work ethic and expect to leave the university with good job prospects, says Lois Smith, associate dean of the college of business and economics. “The research [AAC&U has done] about what employers are seeking from job candidates . . . resonates with them. Liberal education may not play so well on some campuses, but when you say, ‘this is what liberal education is, and look at what employers say about it’—that speaks very strongly to our students.”
To further highlight these connections, UW–Whitewater has planned a LEAP Day seminar on February 29, featuring a keynote address from AAC&U Senior Director for Student Success Tia Brown McNair and sessions on applying the essential learning outcomes and high-impact practices. The event will also include a live webinar, cohosted with AAC&U and the California State University, with a panel of employers discussing the value of an engaged twenty-first-century liberal education.
An Inclusive Approach
Student buy-in has been a key part of the implementation of LEAP. When the Baccalaureate Learning Team went about the process of implementing LEAP, they sought endorsement not just from faculty and administrators, but also from the UW–Whitewater student government. A group of students also recently completed a two-day LEAP workshop, emerging with a plan is to create a campus student organization focused on promoting LEAP and helping students connect with the initiative.
Focus groups conducted with students show that knowledge of the LEAP ELOs is growing, and Smith expects to see that reflected in future assessment measures, such as data from the National Survey of Student Engagement.
Cook and Smith continue to find new ways to get students involved in LEAP. Most recently, with the support and financial backing of the provost, they offered a special study course, "Leadership in Educational Issues,” which focused on LEAP and culminated with students presenting their final projects to a group of leaders from across campus. Their projects highlighted their ideas on how to spread the LEAP word among students and includes an explanation, tag-lines, logos and brand names specific to UW–Whitewater’s LEAP initiative.
In addition to the academic benefits, Barry sees improvement in work performance at University Center. “[There is] more willingness to find an answer, to get out of the chair and help someone. Some of these are really subtle things, but it seems to me that throughout the building there’s been an overall improvement in performance and in attitude.” But Barry also points to the benefits for staff. “People want to know they make a difference,” he says. “The staff has really embraced this, knowing they’re nurturing students through these conversations, and that they’re educators too, not just coming to perform a function and leaving. It’s really added some enthusiasm.”
These are the benefits of an inclusive approach to learning assessment, says Smith. “I would encourage other campuses to look at LEAP not as an academic exercise, but as an assessment of a holistic experience on campus, so everyone is included. We have so much to gain as faculty from other staff who are working closely with students. . . . We need to look at the knowledge and content and skills they gain from classrooms, but also at the richness of experience and what our student affairs people call ‘deep learning,’ attending to the person, the whole student.”
Read more about LEAP at AAC&U’s website, including detailed information about the essential learning outcomes, principles of excellence, and high impact practices for teaching and learning. You can also find more details about LEAP throughout the University of Wisconsin system. For information about the LEAP Day seminar, including a live webinar with an employer panel, see the UW–Whitewater web page.