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Documenting and decoding the undergrad experience

Web portfolios, self-assessment tools and a formal transcript that details a student’s involvement in non-curricular activities are the new buzz in student services.


An official transcript shows how well a student did in class, but universities have long recognized that a lot of learning takes place outside the classroom. Now a growing number of schools are developing ways of tracking, measuring and authenticating that learning.

Some are giving official sanction to a student’s involvement in campus activities – student council or campus clubs, for example – through what’s called a co-curricular transcript. Others have developed web-based self-assessment tools that students can use to understand their own knowledge, values and strengths.

The methods vary, but what these tools have in common is this: they were created to give the student a leg up in the job market and to boost their level of confidence, skill and maturity. The co-curricular transcript (the exact name varies; some places call it a co-curricular record) was pioneered in the United States and moved to Canada during the past decade. In the last two or three years, the tool has caught on across the country. Dalhousie, Wilfrid Laurier, Carleton and Acadia universities, as well as the universities of Calgary and Windsor, are among those that have signed on, although details about what a record contains and how it is managed vary.

“This generation of students is very used to being involved and engaged,” says Gareth McVicar in the University of Calgary’s Office of the Student Experience. And students want their involvement to be recognized, he adds. The university does that officially, so that “when they are going out to search for a job, they are able to submit their co-curricular record along with their transcript and show their whole, overall student experience.”

Universities have their own rules about which activities count and their own way of verifying material that’s submitted. For example, at Wilfrid Laurier University, varsity athletics count but intramural athletics do not. Drew Piticco, co-ordinator of Laurier’s Student Leadership Centre, says this is because it is possible to validate involvement in varsity athletics but not in intramural sports.

In general, participation in student and residence councils and campus clubs qualifies for a co-curricular transcript, as do some volunteer jobs; students must be able to prove they put in a minimum number of hours. But activities such as retail jobs off campus may not qualify. “The record is really geared toward leadership and volunteering with significant leadership outcomes,” says Mr. McVicar, explaining U of Calgary’s approach. Many schools require students to write about their learning outcomes.

Universities work hard to make the co-curricular transcript official. Laurier, for example, makes the document available only in PDF form to reduce the potential for tampering, and an employer who wants to see one is given a validation code by the university that must be entered online for access.

Web-based tools recently created by the Université de Sherbrooke and Université Laval have a different focus. Instead of authenticating learning outcomes associated with activities outside the classroom, these build self-knowledge through self-assessment. As with the co-curricular transcripts, the idea is to get the student better prepared for entry into the job market or graduate school.

And the web-based tools, like the co-curricular records, rely on a certain amount of reflection by the student about his or her activities, which is seen as fostering learning.

U de Sherbrooke’s PDI (Plan de développement individuel) was developed for students in the university’s co-op program. Denis Robert Élias, who runs the university’s co-op job placement office, says it was modelled on the tools used by major companies for employee assessment and skills development.

When they’re off on a work term, U de Sherbrooke students are able to log on to a password-protected personalized website and assess themselves on 16 skills. They choose three skills they want to develop during the placement, and assess and monitor their progress in those areas during the term. Later in the process, the employer is given access to a student’s site and can add comments, as well as rate the student. The student’s work-placement supervisor is also part of the picture. For co-op students, completing the PDI is mandatory.

Université Laval’s Webfolio is an optional online portfolio that the student develops over time. It is meant as a sort of professional self-portrait in which the student spells out in detail his or her goals, skills and values. The portfolio is certified by a university job placement counsellor and is meant to be attached to a CV and cover letter.

University officials from across the country say these new tools are a response to changes in the job market – and to changes in the behaviour and expectations of the students themselves.

As Mr. Élias of U de Sherbrooke explains, today’s students usually know their course material very well and have a lot of general knowledge because of the Internet. But what may be missing are other life skills.

Each year the university sends 4,000 students out on work terms and, says Mr. Élias, employers had been complaining that the students’ social skills and behaviour betrayed a lack of maturity. For example, some students didn’t see anything wrong with using their employer’s computers to download music, despite clear directives that company computers were not for personal use. One employer was furious when a group of engineering students on a work placement starting complaining about their employer on Facebook.

U de Sherbrooke’s PDI is an attempt to address that. “Students are saying it makes them reflect quite a lot and helps them work on their maturity,” says Mr. Élias.

André Raymond, an assistant director in the job placement office at Université Laval, said Webfolio was developed as a response to the changes in the job market – changes that often left students scratching their heads about what work to do, even after graduation.

“The number of career options has exploded,” he says. A field such as human resources has expanded beyond hiring employees to include specialties like retention, workplace diversity, integration of immigrant workers, and health and safety, he explains.

“There are 15,000 different types of jobs that are now categorized,” he says, adding that it’s no wonder students are confused.

Tom Herman, vice-president, academic, at Acadia University, says the nature of student expectations has also changed: “I think students have increasing expectations for programs to be centred on them instead of them being part of a program.”

In part, it’s a societal change, he adds. “The lens through which [this generation] looks at the world is very much a personal one instead of a group one. We’re just realizing that.”

Meanwhile, Brooke White, executive director of student development and support at the University of Windsor, says employers want job candidates to be as well-rounded as possible. But the university discovered that students had a difficult time articulating what they had learned in their activities outside the classroom.

“So as part of the co-curricular transcript, they identify areas where they think they have gained some skills,” she says. “That translates into learning outcomes on the official document.”

There are side benefits to co-curricular records as well. For some universities, recognizing learning outside the classroom helps boost the university brand. “Acadia has long prided itself on its experiential approach – educating the whole student,” says Dr. Herman. “We work hard to try to blur the lines between activities inside the classroom and activities outside. It’s natural to try to come up with a program that would recognize that integration.”

Both Mr. McVicar of Calgary and Ms. White of Windsor say the transcript has increased the level of student engagement on campus: now that they know participation in student groups and clubs is recognized, students are keener to be involved.

For Leanne Holland Brown, manager of Laurier’s Student Leadership Centre, that’s a good thing. “All the research shows that students who are more involved are more likely to graduate,” she says. As well, students who are more involved are generally more satisfied with the university experience and more likely to be successful.

Students themselves appear to be embracing the tools. “I know myself a lot better than when I started using the PDI,” says Audrey Bélanger, who is about to graduate with a law degree and an MBA from U de Sherbrooke. “I was able to get a concrete idea of what my weak points are and where I need to improve. And it allows me to go out onto the job market knowing what my strong points are.”

Alexis Marier, a U de Sherbrooke kinesiology student, appreciates the tool’s web interface. “Every student of my generation is used to working on the Internet,” he says, adding that being able to monitor his progress is a good motivator.

In most cases the tools are still so new that it’s too early to know how well they work. But there is, at least, a consensus that the co-curricular transcript is attracting attention.

“It’s generating a lot of student buzz,” says Ms. White. “It’s difficult to walk through the student union without a student stopping me to ask me about it.”

Daniel Drolet
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  1. Quintin Lang / June 7, 2012 at 11:18

    Is there any concrete evidence or academic study that shows the benefits of a co-curricular transcript? Do students choose institutions that have one over those that don’t? Do employers pay more attention to such a transcript than to similar achievements listed on a résumé? Since these transcripts vary widely in what is included have employers identified the elements that they think are most valuable?