Making Assessment Meaningful: Practical Assessment Techniques for Residential Environments
In the last decade, there has been an increased understanding that student affairs units have a shared responsibility with academic affairs units for student learning (Greater Expectations National Panel, 2002; Keeling, 2006), including developing opportunities for substantial out-of-classroom or co-curricular learning that enhances the formal academic curriculum. Residential life, as students’ home away from home, provides the optimal environment in which to engage in co-curricular learning opportunities. It is within the residential living environments that students learn skills such as resolving conflict, effectively managing time, understanding how one’s choices impact other’s in the community, identifying one’s own value and beliefs and describing how they differ from other’s within their environment, etc. (Blimling, 2010; Schroeder, Mable & Associates, 1994). Residential life also creates a unique setting in which to extend the classroom experience because it offers a variety of opportunities for faculty, staff, and students. It affords faculty the ability to offer guest presentations or workshops, students the opportunity to create informal study and discussion groups, and staff the ability to cluster students with similar academic pursuits to enhance the classroom learning experience (Inkelas & Wesman, 2003). The residential learning environment provides a rich and complex environment in which to develop intentional learning strategies through a planned residential curriculum model for students and then to assess those learning outcomes (Kerr & Tweedy, 2006). But how does a residential life program move towards creating intentional learning opportunities and how does one assess learning in this environment? This article will explain the process of assessing student learning in the residential setting, provide examples of assessment tools and plans currently utilized by universities, and present the foundation for residential student learning assessment.
Mapping the Learning Environment
The first step in assessing student learning in the residential environment is to determine what specifically is expected of students to learn during their time living on campus. Where will the program focus its attention? What will be the fundamental educational priority for the residential life program at the institution? For some, the priority may focus on issues of social justice or citizenship. For others, the decision may be to focus on issues of respect and responsibility.
The second step is then to create intentional learning outcomes that will guide the actions and activities of the environment. For example, as a result of participating in a specific event, initiative, or activity on your campus, what do you hope for students to take away? These outcomes will determine the programs that need to be put into place and provide a definitive framework for which to assess learning outcomes. One resource that can assist in the development of learning outcomes and assessment strategies include The Framework for Assessing Learning and Development Outcomes (Strayhorn, 2006).
Planning the Assessment
Once the educational priority, learning outcomes, and initiatives have been developed for a residential program, the third step is to develop assessment strategies that provide information about the degree to which students living in the residential community have met the intended outcomes. Traditionally, residential programs have used satisfaction assessments in order to gauge how satisfied students are with their living environment. However, students’ perceptions of satisfaction of actual accomplished learning may not be as accurate as directly observing whether or not students have met the desired learning outcomes. In order to directly assess student learning in the residential environment, a residential life professional can utilize traditional classroom assessment techniques which have relied on direct assessments to guide understanding of student learning and achievement. Direct assessment techniques require students to demonstrate their knowledge or skills through objective tests and/or performance opportunities. Indirect assessments ask students to reflect on what they perceive to have learned rather than demonstrate their learning (Palomba & Banta, 1999). Residential life staff should move to a more balanced approach between direct and indirect assessment techniques to have a more complete picture of what students have learned from participating in residential life programs and services.
Selecting Appropriate Assessment Tools
Angelo and Cross’ 1993 book on classroom assessment techniques may be particularly useful in creating a more balanced approach to assessment. Their classroom assessment techniques have been found to adequately assess students’ on-going learning in the classroom. This text provides specific assessment techniques to assess students’ knowledge acquisition, ways in which to synthesize information, and skills in the application of new knowledge to novel situations. Each assessment technique takes minimal time to prepare and most assessments can be completed by students in just a few minutes, providing rich assessment information on what students are learning relative to specific learning outcomes.
