What Do Universities Mean by Co-curricular Student Experience?

What do universities mean by Co-curricular Student Experience?


Jane and Joe attended two different universities, and graduated with the same degree in the same discipline and with roughly equivalent grades. It is four-months past their graduations and Jane is employed in her chosen industry and getting rave probationary reviews. Joe applied for the same position and was not hired. In fact, Joe is still looking for work.

Here is Jane’s Employer’s Response when asked why he gave the job to Jane.

Jane stood-out. She made our interview pile because Jane’s good standing in her chosen university degree served as evidence that she had the requisite disciplinary knowledge. More important, however, was that she had something extra. During the interview, she demonstrated that over the course of her degree, she had developed skills – basic industry-specific technical skills that give her a foundation that we can build-on.

Jane also has ‘super-skills’ – fluency in spoken and written communication, future leadership capacity, demonstrated by her enthusiasm and motivation to learn, and problem-solving, in that when faced with a challenge she is able to come-up with a solution to try.

In addition, Jane speaks confidently and has a strong identity. She knows why she studied her degree, why this industry and why usas employer. When we asked why we should hire her versus the many other university graduates, she was ready with an answer and absolutely convinced us.

We also asked, why not Joe, and the same employer said –

Joe did not stand-out. We interviewed him, but unlike Jane, he did not seem to have anything extra to add to our business. He was not able to tell us why he wanted to work for us. It seemed more like he just wanted a job. We thought he might as well go somewhere else.

He also was not able to tell us what particular strengths, talents and experiences he would add to our business, above-and-beyond any other university graduate. It was clear that Joe attended his classes, read his textbooks and did well on his assignments and tests. What was not clear was what he did with the rest of his time.

He did not appear to have taken advantage of the many opportunities for university learning beyond formal classes. He did not tell us, so we assumed that he had not participated-in, university sport, student societies or leadership endeavours, and he did not mention pursuing an internship. We wish Joe luck, but we did not feel compelled to hire him.

When universities talk about co-curricular student experiences, they can mean eight things. Because there is overlap between these eight operational definitions of co-curriculum, universities can, and often do, include from two to all eight of these types of co-curriculum in strategy and practice. Co-curriculum is a newcomer to the lexicon of education, and as such, sometimes university staff are unclear and/or inexplicit about the intended, planned and enacted purposes, practices and outcomes of these student experiences.

Co-curricular student experiencesis an umbrella term used to refer to activities and pursuits designed with the overall purpose of making students more employable. Co-curricular experiences exist beyond, and in interaction with, curricular experiences in eight senses. An example of each type of co-curriculum is provided below.


1. Beyond the university

The first type of co-curricular student experience is delivered in partnership with industry. This type of experience has been designed to support students’ integration into the world of work, directly experiencing what staff do on a day-to-day basis in a particular occupation and/or industry, and that they see for themselves – the contemporary reality of the context.

An example of co-curriculum, beyond the university, is a paid internship in industry. Notably, such internships are classified and operated as CO- rather than NON-curriculum, which means that such opportunities are stitched together with university learning. Educators formally encourage reflection about placement experiences.

Students are supported to apply their university learning to their work in their placement, and conversely, to bring their industry experience in to nuance their understanding of university learning.


2. Beyond the classroom

Many types of student experience exist outside the classroom, whether that classroom is on-campus or online. The student learning experience is thus understood to be comprised-of more than the units (otherwise called subjectsor coursesby some universities), as building blocks.

The student learning experience is broadened to include non-course based experiences, such as performing leadership roles in university-based student societies, or engaging in roles such as peer learning advisors. Such experiences add value to the overall student learning experience, particularly when brought-into classroom-based learning (i.e. CO-curriculum).

For example, if students are given the opportunity to choose their own topics for project-based work, they can base that work on their beyond-classroom experiences. Such experiences promote a T-shaped education/graduate, whereby students gain a strong disciplinary core (the vertical part of the T), and broadening experiences (the horizontal part of the T), that allow them to apply, practice and transfer their learning beyond the classroom.


3. Beyond assessment

Sometimes universities mean ‘not assessed’ when they talk about co-curriculum. This differentiation means that the assessed work is a formal part of the university curriculum, whereas extra work, that is not assessed, is co-curriculum.

For example, students who struggle with mathematics in disciplines such as engineering (where foundational maths skills are essential) may have access to extra tutorials, demonstrations and practice examples through services, supports and/or online portals. Students are not assessed on this work, but it sits alongside, and supports, work on which they are assessed.


4. Beyond credit and/or award

Related to beyond assessment, universities can also mean beyond credit and/or award when talking about co-curriculum. The internet has disrupted traditional education and brought a plethora of ever-expanding learning opportunities to students.

For example, students can take Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to compliment, and sit alongside, the formal offerings of their degree. These MOOCs can be offered by their own, or other universities, by private education providers and/or by industry experts.

Many students now enrol in MOOCs to complement their degree learning. Usually MOOC completion does not yield formal university credit. Often a completion badge is delivered instead. Furthermore, as yet, few universities have practices in place for students to stack MOOC completion into a formal award, such as a degree.

What some university educators are now doing, is encouraging students to bring their MOOC, and other such uncredited formal learning experiences, into the formal curriculum, to broaden and extend their knowledge outcomes and applications.


5. Beyond the teacher’s knowledge and experiences

Constructivist models of learning posit that students are not blank slates. They arrive to university with a lifetime of experiences, thoughts, reflections, interpretations, and culturally and contextually nuanced interpretations and applications.

