The act of conducting assessment as part of one’s weekly responsibilities may often feel like an afterthought for student affairs professionals. Certain staff may even use some of their favorite Freudian defense mechanisms like denial, repression, or avoidance, just to name a few, as they shift to other “priorities.” But have no fear! Through this blog post we will aim to coach you on balancing assessment with putting out the fires that keep our week far from predictable, while helping you to reframe your current approach to prioritization that may be focused too closely on an upcoming major event/program/process appearing on next month’s horizon.
As one begins to consider how to conduct effective assessment, it’s important to understand how your team’s/functional area’s approach complements the overall practice at your institution. Additionally, it’s critical to appreciate how capturing learning in your area further supports a commitment to the students we serve and the experience they should receive as part of their decision to enroll. Overall, assessment is a tool to ensure learning is taking place, and that we have evidence of how our daily operations enhance the experiences of our students. To support you in your efforts, and after reflecting on the work of colleagues within our divisional assessment team, we have identified 4 common challenges, with proposed solutions to consider as you aim to create best practices:
Challenge #1: “I am the only person in my department that knows how to do assessment, and I just cannot do it all.”
Solution: Teach/Train Staff on What is Effective Assessment
It seems intuitive, but the best way to do the work is to share the work. If possible and you don’t have one already, convene a divisional assessment team. Each time you meet, have a different department share how they are assessing their work, and allow others to comment or offer suggestions. Through this process, one of our functional areas that had very limited understanding of assessment learned through their attendance and participation on this committee.
As meetings progress in the academic year, ask questions of one another to gain a broader mix of perspectives and establish synergy. If you cannot do an entire divisional meeting, schedule time with colleagues from other departments and ask them what they are doing. Then, take what you learn back to your own department and delegate assessment tasks– Who will write the plan? Who will create the assessment tool? Who will analyzes the results? Then, all together, “close the loop” and plan how you will use the results to improve practice.
Challenge #2: “My colleagues say they don’t have time to do assessment work.”
Solution: Model that Assessment is a Priority
A mentor once told me how you spend your time and what you commit your budget to speaks to what you prioritize. You may have also seen the quote, “what you allow, is what will continue.” If you catch yourself saying “there isn’t enough time for assessment,” then it’s because it hasn’t been embraced or modeled as a priority. Starting today, schedule weekly blocks of time where you spend time on assessment. The key is creating momentum for your efforts. As the law of momentum states an object in motion will stay in motion until it meets a resisting force. Once assessment becomes a habit it will become easier to incorporate. Succeed with assessment by controlling how you spend your time. Keep pushing forward.
Challenge #3: “Those in my department see assessment as just another requirement, rather than something actually connected to our practice.” or “We know our students are (not) satisfied…but that’s about it.”
Solution: Map Learning Outcomes to Department Goals and Get Back to Basics (i.e., learning)
In some ways, this challenge connects to the previous issue (i.e., how assessment is viewed). One can begin to appreciate that if assessment is prioritized, then it will be done effectively. However, it is critical for staff to view assessment as having a ripple effect on what we do instead of perceiving it as annoying requirement.
One way to embrace assessment is by having a monthly meeting within one’s functional area to share evidence of learning or conclusions that have been reached as a result of analyzing data. Other possibilities may include: focus groups that support your ongoing efforts (e.g., marketing of programs), surveys that capture direct learning (e.g., direct learning could be used comparatively from year to year to determine the effectiveness of skills taught or curriculum utilized). The key is to continue to identify connections based on what you’ve done to what you’ve learned to what you’ll keep or change (i.e., embracing the ripple effect). Through this approach, staff will begin to understand that assessment efforts pay off, and deduce assessment actually matters!
Challenge #4: “Others outside our department don’t care about our results, so it seems pointless.”
Solution: Connect to Your Strategic Plan
Most leadership books encourage the idea of catching staff in the act of doing something good. However, most of us will agree that celebrations will not occur around results from a survey or the evidence we’ve compiled to show the effectiveness of our work. Despite others not being excited about it’s important to focus on how as a functional area that we can improve our efforts and accomplish our goals.
If a team begins to focus on their strategic plan, then they can begin to work toward the same goals. Additionally, collaboration will likely be enhanced within one’s team or within the division to reach these goals. Recently at our university, when a functional area was struggling with why they should even do assessment, a new director tied the process to larger institutional priorities and it not only created enthusiasm around the staff’s work, making the team feel part of something bigger, it helped everyone feel re-energized about other considerations they had been moving toward. Overall, this simple connection catapulted their efforts forward in a manner that if using the previous approach would have left them lost or taken months to achieve.
In closing, there will always be challenges with conducting effective assessment. Reframing your priority list, using synergy with assessment, and working towards a vision with clear goals where your assessment serves as evidence for change, are critical approaches to use. As we adopt our practices based on efforts to transform students through their experiences, it is important for us to take pride in what we do and elevate our practices. Keeping in mind that as Tony Robbins said, “change is inevitable, progress is optional.”
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