written by: Danielle Barefoot
The importance of assessment in Student Affairs has been an ongoing topic of discussion for articles, staff trainings, conference presentations, and courses for years with no indication of this conversation stopping anytime soon. While practitioner reactions to assessment can range from giddy excitement, to anxiety, to apathy, and everywhere in between, we continue to struggle as a profession to embed assessment into our practices. Establishing a mindset for and competency with assessment is a key skill that supports effective practices in Student Affairs.
Assessment has been an interest area of mine since I was undergraduate resident assistant in the early 2010s—before I was introduced to the world of Student Affairs as a potential profession. Since then, during my time as a Student Affairs practitioner, I have developed a reputation for being an “assessment person” due to things like my excitement in my 1st year of graduate school at convincing Dr. Boettcher to let our assessment class have a pizza party to demonstrate how post event assessments can be used to improve future events, and my current work at the University of Iowa where I support the culture of assessment within the Division of Student Life.
While I may be an outlier as a “giddy excitement” type of assessment person; I will never stop learning about and refining my skills for assessment. However, even if you are not someone who loves assessment, it can be enjoyable and relatively easy to collect useful information about your work in Student Affairs. Below are five strategies I have used to develop my own assessment skills and support others who are seeking to build a competency for assessment.
Strategies for Building Assessment Skills
- Understand your motivations and barriers when it comes to learning about assessment.
I suggest starting with two questions:
- What motivates me when it comes to learning about assessment?
- What are my internal and external barriers related to assessment?
In their book How Learning Works: 7 Research Based Principles for Smart Teaching, Ambrose et al. (2010) identified that “students’ motivation determines, directs, and sustains what they do to learn” (p.4). Without motivation, you might struggle to sustain efforts to develop assessment skills.
Motivation is often broken into two categories: intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivations broadly come from self-identified values like “I do this because I find it fun, rewarding, or relaxing” whereas extrinsic motivation comes from external factors and values like “this is important to my employer” or “I need to do this to get a good grade.” (Maehr & Meyer, 1997; Wigfield & Eccles, 2000). Knowing what motivates you, can help you to build and sustain value in what you do to learn about assessment.
Building value is key to maintaining motivation but value alone is not sufficient. Nothing we do should be in a silo, so addressing internal and external barriers as well as motivations is critical to sustaining assessment learning. Internal and external barriers impact learning by decreasing efficacy expectancy, or the belief that you are capable of completing the tasks associated with learning (Bandura, 1997). By addressing both internal and external barriers, you can increase your self-efficacy related to learning about assessment.
To set yourself up for success in learning about assessment you need to see value in what you are doing and believe you are capable of learning. Focus on creating a plan that aligns to what will help you build value and self-efficacy. For example, I derive a lot of satisfaction in learning new things, solving issues, and my supervisor recognizing my work. However, my ADHD often creates barriers related to time, self doubt, and focus. When I try to learn new skills related to assessment, I build value by recognizing my excitement to learn something different, identifying a specific way I can use what I am learning to solve a problem I have at work, and sharing with my supervisor what I am learning. I address my barriers by reminding myself the time I am using to learn an assessment skill is an investment that will help me save time on work tasks in the future. Additionally, I work with a supervisor or peer to help me identify what my assessment focus is. Finally, I proactively ask my supervisor to help disrupt my self-doubt by reminding me of times I have successfully overcome challenges in the past. It can take some time to figure out what works best for you but aligning your development plan so it addresses your motivations and barriers will help you to sustain success.
- Do assessment on purpose and with purpose.
Start off by learning to differentiate between assessment and data collection. Assessment can be defined in many ways but in their book Assessment in Student Affairs: a Guide for Practitioners, Upcraft and Schuh (1996) described assessment in student affairs as “any effort to gather, analyze, and interpret evidence that describes institutional, departmental, divisional, or agency effectiveness” (p.18). Using this definition, assessment can be thought of as a way to use systematically collected evidence to make decisions and improve practices.
When I first dove into assessment, my understanding stopped after reading “any effort to gather data.” I spent time, energy, and effort gathering information without a purpose or a plan for how I was going to use the data. This often led to taxation and frustration for me and the people who were providing data. People spent time and effort sharing their stories and experiences, without me having a plan for how to use their information. I was not “closing the loop” on the assessment by reporting back on how the information that was collected was used. When I approached assessment with the idea that “everything has to be assessed, all the time” I set myself up with an expectation that I did not have the capacity to meet. Now I approach assessment with a mindset of “everything should be able to be assessed, and what makes sense for me to focus my assessment efforts on right now?”
Align your outcomes to the priorities and needs of your area and plan your assessment projects with the end goal in mind. Assessment priorities should be connected to the overall work of your area. By grounding your assessment in the values of your area you can help others connect how the assessment is important for their work. This can also help keep your assessment focused. I have been guilty of creating an assessment plan that collected data on things that I found interesting. While that isn’t an inherently negative thing, it resulted in time and effort spent collecting information was not actually used to make data informed decisions within my area.