Input into university learning need not, therefore, be solely reliant on the teacher/educator. In this sense, co-curriculum means that university educators invite students to broaden the learning experience.

Robust bi-lateral interaction and presence between students (with and without the educator’s moderation) is encouraged and designed-into the learning experience. Students are expected, and supported, to bring their rich experiences, and thereby prior learnings, into the educational exchange.

This prior learning exists in collaboration with the new formal learning of the curriculum. A positive example that is gaining momentum, and deriving large-scale impact in university learning, is Students as Partners.

Formal initiatives and structures remove power differentials and authentically involve and reward students for collaborating with university staff to design and enact learning experiences and opportunities, including formal curriculum.

It is easy to see why this approach is CO-rather than NON-curriculum, because students are key players in evolving formal university curriculum. Students as Partners can be especially empowering for international students, as well as, students from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, because this co-curricular opportunity can give them experiences (that they otherwise may not be able to access) to include on their resumes and describe in interviews with prospective employers.


6. Beyond traditional educational offerings

Universities also use the term co-curricularto refer to innovation, creativity and disruptive new approaches. For example, many universities now support start-ups, enterprise endeavours and entrepreneurialism.

This often sits alongside, and complements, the formal curriculum for students in multiple disciplines, frequently including for students enrolled in business and information technology. Universities often run these co-curricular endeavours as academies or clubs.

Membership, participation, process and outcomes co-exist with formal curriculum, as planned and delivered through detailed frameworks with a matrix of bi-lateral interactions. For example, students might formally apply what they are learning in budget and accounting courses (curriculum), thereby practically reducing risk in their university academy start-up endeavours.

Conversely (and often bi-laterally extending the benefit both ways), students will be encouraged to use their co-curricular start-up activities to do the assessment within their formal curriculum, thereby applying taught-knowledge to tangible experiences and authentic outcomes beyond the university.


7. Beyond the core disciplinary content

Worldwide, the content, and desired program learning outcomes, of formal university curriculum is specified by state and/or national educational authorities. Furthermore, if a program is accredited, it must also comply with the specifications of the accrediting body.

This way, students/graduates/employers are assured that learning outcomes are equivalent across universities. Universities recognise that there are knowledge, skills and attributes that sit above the particular discipline/program, and are desirable for all university graduates.

One of the main propositions of university is that the student experience of completing a degree changes a person.

Above-and-beyond the curriculum of a particular area of study, there is a belief in, and commitment to supporting, the overall process of becoming (co-curriculum).

Between commencing university and graduating, people practice, advance and refine their abilities to time manage, meet deadlines, be resilient and manage stress, communicate with others including in group or team situations, acknowledge and respect the cultures and unique perspectives of others, recognise and solve problems and discriminate between logic and evidence, and fallacy and fake news.

To universities, this all counts as co-curriculum, and that it is just as important as the formal, discipline-based curriculum. Universities therefore embed designed-opportunities to develop these attributes and capacities into the formal curriculum.

Many universities also supplement the formal curriculum with co-curricular student experiences, such as providing masterclasses in study skills and time management, and hosting social clubs that encourage authentic cross-cultural interaction, as well as cultural humility and appreciation.


8. Beyond training for a particular occupation

Richly related to co-curriculum as – beyond the core disciplinary content, co-curriculum can also be meant to refer to student experiences beyond training for a particular occupation. Predictions are that today’s graduates will have more completely different occupations over their working lives than ever before.

Some people believe that some types of work and industries are changing so rapidly that careers that students might choose at enrolment will no longer exist by the time they graduate.

This means that universities have an obligation to students to equip them to be agile and resilient, and to accommodate uncertain and disrupted futures. This rests alongside the assertions of employers that super-skills (what were once called soft-skills, which underrates their complexity and importance) are just as, and sometimes more, important than industry specific skills.

Many employers ask that universities leave specific training to them. What they do expect is that universities provide (co-curricular) opportunities for all students to develop their spoken and written communication skills, their problem-solving ability, and their ability to be leaders through appropriately demonstrating motivation, enthusiasm, initiative and creative thinking.

Furthermore, to get through the door (be hired), students have to develop confidence, a strong identity and be able to recognise and articulate their distinctive value proposition.

This personal brand is like the chicken and the egg (which came first?) in that students need co-curricular experiences to stand-out, and they need to want to rise above in order to pursue co-curricular experiences.

Examples of initiatives that universities support, as co-curricular, include sport and drama. This type of co-curricular student experience also includes services that support students to identify their stand-out strengths and to develop and post-online short, compelling personal pitches.

In summary, here is a cohesive, and comprehensive, definition of University Co-Curriculum –

Co-curricular student experiences are activities and initiatives that take place primarily outside of formal educational content, processes and/or disciplines.

These activities and initiatives are pursued beyond one or more of: university, classroom (on-campus or online), assessment, credit/award, the teacher/educator, tradition, core disciplinary content and/or training for a particular occupation.

Activity examples include university sport, club/society membership and student leadership. Initiative examples include start-up academies and Students as Partners.

Whereas extra-curricular activities are separate and apart from the formal learning program, higher education institutions align co-curricular activities with formal education so that such activities are part of the overall learning experience.

Co-curricular activities and initiatives are designed to work in conjunction with the formal curriculum to support employable graduates.

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