Co and Extra

In recent weeks I’ve been finding myself being asked to define “co-curricular” and “extra-curricular” activities as it relates to higher education and I want to unpack some of my thoughts on this. 

Much of this comes from a context in which we are working to break down the plethora of silos and barriers on campus and work collaboratively to create a campus community of student success at every touchpoint we have with our students. I am part of several projects on campus including 1) a formal co-curricular transcript initiative 2) managing a new “pathway”/”extra-curricular”/”co-curricular” transcript for the other activities and experiences that our RSOs have that don’t meet the requirements for the formal co-curricular transcript, 3) project teams to create safety procedures and expectations for events in post-COVID19 and 4) educating, developing and utilizing learning outcomes with RSOs and other needed RSO resources.  And the topic of defining the co- and extra-curricular labels has been prevalent in all of these conversations.

However in this effort of breaking down the silos we seem to be creating new ones such as creating definitions of “co-curricular” activities and “extra-curricular” activities and deepening the divide in understanding the value of the holistic student experience outside of the classroom.

From what I’ve found and researched, there is not a ton of formal academic literature on navigating this topic of “co-curricular” vs “extra-curricular”. Over the years though, I’ve come to my own understanding through blogs, articles and opinion pieces. 

First let me start with some loose definitions/understandings.

As a whole currently, “co-curricular” activities are those activities and experiences outside of the classroom which complement the formal curriculum that are not credit bearing. “Extra-curricular” activities are those activities and experiences outside of the class which do not complement the formal curriculum nor do they bear credits. Additionally, higher education tends to talk in circles about hard skills and soft skills and often times uses these to help define the difference between co- and extra-curricular experiences; with hard skills being those directly related to the field of study, and soft being skills such as conflict management, communication, leadership, etc. 

Green MSU Spartan Helmet with a vertical bar on the right with "Involve@State" written after it.As I work in Student Life and in particular work with our Registered Student Organizations on campus, let me clearly state before I start throwing out my thoughts, that I have bias in this conversation. 

For myself, from what I’ve read, learned and experienced over my years in higher education is that I have come to take the approach that all activities performed outside of the classroom are “co-curricular” and complement the formal curriculum. 

I believe that each experience held by a student lends to their approach and engagement with their academic journey. Which, I again revisit my approach that both “co-curricular and “extra-curricular” impacts and can complement formal curriculum and therefore belong under the same label. 

I think for me, the idea that all experiences should be considered co-curricular has been highlighted as we have found ourselves navigating in the current global pandemic. We are experiencing students struggling across all areas of higher education; socially, academically, personally, emotionally, mentally, physically, etc. And these struggles are impacting the formal curriculum itself and the experience with that curriculum. If activities, or lack thereof, have such an impact on the formal curriculum and students’ experiences with it, should they not then all be considered the same and  complement the formal curriculum?

Additionally, I am currently navigating the area of equity and access when it comes to dividing co- and extra-curricular activities as well. Many times formal “co-curricular” activities are not accessible nor equitable to all our students such as needing extra financial resources. In an attempt to recognize this inequity or lack of access, often times, jobs are indicated as co-curricular. Which I appreciate, and at the same time challenge that jobs offer the same experiences that many events and activities on campus offer that are categorized as extra-curricular.

In reflecting on this, perhaps the underlying approach, if we must sustain the two labels (which I don’t think we should), is that co-curricular directly speaks to the curriculum (topically) vs extra-curricular impacts the engagement and experience with the formal curriculum. This would rearrange the activities between the current approach of the two labels and provide an opportunity for these experiences of students to not be devalued, as well as the offices and staff that support those efforts.

I’ve gone down several paths in my thoughts with this topic and no doubt this could be turned into a research project unto itself, however as I bring my rambling to a close, I want to put a couple of things out there for us to consider:

  1. What does it mean to “complement” formal curriculum?
  2. What are the benefits of differentiating co- and extra-curricular if we want holistic student success?

Thanks for navigating some of my thoughts on this!

Until next time,

Peace, Love and Pandas!

Additional Reading:

Published by Brian

I am currently the Assistant Director of Student Life for Registered Student Organizations and Late-Night Programming at Michigan State University. After earning my B.A. from the University of Michigan-Flint, I entered the Student Affairs profession. After a few years in the field, I returned to school and earned my M.A. in Educational Leadership-Higher Education Student Affairs from Eastern Michigan University. In my spare time I blog about my thoughts and musings on current issues in higher education, student affairs, digital worlds, identity development and general life inspirations and observations. I also volunteer a lot for my fraternity and multiple regional and national professional associations.

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