Many Student Affairs professionals agree that assessing our work is necessary in order to justify and improve our practice. There are, however, countless ways to begin and carry-out the assessment process. As with most endeavors in Student Affairs, the responsibility of completing assessments should not rest solely on the shoulders of one individual or even one department. Assessments are most beneficial and comprehensive when adopted as a mission for a Division of Student Affairs. With everyone working together, the possibilities are limitless.
Assessment in Higher Education
Assessment is important to the Student Affairs profession because it helps connect our co-curricular focus to our academic roots. We cannot merely espouse that we are educators; we have to provide data that supports our argument. Assessing programmatic learning outcomes, perhaps through a longitudinal study, is just one way to demonstrate that learning happens as a direct result of a Student Affairs directive. Indeed, substantiating our reason for being is not a Student Affairs professional’s main objective, but having qualitative and quantitative results available only helps the cause.
Beyond legitimizing the profession, assessment is crucial to determining success. However the degree of success is concluded, assessment allows for practitioners to highlight the successes and short-comings of programs, initiatives, changes in protocol, etc. Measuring success is important, obviously, for budget planning, resource allocation, time management, and participant satisfaction. If an initiative is judged as unsuccessful, why continue to repeat it? Resources in Higher Education are stretched tightly enough without committing to programs that do not achieve intended results.
Additionally, Assessment is important for student buy-in. Just as assessment allows us a means of proving ourselves to our academic partners, it also allows us a means of connecting to our constituents; most often the students. Assessment allows for students to take an active role in their co-curricular education. Students are able to voice their opinions as well as offer suggestions for improvement.
Building a Campus Culture of Assessment
There are numerous other reasons, such as accreditation, to endorse the active, on-going use of assessment in Student Affairs practice. Unfortunately, getting started is often a major obstacle. Questions like: who should be involved, what method should be used, what methodology is best, and who are the participants, plague every researcher. However, if a Division of Student Affairs makes the commitment to integrate assessment into the fabric of its practice, gradually the obstacle may seem less daunting.
Two common adages apply well to building assessment confidence. The first, ‘practice makes perfect’ demonstrates you do not need to be an expert statistician in order to master assessment. You do need to prioritize assessment as a valid and valuable component of your daily – yes, I wrote daily – responsibilities. Set aside time to truly focus on assessment, whether that be reading articles, attending a webinar, writing survey questions or tallying responses. You will quickly transition beyond a novice researcher.
The second phrase, ‘many hands make light work’ is one of the most important points of this article. Not only do I believe large groups working on assessment projects do the most thorough job, but I also believe every cog in a Student Affairs machine has to be geared towards assessment. From Development to Residential Life to Student Activities – it is important that assessment be embedded in the campus culture.
It is not difficult to recognize the Student Affairs Divisions attempting to integrate assessment into their culture. Often, these Divisions post mission statements and learning outcomes on their home page, have full-time positions created to focus on assessment, and offer professional development opportunities such as committee work in assessment. Money for assessment is a staple line-item in budgets, the Institutional Review Board (IRB) website posts links to assessment results, and employees from those institutions can speak about the benefits of assessment in professional settings. The overall assessment settings changes from burden to shared responsibility.
The Unique Role of Assessment in Residential Life
While every department should be expected to critique its work, Residential Life has the unique reality of 24-hour student access. While occasionally this access is a burden, say during a 2am lock-out, it is truly a benefit for assessment purposes. Residential Life can serve as a liaison between other Student Affairs offices and students.
One example of the liaise relationship is found in the Educational Benchmarking, Inc. (EBI) College and University Housing surveys that often include questions concerning Dining Services, Diversity Education, and Student Activities. Housing offices may include these specialty areas within their organizational structure. It is especially common for a Housing Department to encompass Dining Services, but they are not always assigned this responsibility. The inclusion of these categories enables Housing Departments to share information with the individuals who directly supervise and oversee such specialty functional areas. By doing this, Housing can partner with Dining, for instance, to discuss how their responsibilities overlap and what steps can be taken to improve the output in each area.
