Loren Rullman, Brian Schermer, Danielle DeSawal: June 2020                           

Student Engagement and Learning: Grounded in the Role of

the College Union

Overview of the Study

The college union has historically been a physical space on campus that provides a place for the community to gather for social and intellectual conversations. At the core of ACUI’s The Role of the College Union, first published in 1956, are concepts related to how the union provides an environment for learning, student success, and community building. This is the second of three articles that will highlight the initial results of a research project that investigated the characteristics and outcomes associated with student engagement within a college union facility. 

A 12-member research team was assembled to investigate how the role of the college union contributes, broadly, to student learning and success in a complex higher education environment. The team included 10 practitioners (all with union administration experience), a faculty member with an architecture focus, and the primary investigator, who is a faculty member in a higher education and student affairs program with college union experience.  


Engagement Branding: OSU’s  Atrium features a three-story clock tower framing images of OSU students involved in academics, athletics, OSU’s mascot, Pistol Pete, and the words: "LIVE ORANGE.”


“Elevated” Study Space; OSU’s Pavilion Lounge on the second floor overlooks the Student Life Plaza

The data collection and analysis were modeled from the Documenting Effective Educational Practice project, using a qualitative case study design to discover the conditions within a physical space that impact student learning and student success. Team members reviewed more than 250 institutional documents and observed the use of the physical space. They interviewed more than 300 faculty, staff, students, and administrators, resulting in more than 80 hours of qualitative data. Through observation, team members used facility floor plans to document space usage. The initial data analysis identified alignment with the academic mission, student employment experiences, and engagement focused on the tenets of the college union role statement as conditions that contribute to student learning and success.  

The focus on learning outcomes aligns with the national trends surrounding institutions’ development of a common set of learning outcomes for undergraduate students established by the Association of American Colleges and Universities in 2016. Specifically focusing on the Role of the College Union to guide the research framework provides a foundation for understanding how the college union contributes to student success and learning.  

In the book Student Success in College: Creating Conditions that Matter, George Kuh, Jillian Kinzie, John Schuh, and Elizabeth Whitt note that the enacted mission of an institution is key to understanding the daily decisions of where and how students interact on campus. Understanding how the mission of the institution aligns with the Role of the College Union will provide professionals with the evidence they need to enhance programs, services, and relationships on college campuses, and to think intentionally about building construction and renovations. 

Site visits were conducted on six college campuses in 2017 or 2018. Those campuses were the University of Minnesota–Duluth, California State University–Northridge, the University of Houston, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Oklahoma State University, and North Carolina State University. 


Celebrating Engagement: OSU’s Inclusive Excellence Awards and Recognitions wall. Note prominent display of OSU’s Diversity Statement.


University of Wisconsin Madison, Union South

Read the full article here.

Contact Loren Rullman, Ph.D., Principal & Director, Higher Education and/or Brian Schermer, Principal, Designer Research to discuss best practices and trends related to student unions.

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