When I attended ACPA in Tampa last year, I remember feeling a glow when I looked at the program because it was (almost) possible to attend a presentation on assessment during every concurrent session. Assessment has long been an interest and passion of mine, which sounds weird to say out loud. In fact, when I’ve talked about it to other Student Affairs professionals, sometimes the look they give me makes me think I’ve said something akin to “I love doing laundry.” But it’s true. I love the puzzles presented by data & the search for it, and I revel in decoding patterns and trends from results.
Canadians, like our US colleagues, have drunk the assessment kool-aid (it’s delicious after all), but it seems like our current is cresting a little behind the assessment movement that I’ve seen in the US. We are committed, but still defining what that commitment looks like in our own culture of education. So, when I had the pleasure of reading John Schuh’s article, “Assessment in Student Affairs: How Did We Get Here?” in the new Journal of Student Affairs Inquiry, it gave me a contextual window into the development of a Student Affairs-wide culture of assessment. I found his analysis and thoughts on where we’ve been, and where we’re going, spot on.
The article begins with an extensive review of literature over the past 80 years, going back to the beginnings of Student Affairs as a field in the U.S. Though there are indirect and slight references to research and evaluation in the context of Student Affairs for the first decades, Schuh demonstrates a continually intensifying focus on assessment in publications relevant to our field, first recognizable in the 1990s. After “Learning Reconsidered” and Upcraft & Schuh’s own “Assessment in Student Affairs” were published, there is a veritable landslide of literature that heralds assessment as a central tenet to creating and maintaining good learning environments. He also references Project DEEP – and highlights that institutions with higher than expected graduation rates & NSSE scores also demonstrated a commitment to data-informed decision-making.
Schuh finishes his article with a succinct trio of theses about the current status of assessment. He posits that 1) assessment is a newcomer to the scene, 2) that it serves two purposes at present: accountability & improvement, and 3) that it is a permanent fixture within Student Affairs. He writes passionately that those who do not integrate assessment practices into their work do so at their peril, as “the future will be replete with assessment projects.”
This piece is a valuable addition to the landscape of assessment in Student Affairs. By recognizing that a culture of assessment at our own institutions is key to finding success in using data for accountability & improvement, we must also understand the context in which our own field’s culture of assessment began. The final proposition by Schuh, that assessment is here to stay, is self-evident by the time you read it. You can see that it is true by looking back over our history. How often have we decried the gulf between Student and Academic Affairs? We can see that gap closing as we provide valid data showing the value of the learning we curate. It turns out that one of the most significant differences between us has been a lack of systematic assessment on our part.
I fully agree with his three final thoughts. Assessment is a term that’s been tossed around since I was in grad school over ten years ago, but it seems to have snowballed since then. I hear everyone talking about it, or (unfortunately) worrying about it these days. While I wouldn’t call it a new idea, the widespread adoption of it is new.
While not specifically stated as separate in his article, I believe the two purposes of assessment that Schuh outlined should not be conducted independently. In my opinion they are inextricably linked as two products within a successful cycle of assessment. We should assess learning by asking if we achieved that which we set out to do, and once we have that information, how could we avoid using it to make ourselves better during the following cycle? If we conduct assessment with only one of these purposes in mind, we’re wasting a valuable opportunity to make the most of our data.
Finally, Schuh is absolutely correct. Assessment is here to stay – though I can understand how the rapid expansion of our culture of assessment has induced anxiety in those new to its’ practices. As well as the subsequent hope that it’s a fad, soon to die out. By looking at the history he has painstakingly assembled, it’s obvious that this was a practice missing from the fabric of our work – to our detriment.
We’re finally coming to a place of validation and recognition from outside our field, and I can foresee a future in Student Affairs where assessment is a fundamental part of all job descriptions, preparatory programs, and practice. And if you’re trying not to think about assessment, consider yourself warned, because like Schuh says, “if not today, then certainly tomorrow.”
This post is part of our #SAassess series on the importance of assessment in student affairs as a state of mind. A variety of knowledgeable and relatable perspectives will be portrayed throughout the month of November. We hope you will gain inspiring insights and take time to reflect on how you make meaning of your data collection and assessment practices. For more information, check out the intro post by Kim Irland. Be sure to read the other posts in this series too!
Schuh, J.H. (August 21, 2015). Assessment in Student Affairs: How Did We Get Here? Journal of Student Affairs Inquiry, Vol. 1, Issue 1. Retrieved from https://submissions.scholasticahq.com/sites/the-journal-of-student-affairs-inquiry
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