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A Learning Model for Academic and Career Success

by John Zaugra


Located in west-Michigan, Grand Valley State University services more than 24,000 diverse undergraduate and graduate students. GVSU prides itself as a liberal education university and values liberal learning through critical thinking, inquiry, ethical decision making, problem solving, and reflection. Its mission is to educate students to shape their lives, their professions, and their society through teaching, service, and research.

The university offers bachelor of arts and sciences, and masters degrees in all fields and doctorates in the health care professions. The student profile suggests that the average GPA of the middle  50 % of incoming first year university students falls between 3.3 and 3.8 points and that the average ACT composite score is 24.2 points. GVSU requires 120 credit hours to fulfill its baccalaureate requirements.

The Challenge

How many undergraduate students have built a career plan for their university experience? Very few! Students lack mentors – teachers, counselors, advisors, or significant others – who have taken the time to speak to them about their life potential, much less specifically about their plans and passions. It is then challenging for first year university students to have a sense of purpose or direction as to what is expected.

At GVSU, there was concern about students who were classified as undecided, underachievers, potential early leavers, or who had difficulty with the career learning and self-discovery process. Such students lack awareness of the career steps needed to shape occupational choices and future employment patterns.

The Counseling Center staff decided to be proactive. Staff believed that developing a student-centered career model that reflected a four year process was essential to help individuals identify an appropriate college major or occupational field.  Our challenge was to develop a career counselling intervention strategy which addressed directly the career concerns facing first year undergraduate learners.

What Is Commonly Known About Incoming First Year University Students

A period of transition characterizes first-year university students. Students enter a university environment with confidence yet apprehensive thoughts, with passionate desires yet ill-defined goals, and with maturity yet lacking experience. Students have vigor, are eager to learn, and seek success and satisfaction in classrooms and in contacts with peers, faculty, and staff.

Counselling staff know that ‘being successful’ requires that students know how interests, personality traits, diversity, life values, job trends, skills, and abilities set the foundation for success. Counselors also know that ‘happenstance’ plays a role in the career process, but happenstance cannot be not depended upon for life success.

Students need to take on career tasks — knowing oneself, gathering information, developing mentors, exploring options, clarifying career issues, developing goals, and planning — for the career process to be fully satisfying and rewarding. Life transitions are manageable with career actions plans. Without self-knowledge, the career process becomes uncertain and doubtful. Students become disenchanted and discouraged which often leads to leaving higher education prior to graduation.


Solution: The Learning Model for Academic and Career Success


The GVSU “Learning Model for Academic and Career Success” was developed over two years, requiring input from the university community, especially academic service units.

The learning model is viewed partly as a means of identifying learners’ natural aptitudes and developing talent.  It has several distinctive qualities; it is developmental, intentional, cumulative, practical, raises and answers questions, experiential, reveals a career path, and based upon liberal education principles. The model represents a career process showing relationships among career determinants, outlining career tasks, and offering strategies for success.


Seven benchmarks are keys to understanding and appreciating the learning model. They include: liberal studies, beginning competencies, academic and career planning, connected learning, engagement, almost there, and life-long learning. A brief description of each benchmark follows:

Liberal Studies – Building Blocks for Career Development

Liberal education is viewed as a broad based approach to learning. Its basic principles center on life values and skills, personal ethics, critical thinking, cultural diversity, public speaking, professional writing, and civic engagement. Liberal education is the foundation of GVSU’s general education requirements and career development.  It reflects the career process of integrating learning and career skills leading to employment. One outcome at this stage is a broad understanding of the GVSU culture, environment, and community to learn what opportunities are available.

0 Credits: Beginning Competencies

This building block supports the scaffold for constructing the know-how to identifyi life and career goals. An understanding of the academic requirements for admission into academic or professional programs is needed for continuous progress and commitment towards earning the baccalaureate degree.  The building blocks suggest that learning those personal attributes – study skills, time management, responsibility – are essential for success and progress in competitive university environments.  Questions such as, ‘”What is general education?” and “How do I learn effectively?“ require answers. An important outcome is that students begin to learn the self-discipline and organizational strategies essential for academic and career success.

