If you’ve ever created a “to do” list or used the concept of ‘SMART’ goals in your work, you know that there is a clear psychological benefit to parsing big tasks into smaller pieces just so that you can visualize progress. Who doesn’t feel energized and motivated when you can cross something off their task list? I’m not going to lie, sometimes I even put things on my list that I’ve just completed so that I can see something checked off before I start on the next item.
It’s the same with assessment. We talk a lot about the positive outcomes of fostering fully realized cultures of assessment, but sometimes we lose sight of the need to appreciate and recognize the small successes first. When we’re just beginning, we have to start small. It might mean cataloging existing assessments and improving on them, or selecting a single program to focus on. The key is to choose assessment projects that don’t require an unreasonable amount of time to complete, or skills that are outside the scope of participating staff.
You might wonder why a culture of assessment matters at all. Why can’t we just hire an expert or two who complete all assessment and evaluation across our departments? Well, expertise in assessment doesn’t translate to being an expert in the work of each department. We are the best experts available that can inform how and what needs to be assessed in our own work. The role of assessment leaders is to help us use the best methodology, translate assessment-speak, facilitate our efforts, and keep us positive. In short, assessment has to be everyone’s business.
Small wins translate into waves of motivation. Those waves are key to getting buy-in from all staff to take up the data torch. Taking advantage of this readiness means empowering newly confident staff to take a role in the next steps. Not just next assessment steps, but our next steps in building capacity. The best way to learn is to teach, and we’re missing the boat in fostering our assessment culture if we don’t offer opportunities for staff to coach and mentor each other as their assessment knowledge grows. Peer mentoring is our go-to technique when supporting student success, and I think we should ask ourselves why we’re not walking the talk when it comes to coaching our staff towards success.
Only by inviting everyone to move forward together will we succeed in building a culture of professionals who are committed to finding truths that can inform our decisions. It’s so easy to become emotionally attached to our work, and to believe at your core that you know the best way to move forward. Our work becomes part of our identity. Decades of student development theory have taught us that impending changes to our identity is the most challenging part of transition. It’s why there is such strong resistance to assessment, since managing assessment is really about managing change.
It seems strange to me that assessment experts are often classified as data nerds who obsess about numbers and findings, because I can tell you that it’s actually about having vision. Finding the truth definitely takes courage and openness to change, but using the truth to help us be better than we are requires nothing less than a clear vision of what we can become. And that vision includes all of us.