Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

Expanding the Traditional Academic Record: Elon’s Visual Experiential Learning Transcript

“I’ve been at Elon University for twenty-one years, and a connection to experiential, engaged learning was part of the DNA of the institution when I arrived,” said Maurice Levesque, associate provost for curriculum and assessment. “But we didn’t really showcase those experiences or help students document them well until about five years ago.”

Beginning in 1994, the student affairs office at Elon—a private university in Elon, North Carolina—offered students the Elon Experiential Transcript, which included a basic list of courses with experiential components. With little formatting and few details about individual student experiences, these transcripts were rarely requested by students, faculty, or advisors, many of whom didn’t even know it existed.

In 2002, Elon implemented a requirement that all students take at least two experiential learning courses within five categories: global learning, leadership, undergraduate research, service learning, or internships (see fig. 1). Except for study abroad, which changed to global learning that could include experiences in the United States as well as abroad, this requirement remains today.

Figure 1. Elon Experiences Transcript After 2002

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When Rodney Parks joined Elon as registrar in 2013, he worked with Elon’s online transcript ordering system to offer students a “veritable buffet of academic documents,” Parks said. Students can now include additional documents—such as the Elon Experiences and Elon Academy transcripts —with their official academic transcript in a single PDF.

In 2015, the registrar’s office received a grant as part of a Lumina Foundation project to help institutions create more comprehensive credentials that include learning that happens outside of the classroom. Elon used this grant to revise the Elon Experiences Transcript into a two-page visual transcript that uses data to create a more informative and accessible representation of student experiences. The first graduating class received their visual transcripts in 2016.

It didn’t take long to see the effects of these reforms. While just three students requested the Elon Experiences Transcript in 2012 (before they could select it along with their academic transcript), more than seven hundred students ordered it in 2013. Currently, about 40 percent of Elon’s transcript orders are for the experiential transcript.

“More and more students are asking questions about it, making sure that things are documented appropriately on the experiential transcript,” Parks said. “We’re hearing more often from parents that something might be missing from a transcript, and you know when parents start calling we recognize people are really paying attention to the value of the information.”

On the transcript’s first page, a summary of student experiences within the five categories is broken up by years. On the second page, infographics provide more information about the depth and breadth of these student experiences (see fig. 2).

Figure 2. The Visual Transcript (click to enlarge)

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Visual transcripts can include (1) faculty-designed titles for research experiences and hyperlinks to writing samples like honors theses; (2) information about the organizations where students served or interned, including the number of hours they completed, the organizations’ logos, and hyperlinks to internship postings or service learning outcomes; and (3) a map of locations in the United States and abroad where students participated in global learning experiences.

Unlike eportfolios—which Elon students curate for internships and other experiences—students have little input on what is shown on their experiential learning transcript. To ensure that transcript listings are accurate and representative of university-vetted experiences, approved experiences are usually “accompanied by explicit academic work” that can satisfy Elon’s experiential learning requirements, Levesque said. For example, “if it’s an internship, students are not only working in the field, they’re working with a faculty mentor or in a class to integrate that experience into an academic context.”

However, offices and departments can submit co-curricular activities for inclusion, such as student presentations at national conferences. When experiences have no explicit link to a class, students are expected to reflect on their experiences and apply their learning to other courses.

“The Elon Experiences Transcript is part of Elon’s long-standing institutional commitment to experiential learning,” Levesque said. “The [new] transcripts are a revision of that commitment to make it more transparent, to make it more usable, and to make sure that it’s part of a student’s story of their experience, even though experiential learning has been part of their experience for a long time.”

A Document for Students

Initially, the registrar’s office thought that students applying for jobs could show their visual transcript to employers along with their résumé and cover letter. However, they are now more focused on students’ interactions with the transcript.

“The Elon Experiences Transcript is just one piece of paper that shows different experiences. It may show a study abroad trip or program in London, but it doesn’t have any details. You’ve got to breathe life into it,” said Tom Brinkley, executive director of the Student Professional Development Center (SPDC).

