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The Power of Iowa GROW® with Teri Schnelle

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I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Teri Schnelle from the University of Iowa about their amazing program, Iowa GROW®, which they use to create positive learning outcomes for student workers on campus.

Iowa GROW® (Guided Reflection on Work) uses brief, structured conversations between student employees and their supervisors to help students connect the skills and knowledge they are gaining in the classroom with the work they are doing, and vice versa. Iowa GROW® is focused on making student employment a “high-impact activity” — one that enables students to reflect on their learning within and beyond the classroom.

Dustin Ramsdell: What was the initial inspiration for developing the Iowa GROW® framework?

Teri Schnelle: Here at the Division of Student Life at the University of Iowa, we have approximately 2,000 student employees in any given semester. So, there’s a lot of opportunity for us to really think about how we can make an impact on the student experience through employment. They looked into really trying to understand what students were telling their supervisors they were learning as a part of their experience. So they did an initial survey, which showed pretty clearly that students weren’t articulating the fact that they were learning some of these core transferable skills as a part of their experience — things like written communication, verbal communication, problem solving, time management. No matter what sort of job you have in the Division of Student Life, you’re going to be learning these skills. So, they did that survey in the Spring 2009 semester and then, over the course of the summer, they created Iowa GROW® as a way to help students make those connections between what they’re working on in their job and their academics, and how it will serve their future career. Sarah Hansen was the original creator of Iowa GROW® and she worked with Dr. George Kuh because we were trying to make Student Employment a high-impact experience. She worked with him on creating the Iowa GROW® intervention, which uses the four key questions. Supervisors have those brief structured conversations with their student employees at least two times each semester.

DR: Why is it so important for students to reflect on their work?

TS: Generally, no one is asking them to do this. So, they aren’t really reflecting on what they’re learning as a part of their employment until they’re writing the addition to their resume to show the different things that they did as a part of the job. But, often times, they’re only talking about the tasks they worked on, and they’re not talking about those transferable skills. One of the main focuses of Iowa GROW® is helping students articulate what they’ve learned on the job. We want our students to be able to go out after college and say, “here are the transferable skills I learned, and here are specific behavioral examples.” We want them to be able to talk about this in a job interview or during a graduate school interview, whatever it happens to be for them. Thinking about Dr. Kuh’s work that shows students do best in seamless environments where we’re making connections between out of classroom experiences and in classroom experiences, we’re helping create that seamless environment by asking students to reflect, connect, and integrate their learning across these different contexts.

DR: What stands in the way of every student employee doing guided reflection?

TS: We all get caught up in tasks and we’re all very focused on our to-do list. So, the opportunity to take a step back to truly do some thinking and be intentional is a barrier that we experience. We all have stuff to do, and taking time to do something like this can be difficult, but it’s not going to happen unless we do take the time. What I hear from the supervisor perspective is: “How do I do this time-wise? How do I do this and still get my job done?” We talk a lot about reframing student employment from being transactional to being transformational. There are all of these things that students help us do, but we have to think about the job as something that does transform our students so that they’re learning skills. For some, this is the first job that they’ve ever had. We have to think about it in terms of switching our mindset from supervision to mentoring so that these opportunities help students grow.

DR: What kind of training do supervisors undergo?

TS: We have an online module. All supervisors of student employees can complete this module that walks through most of the things that we’ve talked about: why do we do Iowa GROW®, why is this important, and some tips and resources to be able to have the conversations. That is then followed up with an online supervisor folder we give them. We’ve got a facilitation document in there, instructions, and additional questions that they can use. We also do certain things like send messages to help remind supervisors about having the conversations. I’m also always willing to go into departments who want a refresher around Iowa GROW®. I go and provide presentations that either refresh or talk about what could be a next step after Iowa GROW®, if you wanted to do something deeper.

DR: How do you measure the success of the Iowa GROW® program?

TS: On a yearly basis, in the spring semester, we do a student employee survey. The survey helps us measure the outcomes of Iowa GROW®. We ask students if they have had a conversation with their supervisor, once, twice, or not at all, in the past semester. Then, we ask them whether their job is helping them achieve those core employment outcomes: written/verbal communication, problem solving, conflict negotiation, working with others. What we see, year after year after year, is that students who are having the Iowa GROW® conversations are significantly more likely to agree or strongly agree that their job is helping them meet those outcomes. Students who have Iowa GROW® conversations are more likely to say things like, “I made a positive contribution to the University of Iowa through this position.” What we see over and over again is the relational component of having somebody who cares about them at this institution, which can seem big since we have 30,000 students. There’s an adult that cares about them, there’s a place where they’re expected to be, a place where they’re accepted. Then, specifically with retention, we see that students who have Iowa GROW® conversations are retained at a higher rate compared to those who have a job and aren’t having them.

DR: How has Iowa GROW® evolved over the past 10 years? What is your vision for the next 10 years?

TS: In the beginning, it was intended to be a one-on-one intervention. They did some testing early on to see whether small groups have the same outcomes and they did so we allow for small groups of up to eight. This supports supervisors who have a lot of student employees. We started with multiple pilots, then we started with supervisors who were interested in participating, and then we continued to grow out. In 2012, we went division-wide. So, it’s actually listed in position descriptions and it’s a part of performance evaluations to try to institutionalize how important this is, seeing as we know this has an impact on students. Since then, it’s been a lot about how we can support supervisors. So, we’ve got areas where it’s extremely operationally focused, supporting them having these conversations, supporting those supervisors who have a ton of student employees, and then potentially having students lead these sorts of conversations too and ensuring that everybody is well trained. The online module is new for this past year, as well as the digital folder. We’ve also been working on having video examples of what it’s like to have a conversation. Thinking about the future, I’d love to see us look at student resumes as a way to see students who have Iowa GROW® conversations versus those that don’t — are they better able to articulate transferable skills that they’re learning on the job in their resumes when they’re working with our career center? Also, starting to examine if Iowa GROW® helps with retention within a job category because we hear that from some of our high turnover departments that want to know what other levers they can pull to keep people in positions or in the department versus having to constantly rehire and retrain. So, those are some of the things that we’re thinking about for the future. We’re the largest employer, by far, so we catch the vast majority of student employees, but I would love for everybody at the University of Iowa to utilize this outside of our division.

Note: This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

I really enjoyed talking with Teri, and learning more about all of the hard work that has gone into this program over the past ten years. It shows how commitment, persistence, and a keen focus on improving student learning outcomes can create a scalable program on any college campus. You can learn more about Iowa GROW® on their website.