Besides building relationships through EBI, Housing Departments can use their resident accessibility to assist other campus offices with specific assessment projects. If an office is looking to get a high student attendance rate at a focus group, the office might want to publicize through the residential communities or even hold the focus groups in residential lounges. Housing officers can assist in selecting student participants for such focus groups since live-in staff potentially has the opportunity to interact with students more often than a live-off staff member.
Finally, Residential Life staff members are uniquely able to complete assessments with their residents because of the accessibility of the students who live in on-campus housing. Residential Life staff should be able to access satisfaction of the living arrangement, gauge commitment to a Living Learning Community, and monitor program attendance. That is three types of very easy assessments all made possible because the students are literally at the staff members’ fingertips. Flyers for interviews are easily distributed at floor meetings and links to on-line surveys can be posted on community newsletters. The possibilities for assessment are seemingly endless if the staff is able to build positive relationships with residential community members.
Assessment: Where to Begin
Assessment begins with questions. What do you want to know or study? Do you wonder if a programming series on the transition from high school to college has any effect on the performance of athletes? Do you wonder how many students on campus consider themselves spiritual? Whatever the question is, there are assessments that can help find results. It is important for the question to be very specific and not leading in anyway. Asking a student why she hates programs on volunteering is not a properly worded question. It already assumes the student hates volunteering when that might not be her particular experience.
After a question is developed, consider who would be the best to answer the question and what would be the best way to collect answers. This step can be time-consuming because of the amount of information to take into consideration: what’s the population, how are the questions conveyed, what is the answer key, how is the population decided on, qualitative or quantitative or both. Do you want a mixed methodology and do you have time to commit to a complex research project? Regardless of what is decided, collect the responses in an organized way. Keep good records so you can repeat the process again if applicable, as in a pre and post test.
Implementation is the final step. What do the answers mean? Did you get the responses you expected? What changes need to happen in order for the program to be more successful or in order to meet the desired learning outcomes? Can the implementation occur right away or are the changes large enough to require supervisory approval, budget allocation, or committee formation? It is possible to lose site of the end goal during this final step, so make sure the implementation design correlates with the results collected in an ‘if this, then that’ relationship. Take it slow, do not stress, and share your assessment project with as many people as possible!
Finally, inspire others to complete their own projects. Anyone can design and complete assessment projects with the proper support and guidance. Here are a few tips and things to consider when doing assessment:
- The Institutional Review Board (IRB) at your college or university is the perfect place to start formulating assessments. The IRB experts can explain all the details associated with human subject approval, publishing data, and the office is likely to have access to helpful research data bases.
- There are many helpful tools for assessment such as on-line questionnaire templates and reading materials. Do not be intimidated by the amount of resources available, just find what is most accessible for you.
- Assessment does not have to be elaborate but it does have to be consistent. Start with something basic and build more complicated projects after you feel more comfortable with the whole process.
- Assessment is, in its simplest form, a three-step process: Ask questions. Compile and share results. Adapt and implement based on findings. Result-based implementation should be the goal of every assessment.
- While implementation is the third leg of the assessment tri-pod, implementation does not have to occur after every single survey, focus group, or interview. Longitudinal studies, for example, might require several years before clear patterns emerge.
This article discusses the what, why, how, and who of assessment. The when is now! Every Student Affairs Practitioner has a responsibility to our profession, to push towards greatness and pull in the direction of the ‘new’ and the ‘better’. We have a common goal to educate, and assessment can aid in this process. We owe it to the students to commit ourselves fully and do what we must to help them along their life’s journey. Assessment starts with a simple question, but the end result could be nothing short of amazing.
Submitted by Ali Martin Scoufield, Assistant Director for Residential Life & Assessment, Southern Methodist University (SMU)