By: Allison Vickers
Like most higher education graduate students, I sat through my requisite research methods and assessment class. Like many graduate students, I understood the theoretical necessity of the class but secretly felt like assessment would always be someone else’s job – I wasn’t in student affairs for the numbers, I was in it to change lives. Why would I ever need surveys and numbers to tell me my students were happy? The only data collecting I anticipated doing was counting the number of hugs and thank you notes I would receive from grateful students.
This naïve approach meant I started my first job with 3 specific mindset issues: 1). Assessment would never help me change lives. 2). Assessment would always be someone else’s job. 3). Assessment was always about student satisfaction.
Imagine my surprise when I started working for a residential life department that utilized a residential curriculum, which is all about learning and assessment! I was lucky enough to have an excellent leadership team who took the time to make sure the staff understood the mission and direction of the department and the important role assessment played in making decisions and telling our story. I was also lucky enough to have a supervisor who recognized my innate sense of curiosity and gently threw me off the high dive into the pool of assessment. Three years later, I moved on from that role with a profound appreciation for the importance of assessment and the confidence to propose, develop, and oversee assessment strategies.
For those of you who may be new to the field (or new to assessment), here are some ways to develop an assessment-centered mindset and get involved with efforts in your department:
- Big picture vs. small picture: For many of us in entry-level (or even mid-level) positions, our day-to-day job is focusing on the small picture – our advisees, our student leaders, our residence hall community, our staff. We make the student experience better by listening, solving problems, and creating events and opportunities. Consider assessment one additional tool you can use to support and enhance your students’ experience. Will you immediately and profoundly change a student’s life through one survey or evaluation? Probably not. But by taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture of your department or institution, you can see how assessment fits in. Look for the ways assessment can improve not only the overall work of the department, but ways it can support a more holistic student (and staff!) experience.
- Assessment is everyone’s job: It’s easy to assume that assessment is the responsibility of the people toward the top of your organizational pyramid. Depending on the structure of your department or division, your direct connection to these people may vary. But the best assessment happens when team members all have a seat at the table and there is transparency around learning outcomes, assessment efforts, and – perhaps most important of all – the ‘why’ behind assessment strategies and plans. If you’re not directly responsible for assessment, find the person who is (or someone who is incrementally closer to that person) and ask questions! Be curious and challenge yourself to take an active role in the process. Look for ways you can practice your assessment skills in low-stakes ways – assess your staff meetings, a front desk procedure, a training session, a website. Assessment doesn’t always have to be a long and arduous process; something as simple as developing and assessing learning outcomes for a single event can help you learn and gain essential skills.
If you are the person in your department or division who has primary responsibility for assessment, invite others to the table – especially new professionals. Assessment experience has become such an important requirement of moving up in student affairs yet remains something many new professionals have limited opportunity to gain. Help out the next wave of professionals by challenging them to engage with your work.
- Satisfaction vs. learning: We live in a world where we are constantly asked about our satisfaction with services or products – it seems like every website has a pop-up that asks you to take a survey, and almost every receipt invites you to visit a store’s website and give feedback on your experience. Considering how often we’re asked these questions, it’s so easy for us to believe that asking if students enjoyed something is the same as assessment. It’s natural to want validation when we pour our energy into something, but satisfaction isn’t the same as student learning. Satisfaction surveys tell us what students like and don’t like; assessing student learning tells us if (and hopefully how) students are developing as a result of our work. You can get an easy start by adapting and integrating simple Classroom Assessment Techniques (i.e., CATs) into your routine. For a more advanced approach, use AAC&U’s VALUE Rubrics to assess specific and essential learning outcomes. There are certainly times where satisfaction is a valid thing to measure, but it is essential to start each assessment effort with a clear understanding of what you are measuring.
It’s easy to let the hectic nature of our jobs and doubt in our own abilities as new or mid-level professionals keep us from engaging with assessment and evaluation, but having a comprehensive assessment strategy and appropriate tools can bring clarity, direction, and meaning to your role. By framing our work in terms of student learning, we can ensure that we are supporting student development and making informed decisions. Don’t be afraid of the data – embrace it (even when it’s not the data you were expecting)! It’s okay to start small and it’s totally normal to feel some cognitive dissonance as you let go of old ideas and grow as a learning-centered educator. So crack open that old research methods textbook, explore ACPA’s library of resources, ask big questions, and start your own journey toward becoming an assessment enthusiast!
Allison currently serves as an Academic and Student Success Advisor for undecided and undeclared students at Purdue University Northwest. A graduate of the University of Iowa and New York University, she has previously worked in residential life at Manchester University, The School of American Ballet, Colorado Mesa University, and Indiana State University. Allison enjoys reading about curricular approaches and believes so deeply in the value of learning outcomes she sometimes writes them for her Netflix binges. You can reach Allison at firstname.lastname@example.org or find her on Twitter (@AllisonJVickers).