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Definition – Literature Review

Co-Curricular & Extra-Curricular Learning


We reviewed the literature to glean what existed regarding the definition of co-curricular learning. Through work done in The Grand Challenges in Assessment on co-curricular learning we found that a common definition is lacking, and a proposed definition would allow us to better understand the field (Abras at al., 2023).

According to Suskie (2015), the earlier mention of extra-curricular activities referred to experiences outside the curriculum. Such activities were often conducted by divisions such as student services and athletics without consultation with faculty or academic divisions.  Suskie (2015) adds that out of classroom experiences are more effective when integrated in academic experiences. It is well documented that these types of experiences help students achieve meaningful outcomes when they are connected to and derive from their academic studies (Kolb, 1984; Kuh, 2008; Stirling & Kerr, 2015; Suskie, 2015; 2018). Co-curricular learning and engagement are rooted in a well-established theoretical framework drawing on the works of Kolb’s (1984) experiential learning theory and Kuh’s (2008) high impact practices applying Kolb’s theory (Stirling & Kerr, 2015).

To further clarify the meaning of co-curricular activities and to differentiate it from extra-curricular, Bartkus et. al. (2012) conducted a review of the literature to better understand and articulate the definitions. Most often, reference to either term was more a description of the activity rather than a definition of the term. They argue that the lack of a formal definition for either term, extra-curricular and co-curricular limits researchers’ ability to conduct meaningful studies to understand impact of these types of activities on student engagement and learning.  To better classify the terms, they analyzed the meanings of extra vs. co. “Extra” in extra-curricular means it is in addition to or outside the curriculum. While “co” in co-curricular means it is in conjunction with and aligned with the curriculum. Therefore, extra-curricular activities can be either academic or non-academic, are outside the normal classroom, and are not part of the curriculum, may or may not be assessed, and are optional (Bartkus, et. al., 2012, p. 698). Consequently, co-curricular activities are aligned with the student’s major or divisional goals and objectives, are outside of the classroom, they enhance the curriculum, are evaluated and assessed, and are required (Bartkus, et. al., 2012, p. 699). Subsequently, an activity can be extra-curricular or co-curricular depending on the student’s area of study and interests. For example, if a business major enrolls in an activity to learn how to play the guitar as a hobby, then the activity is extra-curricular, since it is not related to the student’s studies and it is not linked to any learning objectives within the program. However, the same activity can be co-curricular if a student is majoring in music and playing the guitar can be linked to learning objectives as defined by the student’s major or divisional outcomes and must be assessed in this case. Some sources differ in their agreement on whether co-curricular activities are required or voluntary. Sterling and Kerr (2015) cite sources that define co-curricular learning as voluntary and not required (Great School Partnership, 2013), while others refer to these activities as required (Bartkus, et. al., 2012). Nonetheless, all cited sources agree that co-curricular activities are aligned with the curriculum and learning objectives and are designed to enhance the student experience (Kuh, 2001; Beltman & Schaeben, 2012; Elias & Drea, 2013; Foubert & Graiger, 2006). Kuh (2013) asserts the

interrelations between curricular and co-curricular experiences and how important they are to enhance the student experience and development. To ensure that activities and experiences are meaningful, one must align them to clear learning objectives, and shift the emphasis to learning and not overemphasize the activity.

Theoretical Framework

Co-curricular learning is rooted in Kolb’s (1984) experiential learning theory. Kolb stresses that for experiences to be effective, one must be purposeful in connecting the experiential activity to curricular learning and linking the experiences to authentic real-world applications (Sterling & Kerr, 2015; Moore, 2010). Additionally, Kuh’s (2008) application of Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle in creating high-impact experiences, emphasizes that activities should be designed to teach students to reflect on concrete experiences, integrate all connections experienced, curricular, and co-curricular, and apply learned experiences in a variety of settings (Kuh, 2001; 2003; 2008; Sterling & Kerr, 2015). Kuh (2013) further accentuates the interdependence of curricular and co-curricular learning as a crucial part in the student’s holistic development and well-being. Considering Kolb’s theory and its application through Kuh’s High Impact practices model, supports the symbiosis between curricular and co-curricular offerings as part of a learning process where additional experiences could be transformative (Evans,, 2010; Kolb, 1984; Boyatzis & Mainemelis, 2001). However, these co-curricular experiences need to be excellent and tailored to the student’s needs. To achieve this goal these experiences should be well-focused and have clear and measurable learning objectives (Suskie, 2015).