The one minute paper is one such classroom assessment technique that is now widely used (Angelo & Cross, 1993). In this assessment, students respond reflectively to a question posed by the educator. Questions could encompass areas where they learned something new, areas where they still have questions, information that particularly interested them, or a response to how they would respond to a situation. For example, students may participate in an environmental sustainability program held in the residence hall. After the presentation, the facilitator may ask participants to spend one minute describing on a piece of paper at least two different ways that the participant can reduce his/her carbon footprint while living in the residence halls. The participants can write a short reflection piece that outlines how they might take these steps themselves based on the information presented in the program or initiative. Within five minutes, residential staff members can have concrete examples of what students have learned related to the sustainability outcome developed for the program.
Polleverywhere.com and/or trivia clickers are two additional tools that can be utilized in accessing learning. These resources allow educators to ask questions throughout a presentation, floor or house meeting, or other event to gauge what students are learning in the session. In polleverywhere.com, questions can be imbedded into Microsoft Power Point or other presentations. Students can then text in “live” responses to the questions and can comment on each other’s responses. This Web site allows a certain number of participants to answer questions for free; additional responses can be purchased as necessary. Students particularly enjoy the ability to utilize current technology such as social media and texting in learning environments, and the data itself provides a real-time assessment of whether or not students are meeting the established learning goals. The downside for using polleverywhere.com is that it limits participation to those that utilize texting and cell phones. This may eliminate the voice of students who come from lower socio-economic backgrounds or who do not engage in the use of cell phones or texting services.
The trivia clickers are very similar to polleverywhere.com in that they capture real-time responses from participants. Commercial clickers are similar to the types of hand-held devices used in restaurants for trivia games. Educators create a series of questions and students can respond to them in real-time using the clickers. The downside to this approach is that there is an initial cost associated with the technology. However, feedback we have received from students thus far, indicates that they find the interaction with clicker technology very engaging and the real-time data related to understanding of programmatic content by the participants is very helpful to assess progress on students learning in the event/program/initiative.
Another way to assess student learning is through a pre-assessment and post-assessment survey for residential life professional and/or para-professional staff training. One can track the staff’s learning progress as well as the effectiveness of the trainings offered. Assessment surveys can be directly linked to learning outcomes within training sessions throughout the academic year. Areas of improvement are revealed through the comprehension of the learning outcomes assessed. It can be an eye-opening experience to discover a particular training session did not yield the acquired knowledge as intended. However, “discovering that programs are not functioning as they intended is not necessarily evidence that the program is “bad”; it merely indicates that the learning strategy present in the program is not well-suited to enhancing students’ acquisition of knowledge, values, or abilities” (Keeling, Wall, Underhile & Dungy, 2008, p. 73). This type of assessment has become extremely helpful in planning future training sessions for the para-professional residential life staff and solidifies the co-curricular learning and skills the staff engages in throughout the academic year.
National Assessments such as the Association of College and University Housing Officers-International(ACUHO-I)/Electronic Benchmarking Incorporated (EBI) Resident Assessment, ACUHO-I/EBI Student Staff Assessment and the ACUHO-I/EBI Apartment Assessment obtain student satisfaction and benchmarking data. The Resident Assessment is based on ACUHO-I and Council for the Advancement of Standards (CAS) Professional Standards. These assessments can be utilized to show what areas in which a residential life program is excelling and areas for improvement when comparing with other institutions. Another national assessment is the NASPA Consortium Benchmarking Assessment which has both a Residence Life Assessment and a Profile of the College Student Assessment that provide data covering student perceptions and satisfaction among national benchmarks of peer institutions and various other classification categories. This data highlights the overall indication of where the individual institution falls among these benchmarks. While both of these national assessments provide resident satisfaction information, they also provide information on student attainment of co-curricular learning outcomes. By comparing this institutional data with similar institutions, nationally and longitudinally, the results may inform the Residential Life programs’ practices and provide stakeholders, such as Senior Student Affairs Officers(SSAOs), Board of Trustees and Presidents, with valuable information to allocate resources to the program in the future.