0 – 30 Credits: Academic and Career Planning

This building block promotes the ability to comprehend one’s personal traits, assets, and vulnerabilities. Additionally, it reflects the process of self-analysis and evaluation. Activities in this domain include interest testing, personality assessment, value clarification, study skills assessment, and ability / skills assessment. Understanding one’s strengths and weaknesses provides a foundation for career achievement and performance. Students can begin to develop an identity for success. Questions such as, ”What am I good at doing?” and “What can I major in?” are beginning to be resolved. A congruency must exist between personal strengths and career choices in order for differentiation among college majors and occupational fields to occur.  An outcome is that the learner begins to develop a better understanding of self and the challenges faced for achieving career planning and development.

30 – 60 Credits: Connected Learning

This building block partly signifies that students need to build relationships with faculty and staff able to serve as individual advisors, mentors, collaborators, and supporters.  These individuals know and understand course offerings, and relationships between learning and employment opportunities, plus the preparation needed for graduate school or professional training. Learning activities might include attending workshops and seminars, participating in study abroad programs, and developing cultural perspectives. One outcome is that connected learning is a strategy for building mentoring relationships. Career guidance is required for successful outcomes. Questions such as, ”What do I need to accomplish?” and “How do I develop a cultural perspective?“ are answered. A critical outcome is that learners will go beyond simply collecting credits success.

60 – 90 Credits: Engagement

This building block means becoming involved with career tasks. Engagement might include evaluating academic and career plans. Realistic and objective evaluative processes could suggest that a chosen career path might not be satisfying or attainable. Also, engagement might include investigating occupations through practicums, internships, and cooperative education programs. Questions such as, ’How will I know if this occupation is the right one?” or “How do I prepare myself for the job market?“ are researched.  Outcomes at this stage are improved commitment and persistence in a chosen career field or the selection of an appropriate alternative or parallel field.

90 – 120 Credits: Almost There

The learner is “almost there” and is beginning to prepare for graduation, employment, or graduate school.  Researching the employment outlook to develop a career portfolio for use in the job search process is an essential career task. Questions such as, “Where are jobs for my chosen career field?” or “What is the job market picture for my immediate and long range goals?” are thoroughly examined. Important outcomes include understanding the current job marketplace and deciding if further education is appropriate at this juncture in time.

120 Credits: Life-long Learning

The learner is now a college graduate. Life-long learning involves continuous training and education , enhanced involvement in civic and community affairs, increased understanding of economics, and improved appreciation for entrepreneurial activities. One critical outcome at this stage is the realization that what has been learned is only the beginning of life-long learning experiences. When technological and social change impacts occupational efforts and self-perceptions, new skills are needed to keep pace with change and life issues.


Download a diagram of the GVSU Learning Model

Usage of the Model

The GVSU Learning Model for Career Success has been endorsed by the campus community and has been implemented in all advisory centers.


As the hub for career development, the model is intended to assist learners in developing immediate and future goals. A clearly defined career path leads to greater career accomplishment and empowerment. Since the context of career development is identified through career tasks, it is appropriate for career development to be implemented in systematic and comprehensive practices. University students have natural potential. But, few students develop their potential into career and employment skills. Enhancing career self-efficacy is our target. This model is viewed as a focal point to help learners combine goals with career plans.


Our Future Directions

The “The Learning Model for Academic and Career Success” will evolve as new student needs and expectations are identified and met. Adjustments and changes to the model are inevitable as university officials insist on increased assistance for learners in the career development process.  Traditional career practices centering on happenstance are no longer acceptable. Greater emphasis will be placed on clarity of career tasks and specification of learning activities for improved career outcomes.  Links among learning, collegiate graduation, and employment will be more fully integrated.  The future suggests that career development will become comprehensively woven into the fabric of student development. The career model is ripe for research and refinement.


John Zaugar is the Coordinator of Career Counseling and Testing at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, MI.

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