Write the survey. Get feedback. Write it again (and again and again). Distribute the survey. Remind people to fill in the survey (again and again and again). Get the results. Compile the results. Report the results. Rinse. Repeat.
We’ve travelled this path before.
While an important and increasingly popular method of evaluation, the assessment cycle can quickly become a closed feedback loop, running perpetually on Likert scales and annual reports. We have become very good at collecting and reporting data (or, at the very least, acknowledging how vital it is to do it), but don’t often or always use what we learn to recommend and enact positive change for our departments, programs, and students.
One lingering resistance to attempting to make change based on assessment results is time, or lack thereof. There just isn’t time or space to add attempting to overhaul an entire program based on the same (small) group of students sharing the same (biased) feedback.
What worries me most about these and similar concerns is the pervasive all-or-nothing approach to assessment. One survey doesn’t make or break a program, just as one bad day doesn’t make for a bad life. Meaningful and positive transformation from assessment results is easier when we begin to challenge some of our favourite assumptions about change.
Change is good… sometimes
I may be contradicting myself, but, sometimes, assessment isn’t about change. Sometimes assessment is about validating that we’re on the right track. Other times it’s a chance to collect information about our students that may inform what we do next. Sometimes our desire to appear innovative, responsive, and productive means change happens for change’s sake. It looks good to change – to change big and change often. However, constant change is more confusing than constructive. Don’t change because you’re supposed to; change because you must or because it’s time.
That being said…
Change takes time, needs time, and doesn’t happen all the time
True, meaningful change doesn’t happen overnight. Or over several nights. There are even times when you begin to change but move on before the change is implemented. Productive change needs time to be discussed and space to grow. We often race to make change, either to get it over with or to make it happen before anyone else notices what’s happening. Neither is good for your workload (or sanity), and both are extremely detrimental to the relationships you have developed. Time is not the enemy – it is not only your students that will benefit, but many of the students who will come after.
Change isn’t about you
If I could offer one, and only one, piece of advice to anyone afraid of assessment, it would be this. Assessment isn’t personal. Survey results aren’t about you. A dismal program evaluation is a reflection of so many other things, least of which are your competency or compassion. We so often resist change of any sort because it means admitting defeat, or that scary F-word: failure. I am far more impressed by someone willing to acknowledge challenge and move forward, rather than someone expending finite energy on appearing ‘perfect’. Yes, we have an obligation to stakeholders. Yes, there is pressure to perform. But we cannot perform if we waste energy on chasing the ideal of perfection. Sadly, perfection does not and will never exist; not for our programs and not for us. Change is for the greater good, not to look good.
Data is the fuel that drives our assessment cycle, but critical reflection and authentic analysis take the wheel. We can choose to drive the same circular path, going through the motions and staying comfortable, or we can — with intention, patience, and an eye to the future — blaze our own trails.
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 Nicholas on Assessment of Student Programming