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Focused on students

Cultivating a scholar-practitioner approach in Student Life

Student Life

By Dr. Jennifer Massey

The term scholar-practitioner is more common in the United States than in Canada.

Student affairs professionals who blend scholarly research with practical applications solve complex problems in their profession. They develop informed, experimental programs and assess the impact on students to further inform knowledge.

In order to move our university forward in our efforts to enhance student retention, thriving and equity, the cultivation of a scholar-practitioner approach in Student Life at Memorial is essential.

Cultural and contextual differences

While Canadian-based research and scholarship on student affairs is growing, the vast majority of journal articles and books that study and theorize post-secondary student engagement and success, and professional and policy reports that document best practices and illustrative case studies, are written by American researchers for an American audience (notable exceptions include Hardy-Cox & Strange.

The cultural and contextual differences of the Canadian higher education landscape, however, often present limitations in the applicability of U.S. practices, resources and models.

Indeed, U.S.-focused research cannot be seamlessly applied to the development of enrolment frameworks, retention strategies and engagement programs in Canada.

Advancing scholarship

For Canadian universities to be better equipped to proactively advance student success, we require robust research into the post-secondary student experience in Canada. (Read here for an example of a Canadian study on first-generation student success).

Professional organizations including the Canadian Association for College and University Student Services is working to advance scholarship in the field and Student Life at Memorial is establishing ambitious plans to emerge as a national leader in this process.

My own research into factors that support and/or impede student success is situated within a growing area: geographies of education. I am interested in how identity shapes student experience and success, and how institutional structures, processes and cultures enhance or impede student thriving.

“We must delve deeper into the everyday realities of our students.”

My recent research explores how institutional approaches to retention advance or curtail equity; how education and awareness (or lack thereof) of Aboriginal people and topics sustain a climate of ignorance on campus; and how student leadership development, campus involvement and career development shape student learning and engagement. This research is critically important to our professional practice.

As the Student Life team, along with the entire portfolio within the Office of the Deputy Provost (Students), strives to cultivate a campus environment in which all students connect, engage and belong, we must delve deeper into the everyday realities of our students.

Student retention

Some recent publications I’ve co-authored with Dr. Tracey Sulak of Baylor University critically examine institutional approaches to retention and call for a nuanced approach to institutional analysis.

In Using Latent Profile Analysis to Harness the Heterogeneity of Non-retained College Students and Examining the Heterogeneity within a University Transfer Cohort: Harnessing Differences to Provide Better Interventions in the Journal of College Orientation and Transition, we contend a key reason universities often struggle to raise retention rates is that retention efforts typically target those already most likely to remain.

“If we garner a deeper understanding of which students have chosen to leave our institution and why, we will be better prepared.”

We demonstrate the benefit of using a student-centered approach to retention research and practice, and show how robust statistical modelling can help universities identify populations of students who are less likely to retain and graduate.

If we garner a deeper understanding of which students have chosen to leave our institution and why, we will be better prepared to respond to the needs of current and future students.

Link theory to practice

For Memorial’s Student Life team, we strive to be both producers and consumers of research.

A key priority for us is to ensure Memorial is among the leading universities in Canada to employ a scholar-practitioner model in our approach to student affairs. To help us adopt this approach, our team has developed a comprehensive strategic plan that intentionally links theory to practice.

We have adopted a three-year assessment cycle, established a research and assessment committee, and are now engaging in systematic program review for continuous improvement.

Through this process, we aim to critically examine how our programs and supports impact the student experience at Memorial, identify areas of concern or for improvement, and develop productive solutions. These are the hallmarks of a student affairs scholar-practitioner approach.

Several Canada-wide research collaborations are also currently under development, multiple applications for research funding have been submitted, and data collection for several innovative studies has begun to help us realize this vision.

We aim to keep the campus community informed of our progress and welcome the opportunity to share ideas and collaborate with you.

Focused on Students is a summer series featuring members of the Office of the Deputy Provost (Students) leadership team sharing their insight on hot button, student-success related topics. The next installment will feature Dr. Peter Cornish, director, Student Wellness and Counselling Centre, discussing mental health and wellness innovation at Memorial.


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