Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

Students who have Iowa GROW conversations with their supervisors are more likely to report that they find connections between their work and their academics and that they are developing broadly applicable skills like written and oral communication.

Connecting Work and Learning at the University of Iowa


The Division of Student Affairs is the largest employer of undergraduate students at the University of Iowa. The division’s employment network—which includes dining services, residence halls, and a research hospital—provides jobs for more than 2,000 students every year. So when student affairs staff began a series of conversations in 2009 about how to better promote student success, work-study seemed a natural place to focus, says Sarah Hansen, assistant vice president for student life assessment and strategic initiatives. The resulting initiative was Iowa GROW—Guided Reflections on Work.

Iowa GROW calls for all supervisors to engage their student employees in structured conversations about their work and how it relates to their academic studies and to the skills and dispositions they are developing. “The big question,” Hansen says, “was, ‘What can we do to provide more intentionality to that experience so we make sure that students gain more than just the ability to do tasks for us?’”

Structured Conversations on Work and Learning

Hansen and her staff found extensive research documenting the learning benefits of work-study, “and we thought maybe [we] could do something on our campus that isn’t too laborious but still adds some needed structure,” she says. An initial Student Work Pilot in 2010 included a small group of supervisors, chosen because they were already engaged with their student employees on issues related to their academic studies and lives outside of work. Those supervisors piloted the use of reflective prompts in one-on-one conversations with about thirty student employees. A second pilot worked with a larger group of supervisors and student workers, including those working in areas such as food service that might seem harder to connect with students’ academic goals. The second pilot also included conversations with small groups of students as well as individual conversations.

The pilots offered many implementation tips, especially the importance of clearly identifying the purpose of the conversation for students and of sharing the reflection questions ahead of time so students have time to reflect before the meeting. The list of reflection questions was also modified, and a training program was developed for supervisors before the program was implemented across the Division of Student Affairs.

Under the current form of Iowa GROW, supervisors hold at least two structured conversations with their student employees based on four questions:
How is this job fitting in with your academics?
What are you learning here that is helping you in school?
What are you learning in class that you can apply here at work?
Can you give me a couple of examples of things you’ve learned here that you think you’ll use in your chosen profession?

Supervisors meet with student workers to discuss these questions twice a semester—once about five weeks into the semester, and once between midterms and final exams. Supervisors decide whether to hold discussions individually or in small groups, depending on scheduling and preference. The pilot assessments showed that students participating in both individual and group conversations made gains in their understanding of their current employment as a learning experience—unsurprisingly, Hansen says, as students often learn from each other in group settings.

Iowa GROW also provides supervisors with additional questions that focus on specific skills students might be developing on the job, such as the ability to collaborate with people from diverse backgrounds, and ways that work-study might be preparing them to choose and succeed in particular careers. While the first four questions are required to be discussed with every student at every Iowa GROW conversation, the additional questions provide material for further discussion, especially with students who have been participating in the program for multiple semesters.

“You don’t have to be rigid about the questions,” says Tanya Villhauer, the associate director of education for student health and wellness. “Just have a conversation with them and see where it goes. It opens up doors for the students and you might talk about something you otherwise wouldn’t have an opportunity to discuss.”

Assessing the Results

Villhauer supervises three undergraduate student workers, but she also holds Iowa GROW conversations with her graduate assistants. Her student workers do everything from basic administrative tasks to promoting wellness initiatives with social media and gathering student data for university-wide reporting. Working with data is particularly useful for the students, Villhauer says, because “they take what they learned in the class and see how it is used here in a real-world setting.”

During Iowa GROW conversations, her students also talk about learning more broadly applicable skills, she says, especially the importance of communication and teamwork. Her office typically has two students working together, she says, “and that involves communicating with others, helping them when they need it. That’s something that I, as a professional, see immense value in ... so we try to make sure the students nurture their team-work skills.”

“Iowa GROW has really helped me understand where I want to be in the future and how what I’m doing now will help me get there,” says Kendra Kramer, a senior health and human physiology major who works in Villhauer’s office. Kramer’s work entails meeting with students who come to voluntary sessions on high-risk alcohol behavior, as well as other duties related to health promotion. “My work connects very strongly with my academics, but we don’t always take the time to think about that,” she says.

Taking the time to discuss these connections explicitly lets supervisors know more about their students’ aspirations and how they might take on more responsibility in ways that align with their interests and benefit the workplace. “If there’s anything a student can help with, let them,” Kramer says. “When my supervisor is doing a report, she’ll send it to me to proofread. It doesn’t sound like much, but it lets me see what she’s working on.” It’s also helpful for students to engage in this reflection now, Kramer says, because they’ll be prepared to write a resume that demonstrates the skills they’ve developed.

The university has begun conducting periodic assessments of students’ experiences with the program. A survey conducted in the spring of 2013 shows marked differences between student workers who have participated in Iowa GROW and those who haven’t participated in how they perceive the benefits they gain from their work on campus. More than half of Iowa GROW participants said they saw connections between their work and their academic courses, compared with 19 percent of non-participants. Participants were also more likely than non-participants to perceive their jobs as good preparation for full-time employment and to report that their jobs helped them develop specific skills such as written and oral communication, problem solving, and working with individuals from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and experiences. These are, appropriately, many of the same skills employers say they value in new hires, according to a survey of business leaders conducted by AAC&U.

Growing Methodically

Hansen and Villhauer both stress the importance of moving slowly and soliciting the participation and feedback of supervisors across the division. They developed a forty-five-minute orientation session to prepare supervisors to lead conversations with their student employees. “Anchoring it in the learning literature is key—helping our staff members understand that they’re helping students develop expertise in one area that can be used in other areas,” Hansen says. Because many supervisors oversee dozens of student workers, it’s important to demonstrate the benefits that can be achieved for students in a relatively short amount of time. The orientation includes a video of a conversation from the initial pilot that is comprehensive but brief—less than seven minutes.

“Our plan is to first of all make sure this is solidly integrated in the culture of our division,” Hansen says. “Supervisors have turnover too, so we have to make sure this intervention becomes rooted in our practice.” Her division is also working with the university’s student employment office to identify other employers, such as libraries and facilities, who might be interested in incorporating Iowa GROW into their student employment practices. “We want to eventually get to the point where the campus is saturated with this.”

“We’re also working to make sure this is mentioned during orientation upon hiring students,” Hansen continued. “We’re using learning language throughout the employment process, not just in one conversation, so students know we care about what they learn.”

Hansen and her colleagues regularly speak to other institutions about developing similar programs, and while they’re excited to talk about their success, they also caution against diving in too quickly. “We were very methodical about involving supervisors throughout, and starting with pilots—don’t go full bore. People see this and want to do it across divisions right now, and I think that’s a mistake,” Hansen says. “You have to build buy-in and work to counter resistance.”

Supervisors across campus can be won over if you take the time to explain the benefits, Villhauer says. “It’s one more meeting to schedule, but it’s worth it. Don’t sell yourself short on what skills students are learning—they’re not just filling trays. Try to think of everything they learn in that experience. Why wouldn’t we want to invest in the students and show them how valuable this is?”

More information about Iowa GROW can be found at the University of Iowa Student Affairs web page. You can also read about a similar program at the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater, which infuses AAC&U’s Essential Learning Outcomes into the training and performance evaluations for work-study positions at its University Center. Additional information about the skills and competencies employers expect from college graduates can be found in AAC&U’s recent employer survey It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success.

University of Iowa