“I am constantly involved with different activities on Elon’s campus, and it’s hard to remember all of them,” said Jack Fryer, a junior at Elon who uses his visual transcript to prepare for internship interviews. Fryer hasn’t shown the transcript to an employer directly—though he says he may do so in the future. Still, he credits the reflection the transcript prompts with helping him tailor his résumé to fit specific internship positions, which helped him land a marketing internship this summer. “Once I’m a senior and looking for actual jobs, it’s going to help me a lot,” he said.

While students who interact with the transcript rave about how great the transcripts are, one of the biggest challenges for SPDC is “getting students to actually take advantage of the vast array of services we have available,” Brinkley said. To help drive student engagement, the registrar’s office is working with SPDC and the academic advising office to guide students in reflecting on their experiential learning. Academic advisors are starting to build discussions about the experiential transcripts into discussions about students’ academic plans, and staff from the registrar’s office visited the SPDC to train career advisors to help students use transcripts to prepare for jobs, internships, or graduate school. 

SPDC and the registrar’s office staff also visit Elon 101, a first-year seminar course, to showcase the experiential transcripts, help students understand how to use them, and push them to think about integrating cocurricular experiences when they develop their four-year plans.

“This school is incredibly engaging for students, and part of our challenge is getting them to think more deeply and reflect,” Brinkley said. “They’re very good at breadth, but they’re not as good at depth. And so our challenge with these students is helping them to reflect on their experiences rather than just collect badges.”

Fryer never felt pressure to collect experiences to fill out his transcript. Instead, he carefully selected his activities because they were “just the experiences I believed would make me a better Elon student and community member,” he said.

This careful consideration and reflection is the transcript’s primary purpose.

“Ultimately the hope is they’ll start using the experiential transcripts more frequently to guide what they’re planning to do while they’re here, just as they use a degree audit or a catalog to plan courses,” Levesque said.

SPDC and the registrar’s office also collaborate on the Mobile Registrar, a booth at Elon’s spring and fall Job and Internship Expos where staff print academic and experiential transcripts for students to use when approaching employers at these career fairs.

Employers are often puzzled when they see the Elon Experiences Transcript for the first time. “There aren’t many schools that are using cocurricular transcripts that look this official,” Brinkley said. “At first, they didn’t know what to do with them; it was just another document for them.” However, as the SPDC continues their outreach with employers, more and more “are starting to recognize the value of the Elon Experiences Transcript.”

Employers have provided SPDC with advice about additions they could make to the transcripts, such as information about cocurricular skills training like quantitative analysis and advanced Microsoft Excel, or programs like Wall Street Prep and certified financial analyst certificates.

To help understand the needs of both employers and students, Parks helped his student advisee—Jack Fryer—to survey 471 students and 144 employers as an undergraduate research project. This experience, including presenting his research and perspectives to one hundred educators at Lumina Foundation’s conference at the conclusion of the grant, are documented on Fryer’s visual transcript.

The survey results were “overwhelmingly positive” from both employers and students, Fryer said. “It was cool to see that they were on the same page when it comes to this unique transcript that no other school has quite like Elon’s.”

While many employers and students seemed unsure whether the transcript would help students land a job or not, most strongly agreed or agreed that the transcripts provided more depth about students’ experiences and could set them apart from other students or job applicants. Most employers also strongly agreed or agreed that “the visual transcript provides useful information for the hiring process” (see fig. 3).

Figure 3. Employer Opinions on the Elon Experiences Transcript

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In addition to the reflection and career outcomes that the transcripts foster, the data from the student management system that is used to track experiences and create the transcripts has also proved valuable. Academic departments receive reports on the experiences their graduates completed, including internships, service learning experiences, and study abroad. This data has helped departments give more consideration to the value of experiential learning in their own programs, and they funnel these insights into their student advising.

The data also provide insights into experiences that could promote more successful outcomes for certain groups of students.

“For first-generation students or minority students, we’re able to look at what are the successful pathways for those students and really begin to think about what first-year programs need to be built to ensure retention of those students at a higher rate,” Parks said.

Now, Parks hopes that more and more institutions can benefit from Elon’s work. Each week, he receives several phone calls from registrars at other institutions seeking advice to institute a similar transcript on their campus.

“You’re seeing interest across the board, from research-1 schools to small liberal arts schools,” Parks said. “You see institutions really starting to think about their own culture and what experiences they would like to document to expand the traditional academic record.”