I had a great opportunity in 2018 to hold office hours as part of my Teaching Assistant (TA) duties. Many students came in to see me to discuss questions they had about assignments and about the services offered at the university. Some days were busier than others. And on these busy days, I had to be additionally concise with my explanations, yet also provide enough context for the student to navigate the university’s policies and services. The longer I am employed as a TA, the more I realize how a messy referral process can propagate for an unsuspecting student and delay their access to essential support services.

For the student, this process could begin during TA office hours, and then they may find themselves going to-and-fro between services, or entirely lost on what service to access. For instance, a few students indicated that a service on campus meant to help with certain aspects of writing could not fulfill some of their writing needs. As a newly developing TA, I was left to suggest that they ask friends, colleagues or acquaintances to fulfill these needs. In all honesty, I felt like I was not being an excellent TA by suggesting this option. Thus, I am now in my second year of being a TA and registering for the “Resources and referrals 101” training workshop provided by the Educational Development Centre of Carleton University which was facilitated by Lakin Dagg.  This was a clear priority for my skill development and ability to communicate about available services and resources with my students.

“A fancy referral guide is simply a piece of paper if TAs and faculty cannot understand the different barriers and enablers that influence a student’s academic success.”

Because I completed my undergraduate degree through Carleton University, I was eager to confidently confirm that I have accessed a fair number of services on campus. However, after completing this workshop, I am now amazed at the many services available on campus that I did not know existed. Specifically, Lakin gave everyone an official 2019-2020 Carleton University Student Referral Guide that listed all the available services. There was also a Student Referral Form given; which will prove helpful for both student and staff navigation through campus.

Ultimately, the importance of nurturing help seeking behaviour is an objective that resonated with me. A fancy referral guide is simply a piece of paper if TAs and faculty cannot understand the different barriers and enablers that influence a student’s academic success. This means that for students to confidently seek help, they must feel like the environment in which they study is receptive to answering their needs.

I learned two important lessons. First, TAs and professors must actively create a healthy and inclusive help-seeking culture. This means being accessible to answer questions and being cognisant of the underling questions behind a student’s inquiry. For instance, does this student need me to explain the entire lecture or do they truly only need help on this practice problem? Secondly, because we want to promote help seeking, there is now a critical balance between recognizing when you do not know an answer. Thus, this means knowing when to refer a student somewhere else. This workshop has made it evident that this referral could be on-campus or off-campus. To prevent feeling like you’re not adequately addressing all issues, the facilitator described that we do not have to be everything to everyone. To me, this means that we have to be confident to stand-up for ourselves and for the student when the opportunity arises.

After completing a group activity that involved organizing possible real-life student scenarios, it became evident that a student may fall in-between the cracks of a referral process; especially if services offer similar products. For example, the SSSC and the CSAS may both offer academic support, yet the difference lies in their target populations. In addition, with the recent changes to university funding by the Ford Government, certain educational services could be reduced or altered. Therefore, to maximize the efficacy of a referral towards a resource, we can apply three important conditions during our student interactions:

  • To be specific with the referral, which will help reduce navigation hurdles
  • To validate the student, which will help nurture a help-seeking culture
  • To understand why the student is questioning content, which will help explain the root of the problem to a student

“It was difficult to realize where I could have been an agent in a student’s referral nightmare.”

The concept of the Holistic Student, explained by Lakin, helped solidify the objectives of the workshop. While TAs are meant to help increase student knowledge, we also have to be transparent on what we do not know. The Holistic Student allows us to recognize that students function in a web of resources available to them. Thus, we must offer avenues for the student to freely articulate their concerns in order to guide them to an appropriate service.

Overall, I feel more prepared to solve student worries. I have new tools, such as the Care Report and the Student Referral Form, to use to my advantage. It was difficult to realize where I could have been an agent in a student’s referral nightmare; however, this is how we learn from our mistakes. I am ready to keep an open mind when student’s ask questions and to be aware of my own boundaries during this exchange.

Written by:

Lindsay Dorder, MSc Student, Department of Health Sciences

@LindsayDorder, Profile