Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

Can we enhance student learning through an extra-curriculum leadership development program?

Lyn Abbott, Alison Connell, Richard O'Donnell and Sharon Dawson
Faculty of Agriculture
The University of Western Australia
A program assisting students to develop their skills as undergraduate leaders was introduced into the Faculty of Agriculture three years ago. The program is a loosely defined support network for students who participate in the Agriculture Club, the Student Section of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science and Technology (AIAST) and the First Year Student Mentor Committee. These three student groups organise social and professional activities for undergraduate students and maintain a mentor program for first year students. The programs involve participation of students at all levels (years 1 to 4) in the Faculty. General support is also provided to the Agriculture Postgraduate Club.

Can we enhance student learning through an extra-curriculum leadership development program? What criteria can be used to assess the impact on student learning? Can the impact be assessed? What opportunities can be introduced to provide students with leadership development during their degree? To what extent do students who participate in these activities improve their leadership skills? Does participation have a negative benefit for the students involved because of the additional time involved? Do other students participate in the activities generated by the student leaders? What incentives are there for students to participate in leadership roles or to attend the activities initiated by the student groups?


Introduction

The Faculty of Agriculture has had an active undergraduate-based Agriculture Club for many years. This has played an important part in the Faculty by organising (i) student links to the Guild, (ii) social activities for students (eg the Ball, Quiz Night, Car Rally, sporting activities, student newsletters etc), (iii) representation on Faculty Committees, (iv) participation with Orientation Day, (v) school visits to promote the Faculty and (vi) speakers from industry. Since 1992, students have maintained the Student Section of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science and Technology (AIAST). The AIAST Student Section has organised Careers Days and social events (especially with mentors) and has participated in a Mentor Program linking students to professionals in industry. The two major factors in the success of these activities are the enthusiasm of the students and the degree to which their predecessors have left them well organised information.

Over the years, students have lost valuable time in 'learning-the-ropes' when they take over new responsibilities. The reasons for this vary, but the lack of smooth transfer of information from committee to committee from year to year is one of the problems. Students are often 'thrown in at the deep end' with little information and proceed with difficulty in finding out that was previously known, but not well recorded by the last committee. Thus, the transfer of knowledge was not always effective and frustration at re-developing a data-base wasted time that could have been well used on enhancing existing activities or new initiatives.

At the end of 1995, a meeting of the student representatives in the Faculty of Agriculture was called by an Associate Dean. This included committee members and Year Representatives elected by students from each year in the Faculty. It was proposed that one of the Associate Deans meet with the students on a regular basis as an adviser. This was strongly supported by the students. Since 1996, fortnightly meetings have been held during semester in a central meeting room in the Faculty with an Associate Dean and the Senior Faculty Administrative Officer. Initially it was not intended that this be the regular student committee meeting, however, it has evolved to be so for the Agriculture Club. The Student Section of the AIAST committee meets separately. Faculty staff also discuss leadership issues with the students from time to time.

Over the last three years, there has been a gradual improvement in the information flow from committee to committee, and among students involved in the Agriculture Club, the Student Section of the AIAST and the Agriculture Postgraduate Club. Year Representatives are active participants in the process, whereas in the past they were not always kept well informed. The Agriculture Club President for 1998 was the First Year Representative in 1996, and the president-elect for 1999 was the First Year Representative in 1997. This continuity of involvement demonstrates commitment on the part of the students. It is also indicative of a system that provides support and encourages participation of students across the Faculty. The outgoing President of the Agriculture Club (who will be a 4th year student) will now also remain on the committee to provide advice and support.

Understanding how student groups can function well without having to learn from scratch has been a focus of the support provided by the Faculty staff to the students. Strong involvement of Year Representatives is also an important part of this process, as is support from past committee members to the new committees is also important. These processes are now in place allowing student enthusiasm to be directed towards productive initiatives, rather than being directed in frustration at dealing with inadequate information and 're-inventing the wheel' every year.

The other main focus of the Faculty staff support to the student groups has been to provide a more structured environment for students to learn leadership skills. It is possible to learn the hard way, but this is inefficient. Students who learn good leadership skills from other students and who teach these to their juniors should be able to take these skills with ease into the workforce. In addition, strong mentoring programs have been developed in the Faculty for many years with mentoring by members of the profession and by students in second year and above. Again, the emphasis is on students learning good mentoring skills so that they, and others, can benefit through continuation of this practice throughout their lives.