Definition @ JHU

Given the variability in expectations of what constitutes a co-curricular learning experience, JHU adopted the following definitions. These definitions rely on elements that were common to all definitions in the literature and additional components to meet institution and divisional needs when implementing co-curricular activities.

Working definition for co-curricular learning @ JHU

Co-curricular activities:

  1. Deliver learning experiences that complement curricular instruction, thereby enhancing and supporting student learning and engagement.
  2. Reside within a program or outside the departmental and programmatic structure in divisions such as student affairs, athletics, and life design.
  3. Connect to a curriculum and can be mapped to university, school, unit, or program learning objectives.
  4. Assess learning objectives connected to students’ program of study, divisional learning objectives or career stated objectives.
  5. Are always assessed and learning can be verified as part of the comprehensive learner record (CLR); and
  6. Learning assessment data collected inform course, activity, and program improvements.

Additional components for the definition

  1. In most cases co-curricular learning is voluntary, but there may be instances where it is required depending on programs.
  2. Often credit is not assigned to these types of activities, but in instances where it is assigned, it does not typically count toward the degree requirements.

Working definition for extra-curricular learning @ JHU

Extra-curricular activities:

  1. Provide students with opportunities to enhance and support student learning and engagement.
  2. Are activities that fall outside the realm of the formal curriculum but may be part of the student’s lifelong learning portfolio.
  3. Are typically voluntary and not for credit.
  4. May or may not assess learning.

Comparison between curricular, co-curricular and extra-curricular learning


Abras, C., Nailos, J., Lauka, B., Haushaw, J., & Taylor, J. (2023). Defining co-curricular assessment and charting a path forward. Intersection: A Journal at the Intersection of Assessment and Learning 4(1).

Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) & National Leadership Council (NLC) (US). (2007). College learning for the new global century: A report from the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education & America’s Promise. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Bartkus, K. R., Nemelka, B., Nemelka, M., & Gardner, P. (2012). Clarifying the meaning of extracurricular activity: A literature review of definitions. American Journal of Business Education, 5(6), 693-704.

Beltman, S., & Schaeben, M. (2012). Institution-wide peer mentoring: Benefits for mentors. The International Journal of the First Year in Higher Education, 3(2), 33-44. 

Elias, K., & Drea, C. (2013). The co-curricular record: Enhancing a postsecondary education. College Quarterly, 16 (1).

Evans, N. J., Forney, D. S., Guido, F. M., Patton, L. D., & Renn, K. A. (2010). Student development in college: Theory, research, and practice (2nd Ed.). Jossey-Bass.

Foubert, J. D., & Grainger, L. U. (2006). Effects of involvement in clubs and organizations on the psychosocial development of first-year and senior college students. NASPA Journal, 43, 166-182.

Kuh, G. D. (2001). Assessing what really matters to student learning: Inside the National Survey of Student Engagement. Change, 33(3), 10-17.

Kuh, G. D. (2003). What we’re learning about student engagement from NSSE: Benchmarks for effective educational practices. Change, 35(2), 24-32.

Kuh, G. D. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Kuh, G.D. (2013, May). What matters to student success: The promise of high-impact practices. Presented at the International Experiential Learning Institute, St. Johns, Newfoundland.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Prentice Hall.

Kolb, D. A., Boyatzis, R. E., & Mainemelis, C. (2001). Experiential learning theory: Previous research and new directions. Perspectives on thinking, learning, and cognitive styles (1st ed.), 227-247. Routledge.

Moore, D. T. (2010). Forms and issues in experiential education. In D. M. Qualters (Ed.), Experiential education: Making the most of learning outside the classroom. Jossey-Bass.

Stirling A. E. & Kerr, G. A. (2015). Creating meaningful co-curricular experiences in higher education. Journal of Education and Social Policy, 2(6), 1-7.

Suskie, L. (2015). Introduction to measuring co-curricular learning. New Directions for Institutional Research, 2014(164), 5-13.

Suskie, L. (2018). Assessing student learning: A common sense guide. (3rd Ed.). Jossey-Bass.

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