Knowing the end goal of your assessment will provide you with clarity on the data you need, help you pick relevant assessment methods, set clear metrics for success, and identify opportunities for improvement. For example, the data needed to identify if a space met the accessibility needs of a student organization’s event can look very different than the data needed to measure student learning. How I approach those two goals does not need to be the same.
Knowing my end goal, also helped me understand assessments did not just need to showcase positive data. Sometimes an assessment will show that an initiative or strategy was not effective. If the end goal of the assessment is not predefined it can be tempting to change the goal to show only good things. Ultimately, getting “bad news” or “bad data” when conducting an assessment is an opportunity to clarify and improve our work. As a field whose goals and values are rooted in student success, continuing to spend time, effort, and money on strategies that are not meeting student needs is counterproductive. While it can be easy to internalize disappointing data as something that lessens the value of work someone put into an initiative, using data for process improvement allows you to build value and buy-in to the work and initiatives of a department.
Don’t reinvent the wheel. There are a ton of assessment tools and methods already developed that are effective. If something that already exists can be adapted to meet the needs of your assessment, connect with who developed it to see if you can utilize it. Additionally, if the data you need has already been collected, see if you can use that data instead of using resources to duplicate information. Later in this article, I provide a few resources to get you started.
Be realistic about capacity when choosing assessment methods. Choosing an assessment method for which you have both the time and resources (yours and your stakeholders) is crucial for successful assessment practices. Assessment is not happening within a vacuum so be mindful of what you and others need to attend to. For example, planning a focus group that falls during finals week might not be feasible in terms of getting participants, or doing a space audit for every restroom on campus by yourself in a single week likely will not give you the time to complete other aspects of your work.
- Look for opportunities to build assessment into the work you are already doing.
One of the biggest struggles I faced as an entry level professional when trying to figure out how to prioritize assessment was I could never seem to find the time to assess while completing all of my other work. How was I supposed to do assessment when I needed to respond to a student in crisis, schedule a team meeting and complete my assigned tasks for one of my committees? What about when I had to meet one on one with a staff member or (gently) respond to a family member to explain why it was a FERPA violation for me to answer their question without making them feel dismissed? Oh, and then I also need to feed myself, do chores at home, attend to personal hygiene, and take my dog for a walk.
Managing my day-to-day life and work while completing assessment seemed unmanageable until I started integrating assessment practices into the work I was already doing. This shift challenged me to rethink what it meant to do assessment and to be more strategic in my approach to assessment. Ultimately, this came down to three strategies: looking beyond surveys and focus groups for assessment, identifying classroom assessment techniques that could be applied to my work, and leveraging the systems and technology I had at my disposal to complete assessment.
An example of this is practice was changing the way I assessed the growth and development of my student staff throughout the course of my second year as a residence hall coordinator. Going into my second year as a supervisor, I wanted to assess my supervision. I tied this to my professional development plan and over the summer I outlined what learning outcomes my staff should achieve over the course of the year. I then planned out an entire semester’s worth of staff meeting and one on one agendas to include activities to help my team learn. I went into staff training energized and excited to execute this vision and confident that my preplanning would set me up to be successful.
As the pace of the semester picked up, I started losing momentum and shifting my plans. While I was still doing the development activities with my staff, I was not measuring the impact of the activities by sending the post surveys or other assessments I had planned. My staff (and I) were tired. I felt bad asking them to do another thing and was overwhelmed at the idea of going through any data I would collect.
I remember feeling frustrated during a one on one with my supervisor because I did not feel like I could show him the growth I was seeing in my staff. He challenged me to think about how I could measure growth outside of sending a survey to my staff and encouraged me to look into classroom assessment techniques for measure learning. Over our winter session, I revamped my supervision plan to find ways to integrate classroom assessment techniques and leverage technology into my assessment plans. Instead of sending a survey out after an activity I measured learning by giving my staff the opportunity to demonstrate their learning through things like case studies, peer teaching, and one-minute papers. I also brought reflection practices into my one on ones with students. Instead of asking them if they were connecting what they were learning in their classes to their work on campus they reflected on and named what they were connecting. To document this assessment, I used our survey platform to develop a checklist for myself so I could track if my staff member did something connected to my learning outcomes.
These shifts completely transformed my approach to supervision and assessment. Since I was already doing one on ones, keeping notes and sharing meeting minutes from our one on ones and staff meetings, building classroom assessment practices into that work no longer felt like an extra task I had to do. Instead of asking my staff what they learned, they were given opportunities to demonstrate, apply, and reflect on their learning. Additionally, because I utilized the technology to document their learning, I saved time and had explicit examples I could go back to share their learning with my supervisor and individual staff members. This led to a sense of accomplishment for me and my staff as we closed out the year. Additionally, I found that these shifts helped me with other tasks that came up like writing end of the year evaluations or letters of recommendation for my staff.
