Storytelling is by no means a new concept. Humans have been using stories to educate, entertain, and remember for thousands of years because stories stick with us. They attach themselves to the emotional centre of our brain (our limbic brain if you’re a Sinek fan) and help us to contextualize and process things that are happening in our lives now. The saying “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it” is frighteningly and demonstrably true. So how does this relate to assessment?
We know data is important to decision making. It’s how we record and learn from our experiences so we aren’t doomed to repeat our failures. The problem is that not everyone connects with numbers or spartan facts. We can gather and report our data until we’re exhausted, but it won’t make a difference if people aren’t hearing us. We need to translate it into a story to help others feel the impact of our results. This involves telling people what our data means, and to do that we’ll have to make meaning of it ourselves. If you are “not a numbers person”, then you’re also an ideal candidate to weigh in on what kind of story will appeal to the widest audience. So start by asking yourself what kind of story you would be interested in hearing.
It can be difficult to look at raw data and manage feelings of apprehension. If you’re facing a screen of stats and numbers (a.k.a. quantitative data), you might not know where to begin when constructing a story, but if you dig deep there is one there waiting to be told.
- What were your original goals? Did you meet them? Why or why not?
- If the participants represented certain demographics, why might that be? Who was missing, and why?
- What does the data tell you about the experiences that participants had? What did they walk away with?
All of these questions, when applied to your data, can help you form a story. The key to making it a compelling story is to make it human and relatable.
Living in 2015 also gives us access to technology that is designed to help you tell your stories. Once you’ve found your compelling and relatable tale, put good use to media like images, infographics, videos, or social media in addition to formal reports to help get your information out there. The sharing of your data is just as important as the gathering itself; after spending all that time and effort collecting it, what was the point if you never get around to reporting and sharing it? From a different point of view, if you never share the stories that are hiding in your data, you’ll never convince decision-makers that you are a) uniquely good at what you do, and b) worthy of additional resources to do more. This is your chance to shine light on your work and potentially offer a dissenting perspective that is vital to growth.
But that’s not the only story here (pun intended). There are two sides to how storytelling fits into assessment: our ability to tell stories as a result of data we’ve gathered, but also, our ability to gather stories that will provide data. Yes, stories and narratives can be data themselves; if you’re gathering them, you’re conducting qualitative assessment. You might be collecting stories from interviews, written reflections, focus groups, or through observation. This kind of assessment gets a bad rap for not being as generalizable as quantitative data, but it gives us a valuable window into the “how” and “why” that quantitative assessment can’t. It also evokes that human element that makes data so compelling and relatable. It’s much easier to tell stories about your data when it’s already in story-form. That is why it is important to have variety in our assessment methods—so our data speaks to everyone.
I think my favourite part of gathering stories is that the simple act of asking a student to tell their story can be a transformative experience for them—and for us. Think about it: telling a story about yourself requires a great deal of self-reflection and vulnerability. And by asking for a student’s perspective, we inherently validate them. This process can play a vital role in supporting students as they move through stages of identity development.
The final thought I want to leave you with is that stories are incredibly powerful. We can change opinions and beliefs with them, and we have access to storytelling tools barely dreamt of by past generations. It’s funny—I used to think assessment had two purposes: to provide accountability, and to facilitate improvement. But I’ve found a third. We can address social injustice by practicing mindfulness in the stories we choose to tell. We can ask for stories from those who feel silenced and not only empower them, but give them access to a larger audience. By working in student affairs we are in a position of remarkable privilege, and how we choose to use our influence will define our success. Our campuses are a breeding ground for the ideas of tomorrow. If we commit to using our power to tell the right stories, maybe we can change our campuses—and then the world.
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 Kedrick Nicholas on Assessment of Student Programming