It is rare in higher education that during a meeting, assessment is not mentioned. In the seemingly endless call for more assessment, higher education (and student affairs in particular) is struggling to increase assessment efforts to meet the demand from both internal and external stakeholders. This is not to say that there is a lack of quality assessment occurring in higher education and student affairs, because there is quality assessment, but the overall tenor of assessment in higher education and student affairs is one of anxiousness.
This post will not address the potential solutions to increasing the assessment efforts in higher education and student affairs. That will need to be addressed by Senior Student Affairs Officers (SSAOs), and is addressed in Leading Assessment for Student Success: Ten Tenets That Change Culture and Practice in Student Affairs. Rather, this post is going to deliver three ways that graduate students and new professionals can integrate assessment into their daily practice, even if that is not an expectation in their department. However, the importance of assessment needs to be addressed first.
Graduate students and new professionals working in student affairs are the first to groan when assessment is mentioned. Assessment is, rarely, why folks enter the field. They would much rather spend time building relationships with students, designing and implementing programs, and working on curriculum. The perception of assessment is one of a difficult task that simply needs to be done to appease SSAOs or external pressures. Yet, the purpose of assessment is often missed.
At its core, assessment allows educators in student affairs (i.e. all of us!) to ensure that learning is occurring as a result of our work. That leadership retreat that was designed to allow first year students to develop a leadership style prior to their arrival on campus needs to be assessed. The learning outcomes of a women in engineering living learning community need to be assessed. Every program that student affairs educators design and implement needs to be assessed in order to ensure that learning is occurring.
We assess not to please SSAOs or external audiences (though that is a benefit) we assess to ensure that our programs and initiatives are meeting students needs and that they are beneficial to students. That is it. That is the only reason we assess; to ensure that our work is being done effectively. Assessment is the ultimate student centered practice!
Now that we have figured out the why we assess (though, admittedly, I glossed over a great body of research that should be reviewed for a deeper understanding of why we assess) we can delve into the three strategies to integrate assessment into the daily work of a student affairs educator.
- Reflection. A great deal of our work as student affairs educators is in the hopes of long term development. A weekend retreat for Greek leaders should have learning outcomes associated with the weekend, but educators are interested in how Greek leaders are using the lessons learned at the retreat beyond that weekend. Thus, student affairs educators could implement a reflection journal. A reflection journal can be a way for educators to pose questions to students to cause reflection to occur. Additionally, these reflective journals can be a guide for a one-on-one conversation with a student. The assessment portion of the reflective journals comes in how a student affairs educator reports on the learning. Back to our Greek leadership retreat, a Coordinator of Greek Life could use reflective journals with the Presidents that attended the retreat for the rest of the semester. Questions that they could ask their Presidents would be “How have you used the Social Change Model in your leadership as President?” or “How have you seen the values of your organization on display in your organization?” These questions allow the educator to get a sense for how the lessons covered at the retreat are impacting the Presidents beyond that weekend.
- Pre/Post Test. The most overused assessment tool, but one of the most effective. A leadership programs graduate assistant has designed a three hour workshop for newly elected student leaders. The graduate assistant is going to focus the workshop on Kouzes and Posner’s Leadership Challenge (1987) and wants to see how well participants understand the key elements of the theory. Prior to the start of the workshop, the graduate assistant has participants take a pre-test addressing the components of the theory. After the workshop, the graduate assistant gives participants the same test. The graduate assistant then analyzes how the group answered after the workshop, compared with their answers prior to the workshop. This allows the graduate assistant to see that while participants really understand the “Encourage the Heart” component, they did not understand idea of “Challenge the Process.” This allows the graduate assistant to change the curriculum of the workshop to better address the idea of “Challenge the Process,” better meeting her learning outcomes.
- Rubrics. Advising student groups is a busy and challenging task. Volunteers can be unmotivated, there are the pressures to meet programmatic demands of the department, and students want to see a value-added experience that they can add to their resume. Thus, the Hall Director (HD) who is advising the Residence Hall Association (RHA) Executive Board developed a competency rubric to guide their advising. This rubric has four competencies: leadership, teamwork, facilitation, and event planning. The five point scale for each competency is explicitly laid out what would lead to being scored a 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5. This rubric allows the HD to tailor their one-on-one conversations. They indicate to the Chair of the Campus Programs Committee that they are not performing well in the facilitation competency, and that this competency is key towards their goal of becoming the President. Additionally, the HD writes an executive summary for the Director of Residence Life at the end of the year which summarizes the learning which occurred on the RHA Executive Board, noting that every member of the Board scored a 4 or higher on the teamwork and leadership competency, but 60% of the Executive Board scored a 2 or lower on the facilitation and event planning competency. This leads to focusing more time in Executive Board retreats on facilitation and event planning.
The three suggestions to integrate assessment into daily work outlined above are easy to start increasing ones competency in assessment. Assessment is not about pleasing a SSAO, but rather it is about ensuring students are learning and that programs and pedagogies are effective.