Two books, I found especially helpful in identifying and applying classroom assessment techniques are Lang’s (2016) Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning and McKeachie and Svinicki’s (2010) McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers. Both of these texts offered practical activities and examples that could be adapted to my work at a Student Affairs practitioner.
- Prioritize professional development connected to assessment.
The more I have learned about assessment over the past few years, the more I realize I have much more to learn. Luckily, there are a plethora of resources designed to help Student Affairs practitioners continue to learn about assessment. In order to develop your assessment skills, it is important to prioritize assessment into your professional development. While professional development does not need to look the same for every person, there are relevant assessment-focused development opportunities for any practitioner. I would recommend starting by looking at what is offered on your own campus. If your institution has an assessment and research, or teaching and learning center, they might offer workshops, trainings, and consultations that can help you learn new assessment skills. Outside of your own campus, below are three suggestions for places that can provide assessment related professional development.
Professional Organization: Many of our professional organizations (at the national and regional levels) have commissions or committees dedicated to assessment. Throughout the year they might offer webinars, articles, institutes, and other development opportunities.
Assessment Networks: There are many networks of assessment professionals on social media and other platforms that can provide assessment support. For example, Student Affairs Assessments Leaders is a network of assessment professionals who seek “to improve the quality of assessment practice within student affairs by creating a robust and active network of student affairs assessment professionals, experts, and faculty, who are committed to sharing knowledge and resources, identifying and advancing critical conversations, and producing and distributing high quality training materials and research related to student affairs assessment.” (Student Affairs Assessment Leaders, 2017) This network has numerous resources you can utilize.
Online Courses: If you enjoy online learning check out platforms like YouTube, LinkedIn Learning, and Coursera to see if they have courses you can use to build your assessment skills. I’ve used platforms like these to learn skills with excel, data visualization, basic statistics, choosing a good assessment method and survey design.
- Find a partner
As my final tip, I cannot overstate the value of having a person or a network of people who will support you as you build your assessment skills and practices. Whether that person takes on the role of a co-developer, accountability partner, cheerleader, or mentor, do not do assessment by yourself. Just like it is a bad idea to go swimming alone, have someone with you when you dive into assessment. Below are some specific ways having a partner has helped me develop as an assessment practitioner.
Peers have helped me to identify and address the implicit and explicit bias I have that impacts how I develop, evaluate and make meaning of assessment. Having someone who will challenge me, ask why, and push me outside of my own lens has been crucial to my success in assessment.
I have learned new ways to do things. Like most things there is more than one way to approach assessment. Learning about different techniques from peers with different backgrounds, training, and knowledge has helped me to become more efficient with assessment. For example, a few years ago I was asked to code a large amount of qualitative data. I approached this by spending about 30 hours of work coding all 12,000 responses to identify themes. About a month later I was taught how to get a representative sample with large data sets. I went from needing to code 12,000 responses to less than 1,000 responses. Learning this technique has saved me time that I could then use to do other aspects of my job.
Finally, finding an assessment partner has introduced me to a large community of professionals. Some of these folks are considered “assessment people” like me, but many of them have expertise in other areas of Student Affairs. That community has helped me to develop as a practitioner in areas within and outside of the scope of assessment.
Ultimately, good assessment makes for better practices in other areas of your work. Regardless of how you react when you hear the word “assessment”, everyone can be an effective assessment practitioner. It really is okay to not love assessment. However, not loving something is not an excuse for someone to not meet their expected competency within the area. We still need to understand the value of assessment and how it is an integral part of work in Student Affairs. Assessment practices within Student Affairs are not going away. Start small as you build your assessment skills and do not let the idea of a “perfect” assessment plan get in the way of completing a good assessment plan. My hope is that regardless of how you feel about assessment, you are able to take some strategies from this article to develop your own skills. If there is any way I can provide support for you in your journey to developing assessment competencies please do not hesitate to reach out. I look forward to opportunities to learn together.
Danielle Barefoot currently serves as the Assessment and Outcomes Coordinator at the University of Iowa where she coordinates assessment within the Division of Student Life and University Housing and Dining. When not working on assessment projects she enjoys connecting with other professionals, annoying her cat, and learning new things.
Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based Principles for smart teaching. Jossey Bass.
Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. W.H. Freeman and Company.
Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning . Jossey-Bass.
Maehr, M., & Meyer, H. (1997). Understanding motivation and schooling: Where we’ve been, where we are, and where we need to go. Educational Psychology Review, 9(4), 371-384.
Scinicki, M. D., & McKeachie, W. J. (2014). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and univeristy teachers. Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
Student Affairs Assessment Leaders. (2017). Retrieved from http://studentaffairsassessment.org/
Upcraft, L. M., & Schuh, J. H. (1996). Assessment in student affairs: A guide for practitioners. Jossey-Bass.
Wigfield, A., & Eccles, J. (2000). Expectancy-value theory of achievement motivation. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), 68-81.