Since I have been doing assessment work, one the biggest challenges is the time commitment needed. I often hear things such as “where I am going to find the time to do that. I don’t even have enough time to breath, let alone do assessment” Or, “my staff just doesn’t have the time. They are busy addressing student needs. Assessment takes them away from student contact.” Yes, assessment takes time. But, you have to look at it as an investment of time that will save you resources at the end. Just like saving for retirement, if you can invest a little bit now, the payoffs will be worth it. Also, assessment does help students directly since you and your programs and services are better able to foster student learning and meet their needs.
Here is an analogy that might be helpful for you and your staff as a way to overcome this time barrier. Have you ever been to one of those arcade pizza places like Chuck E. Cheese? They are the wonderful places with adults eating pizza while children run around the place jumping in piles of plastic balls, riding indoor merry-go-rounds, and spending tokens upon tokens on all sorts of arcade games. Well, one of the games many of these arcades have is the timed basketball game. You’ve seen it. It is the game with the basketball hoop about six feet away. There is netting or Plexiglas on the sides so the ball doesn’t bounce all over the restaurant after you miss the shot. You get three balls and the object is to get as many balls in the hoop as you can in the time allotted, generally one minute. Sometimes, the stakes are raised and there may be two hoops next to each other so you are not only competing against the clock but a real live person. The stakes become even higher when a 40-year old person like me has to compete against a 10-year old who is much more skilled and agile at these types of games. Depending on your score, you could even earn tickets that can exchanged for inexpensive rubber toys, stickers, and stuffed animals, that you just “have to have” before you leave.
Well, think about students affairs like this basketball game where getting a high score is equivalent to getting our jobs done well. We are trying to do a lot of things (shoot many basketballs) with very little time (read a clock running down) and we hope that some of what we do hits the target (fostering student development and learning).
The basketball game sets you up for ineffectiveness from the very beginning, the same way we are set up in student affairs – with a lot to do and not enough time. The clock on the game is large and the numbers are red. The game designers probably say red is easier to see, but think about the symbolism of red. It often means “stop” or “danger.” I think the red clock is a way to intimidate us. The next element of the game that set us up is that there are three balls waiting in the trough at the bottom of the game. Picture this, there is a large digital clock with red numbers staring you down and three balls that are screaming “shoot me.” The natural instinct is to start with one ball and toss them towards (not necessarily into) the basket as fast as possible so your arms look they are attached to the paddle wheel of a steamship, going around in a continuous motion until the game stops. Our hope is that the faster we shoot the basketballs, the more basketballs we shoot, and then the better chance we have of getting some through the net. We take the perspective that this is a game of chance and we shoot faster to increase our chances.
This is often how we operate in student affairs. There are too many things to do in very little time. When we try to implement strategies, which we aren’t sure will work, to foster student learning, it is like tossing those balls as fast as we can in hopes that some will go into the basket. We hope that if we try enough strategies some of them will work for some of the students. All the while we are looking at the semester clock wondering how much time we have left dreading that fateful buzzer called finals or perhaps graduation. This approach isn’t a very efficient or effective use of our resources.
There is another way. Assessment can help.
Imagine taking a deep breath before you even put the tokens into the machine. There is no pressure at this point. No money has been spent. During this breath you make some assessments: How far away is basket? Is the basket regulation size? Once you add your tokens, rather than simply shooting as fast as possible you take a couple of extra seconds and observe what is happening. Now that you can actually touch the basketball you assess it. Is it regulation size? How much air is in it? Once the ball hits the backboard and rim, what happens? Does the ball bounce far away from the rim or backboard because there is too much air in the ball, or the board or rim is “hard”? Is a “swish” the only the ball can get into the basket because anything that bounces off the rim or backboard doesn’t have a chance to go through the net? You can make these observations in a few quick seconds. Once you have made these observations, you can adjust your shooting to meet the needs of the environment. This is assessment. You have turned a game of chance into a game of skill. While you do need some skill shooting baskets, assessment can help you be more successful and maximize the skill and knowledge that you have.
While I haven’t measured this, I would bet a handful of Chuck E. Cheese tokens that if you took the breath before you began the game to assess the environment and took a few extra seconds with your first shots to assess how well you were doing, you would be more successful in the end being more effective with the resources that you had, regardless if you were playing against the clock or a 10-year old next to you.
This is what assessment is all about. A little time at the beginning, perhaps before students even arrive on campus, performing a needs assessment and taking a little time in the middle for formative assessment (measuring the process or progression towards goals) will help us be more effective. We can then take a look at the summative assessment (the number of baskets made or how effective we were in the end in reaching our goal) and make changes for the next time we play. After a couple of games we would become more affective. Fostering student learning and development takes assessment and practice.
If we take this little extra time for assessment, we will not only be more effective, but we might even be able to get enough tickets to get that Tweety bird stuffed animal we had been eyeing.
Submitted by Gavin Henning, Dartmouth College