Assessment. This word has become as ubiquitous in student affairs as bulletin boards and ice breakers. Each of us, regardless of position or functional area are increasingly asked (nudged) to engage in assessment work. There are lots of great resources to help understand what assessment entails, what it doesn’t, and the areas we still need to address; a list of resources is provided at the end of this post. What I hope to convey through this post is a different perspective on why assessment work matters, and where we all need to expend more effort. The area student affairs needs to address is connecting our assessment efforts to the institutional big picture.
Big picture can be a bit of a nebulous term. There are a few ways to conceptualize institutional big picture in a way that makes sense for student affairs assessment work. We can attempt to force all of our pegs into the round holes of learning outcomes assessment, and in some case, learning outcomes are absolutely the correct method for assessing student experiences. The learning outcomes approach is gaining momentum as a way to connect assessment efforts across institutions. When I teach assessment courses, something I stress to students is to make sure student affairs assessment is connected to the institution’s mission and strategic plan.
What matters most is understanding the institutional context and prevailing approaches to assessment that are most valued. We, as a field of scholar practitioners, need to address assessment holistically, rather than a collection of disconnected assessment measures. One of the reasons this is important is the needed ability to respond to questions about the ways in which we serve students and affect learning. We, as a field, sometimes engage in moments of stomping our feet, beating our chests, and proclaiming our place in the academic enterprise. That place is one of equal importance to the academic side of the house, we proclaim. If we are to ever support this claim, we have to prepare ourselves to defend that claim by demonstrating the role of student affairs-connected experiences to demonstrable measures of student learning. This can only be accomplished by looking across the spectrum of data. This will tell us what we’re doing well, and where we need to learn more.
Even beyond connecting specific assessment efforts to institutional big picture, we need to think about assessment as an opportunity to learn, to engage in inquiry. At a basic level, inquiry is about learning through seeking information. But, there is a more nuanced perspective of inquiry that can be beneficial in helping us consider the implications of connecting our efforts to the institutional big picture. Inquiry can be defined as a conversation connecting community through questions. If we draw on this definition of inquiry, and morph our disconnected assessment efforts into series of questions to which we seek answers collectively, we might be onto something.
Calling our assessment efforts inquiry won’t, by itself, make our inquiry connected to the institutional big picture. What matters is developing a culture in which assessment, evaluation, inquiry, whatever we call it, is not only valued, but central to working in student affairs. Schein (2004) defined culture as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration” (p. 17). If we approach developing a culture of inquiry or assessment using Schein’s lens, we can situate ourselves and our departments to reflect the institutional big picture, because our work of shaping the culture is embedded with learning.
These resources reflect my go-to items for getting folks on the same page to have discussions about big-picture perspective on assessment:
- Assessment Essentials by Palomba & Banta (big why of assessment)
- The Invisible Tapestry by Kuh & Whitt (institutional culture)
- Assessment Reconsidered by Keeling, Wall, Dungy & Underhile
- NASPA Assessment, Evaluation and Research Knowledge Community
- ACPA Commission on Assessment & Evaluation
- Student Affairs Assessment Leaders
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!
> BONUS <
Podcast With Lisa Endersby on Assessment in Student Affairs