Overall, residential life programs must engage in an “archeological dig” in which the unit digs deep into their institution’s mission, values, goals, and beliefs to determine how the residential program can support and enhance the institutional mission (Keeling, 2006; Keeling, Wall, Underhile, & Dungy, 2008). Many types of assessment methods exist and can provide various data sets to inform future goals, practices and learning outcomes of a residential program. Quantitative methods described above, such as national assessments or polleverywhere.com, are a common practice in higher education which provides four different categories of data: institutional indicators, test and grading data, large survey data and local survey data (Assessment Reconsidered, 2008). Qualitative methods, such as the one minute paper or residence life staff training assessments provide rich and deep information that can inform the development of programs and services. Mixed methods can be used to bring a residential program’s survey data to life by allowing student stories behind the quantitative data to be discovered. Though the best set of data-gathering approaches will take time, a mixed methodological approach utilizing direct and indirect methods and at times novel approaches is best when advising and supporting co-curricular learning outcomes in residential programs.
- Why is assessment important to a residential life program? What opportunities or challenges exist and how can assessment help us with these opportunities and challenges?
- What areas of student learning are important in the residential setting? How do we know that these learning outcomes are being met?
- What assessment tools will assist us in assessing student learning and why?
- What is one small assessment project that could assess student learning in our residential environment? What do we need to do to plan this assessment? When do we want to see it completed?
Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers. (2nd ed). San Fransisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Blimling, G. (2010). The Resident Assistant: Applications and strategies for working with college students in residence halls. Dubuque, Iowa; Kenall/Hunt Publishing Company.
Greater Expectations: A new vision for learning as a nation goes to college. (2002). National Panel Report. Association of American Colleges and Universities (www.aacu.org).
Inkelas, K. K. & Weisman, J. L. (2003). Different by design: An examination of student outcomes among participants in three types of living-learning programs. Journal of College Student Developoment, 44(3): 335-368. doi: 10.1353/csd.2003.0027
Keeling, R. P. (ed.). (2006). Learning reconsidered 2: A practice guide to implementing a campus-wide focus on the student experience. ACPA, ACUHO-I, ACUI, NACA, NACADA, NASPA, NIRSA.
Keeling, R. P., Wall, A. F., Underhile, R., & Dungy, G. J. (2008). Assessment reconsidered: Institutional effectiveness for student success. ICSSIA, NASPA, Keeling and Associates LLC.
Kerr, K. G., & Tweedy, J. (2006), Beyond seat time and student satisfaction: A curricular approach to residential education. About Campus, 11: 9–15. doi: 10.1002/abc.181
Knerr, A. R. (2011). Practical approaches to residence life assessment. Webinar, Academic Impressions, Colorado Springs, CO.
Palomba, C. A. & Banta, T. W. (1999). Assessment essentials: Planning, implementing, and improving assessment in higher education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Schroeder, C. C., Mable, P. & Associates. (1994). Realizing the educational potential of residence halls. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Strayhorn, T. L. (2006). Frameworks for assessing learning and development outcomes. Washington, DC: Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education.
Upcraft, M. L, & Schuh, J. H. (2001). Assessment in student affairs: An applications manual. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Free Assessment Webinars provided by CampusLabs:
Commission for Assessment and Evaluation’s (CAE) Wiki site:
ACPA’s ASK Standards booklet:
Amanda R. Knerr is the senior associate director of residence life at The Pennsylvania State University, where she oversees the unit’s assessment program. Amanda has been involved in ACPA in a number of ways including serving on planning committees for the Assessment Institute, Residential Curriculum Institute, and the Institute on Sustainability and has been a member of the ACPA Commission for Assessment and Evaluation Directorate for the last five years.
Please e-mail inquiries to Amanda R. Kerr.
Jennifer Lenfant Wright is the associate director for housing operations and student affairs assessment at Mount St. Mary’s University, where she oversees the housing operations for the campus and the student affairs assessment program. Jennifer is completing her three year term on the ACPA Standing Committee for Women Directorate, continuing her first year on the ACPA Commission for Assessment and Evaluation Directorate and is excited to be part of the 2013 ACPA Convention Team.
Please e-mail inquiries to Jennifer Lenfant Wright.
The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.