Promoting Learning in Student Employment

Student employees are often challenged to parse together the interconnectedness of their campus job, academics, and a future career, but with the right tools on-campus employers can take advantage of opportunities for leadership development and learning. 

Creating a learning-centric environment for student employees that enables work to contribute to student success, leadership development, and career readiness is what Sarah L. Hansen and Beth A. Hoag explore in “Promoting Learning, Career Readiness, and Leadership in Student Employment,” a research article appearing in the Spring 2018 edition of New Directions for Student Leadership

Guided by two frameworks, one produced by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) and another from Wright State University professor Corey Seemiller on student leadership competencies, the authors offer guidance toward infusing leadership education and career readiness into student employment programs. 

The 2015 NACE survey of employers found they looked for leadership skills like teamwork, communication, and the ability to influence, with 80% saying they tried to identify leadership skills and experiences on resumes. Seemiller developed 60 leadership competencies (i.e., problem solving, collaboration, ethics) divided into eight clusters (i.e., interpersonal interaction, strategic planning, and communication) after looking at the accreditation requirements of 522 professions. 

With the two frameworks and close attention to high-impact practices identified by George D. Kuh, founding director of the Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, Hansen and Hoag first ask some basic foundational questions: 

  1. Can nonacademically based student jobs contribute to educational gains? 
  2. Is a student who works in the campus dining hall learning skills that contribute toward our desired outcomes for a liberal education? 
  3. Given the amount of time a student may spend working during college, how can we ensure that these hours help the student develop leadership competencies that employers of college graduates are seeking? 

Kuh’s high-impact practices require students to apply and transfer learning across contexts and to integrate learning from different areas. These practices usually share common elements like significant time and effort allocation, frequent feedback, meaningful interactions with faculty and peers, and opportunities to reflect on learning. 

Using these three guiding frameworks (NACE, Seemiller, and Kuh), Hansen and Hoag looked for guiding principles, high-impact practices, and lessons learned within two student learning intervention programs: the University of Iowa’s IOWA GROW and the University of Illinois’ Illinois Leadership Center. Hansen is an associate vice president in the Division of Student Life at the University of Iowa and the creator of IOWA GROW, while Hoag is associate director in the Illinois Leadership Center at the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign. The pair studied their own programs. Their goals were to present models for creating learning-centric programs that include leadership development and to identify strategies to create those programs. 

After a study found that only about one in four supervisors were actively helping students connect work with academics, IOWA GROW began using brief, structured learning-centered conversations between student employees and supervisors twice each semester. The questions are considered prompts to help direct student attention toward the topic of work-academic connections, and they are built on a scaffolding that introduces more complex questions as the student becomes more skilled at work-academic connection making. The questions are also directly aligned with Seemiller’s student leadership competencies (SLC). Some examples:

  • What have you learned so far in your studies and courses about working with diverse populations that you find useful in this job? (SLC: Valuing Other Perspectives) 
  • What have you learned about communicating effectively with your supervisor, and how can that apply to communicating with your faculty? (SLC: Verbal Communication, Writing, Appropriate Interaction) 
  • What types of problems have you solved at work, and how could this help you in class? (SLC: Problem Solving, Decision Making) 
  • How has working as a team member here at work helped you with group projects in your classes? (SLC: Collaboration, Productive Relationships) 

In looking at 394 IOWA GROW student employees and 242 non-IOWA GROW student employees, Hansen and Hoag found that students who participated in conversations with their supervisors were many times more likely to articulate skills gained from employment than students who did not participate. 

“The skills that students note they are gaining from campus employment are directly tied to desired outcomes of a college education, skills sought by employers of new college graduates, and leadership competencies,” they wrote. “Specific leadership development and leader identity reflective questions could readily be added to this model.” 

At the Illinois Leadership Center, staff had realized they had not intentionally integrated learning throughout the employment experience nor provided directed opportunities for students to make connections between their job, classes, and future career. To address this, a new five-phase, learning-focused model was developed: 

  • Review of literature, best practices, and campus data 
  • Consensus-building retreat 
  • Finalize learning outcomes and create and standardize learning experiences 
  • Revise the application, hiring process, and training 
  • Assessment planning 

“Within the student employment realm, there are a number of relatively easy changes that can put learning at the center of the student experience creating an opportunity for leadership learning,” the researchers wrote. Interventions like IOWA GROW and Illinois Leadership Center’s Student Employment Initiative “explicitly position the supervisor as a partner in learning and promote the ethos of a learning organization.” 

Their key takeaways and strategies included: 

  • Use Learning Language Throughout Employment 

“Students need multiple cues that learning is something we care about within the student employment experience. A simple first step is to embed learning language into position advertisements and descriptions.” 

  • Set Learning Goals 

“Ask each student employee to set a yearly/semesterly/quarterly learning goal. If your permanent staff members are also doing this, students and staff members can share goals and potentially collaborate as learning partners.” 

  • Help Students Experience the Institution as Interconnected 

“Take every opportunity to help student employees see how their work supports the overall organization. For instance, ensure students who work in campus dining know how many weekly meals are served and how their tasks support the reduction of food waste.” 

  • Provide Support for Supervisors 

“Supervisors of student employees bring as much diversity as the students themselves. Some student employee supervisors are doctoral educated specialists in student development, whereas in other areas, supervisors are frontline employees whose educational attainment may be a high school diploma. Nonetheless, supervisors are indeed experts on the skills and competencies that should be attained by their employees.” 

  • Understand the Change Process and Celebrate Success 

“It is important to acknowledge that supervisors, leaders, and students are being asked to change their ways of working. Have intentional discussions about why these measures are implemented and how these activities can prepare them for future leadership roles and employment opportunities. Make it a priority to share success stories, data, program revisions, and other indications of success and commitment.” 


Hansen, S. L., & Hoag, B. A. (2018). Promoting learning, career readiness, and leadership in student employment. New Directions for Student Leadership, 157, 85-99. 


  • Steve Chaplin

    Steve Chaplin is managing editor of ACUI’s The Bulletin and manager of the ACUI College Union and Student Activities (CUSA) Evaluation Program. A former newspaper writer, editor, and manager, he has volunteered as a student mentor as a member of the National Association of Science Writers, and received awards for his writing and reporting from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Kentucky Education Association, and the Kentucky Press Association.

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