The opportunity to develop these support programs arose because students were highly motivated to do as much as was possible to enhance the quality of their learning environment. Indeed, the First Year Mentor Program, established initially with a combination of academic and student mentors, has evolved through student initiative into a highly organised student activity (with no direct input from Faculty staff except through encouragement). All students are matched with a student mentor (mainly second year students) at a barbecue on their first day at UWA in Semester 1. The Student Committee of this mentor program has structured itself so that there is continuity and participation from year to year. In this way, knowledge is passed on before more senior students leave the Faculty. This may seem like a sensible thing to do, but the students need full credit for establishing an on-going process that is as efficient as it is.

So what has this got to do with student learning? Clearly, leadership skills are of great importance to students when they enter the workforce and major employment organisations are constantly emphasising this to our students. Therefore, on a personal basis, a student who learns to participate and be effective in a student organisation will be well equipped for later studies and employment. However, do these skills also assist in students' in-class learning as well? This Dilemma session seeks to discuss this possibility and to identify ways of assessing the impact of leadership development on student learning.

Can we enhance student learning through an extra-curriculum leadership development program?

Extra-curricula activities within the University are part of the students' learning environment. It is our view that some focus on this aspect of students' university experience needs to be considered so that a more holistic approach to student learning - incorporating student motivation - is achieved. If teaching is only about what happens within a particular class, this overlooks opportunities for synergy.

What criteria can be used to assess the impact on student learning?

For documentation of benefits to student learning, criteria are required to assess the impact of leadership development.

Can the impact be assessed?

The inclination of some students to become involved in student committees could be related to their natural leadership skills. Therefore, the assessment of benefits may not be straightforward.

What opportunities can be introduced to provide students with leadership development during their degree?

An active senior student involvement in social and educational activities could be an inducement for junior students to participate. Well organised student committees are more likely to encourage student participation and student support of their activities than are committees that are struggling to attain their goals. Leadership development can be linked to existing student committees (for the Faculty of Agriculture this is the Agriculture Club, the Student Section of the AIAST, the First Year Mentor Committee and the Agriculture Postgraduate Club). Additional leadership programs outside students' own activities may be less effective.

To what extent do students who participate in these activities improve their leadership skills?

This needs to be assessed, but the type of experience the student has is likely to be important.

Does participation have a negative benefit for the students involved because of the additional time involved?

Many students are enthusiastic and highly committed to the success of their involvement in extra-curricula activities that support other students. Therefore, it is possible that the student-centred activities could take precedence over class-centred learning. The additional time spent in support of activities organised by students can be either effective or ineffective depending on the level of support by other students, information flow etc. The more students who are involved in efficient committee work, the less time commitment for each of them. A higher level of participation also increases the sense of teamwork and students are more satisfied with their efforts. At a personal level, students involved in leadership activities benefit through the experience of becoming more organised. They also practice time-management and networking skills and gain experience in administration and personal communication through letter-writing, justifying requests for funding, and communication with industry representatives. Many of these skills are transferable to their studies.

Do other students participate in the activities generated by the student leaders?

General student support of student-generated activities will vary depending on whether they are seen to be relevant. For example, lunchtime talks by visiting speakers (including potential employers) could be considered unimportant by most students if the culture of the student group had developed in this way. As a means of addressing this issue, and to highlight the relevance of their degrees, students within the Faculty of Agriculture have re-established a regular lunchtime Faculty Hour. Initially, attendance was poor. Therefore, students have restructured the program to be (i) more frequent - as a means of increasing its profile, and (ii) more relevant - by inviting speakers from industry who participate in the Mentor Program. However, the number of students who participate in educational activities generated by the student leaders remains relatively low. There is a more enthusiastic response to social events. For this reason, the Mentor Committee and the Agriculture Postgraduate Club both also hold regular barbecues for students and staff in addition to their major social events.

What incentives are there for students to participate in leadership roles or to attend the activities initiated by the student groups?

The established student culture is important for the success or otherwise of student-organised activities - either social or educational. Prizes are awarded to recognise the contribution of a limited number of students. With increasing participation of students throughout all years and over a number of student committees and working groups, as well as student representation in Faculty Committees and Faculty-organised activities such as orientation, school visits and other promotional activities, more students are participating in many valuable ways. Will the incentive for participation simply arise out of a culture change that sees participation as 'normal' or are other incentives necessary?

Please cite as: Abbott, L., Connell, A., O'Donnell, R. and Dawson, S. (1999). Can we enhance student learning through an extra-curriculum leadership development program? In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 1-4. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/abbott.html


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