Why We Have a Shortage of Assessment

2015-03-14_OhNoLogo22-mark3I’m going to make a bit of a leap here and say that across the country, assessment is not happening enough. I’m referring to assessment as a deliberate strategy for measuring student progress toward learning outcomes; a strategy created, referred to, and executed over a period of time. My sense is that many student affairs offices want to assess, but find themselves struggling to make meaningful progress. Why is this?

We are a “people” profession. Most folks in student affairs arrived here because we derive meaning from person to person interactions; we are energized by these conversations. But assessment is a solitary activity. Somewhere in the design of an assessment process you’ll find one person creating a survey or running reports, then compiling and arranging data. The space between “what should we assess?” and “here’s how we’re doing” is awfully lonely. In those periods of time where we don’t have scheduled commitments, we often choose e-mail or other projects because many of us are not naturally drawn to assessment.

Assessment is a subfield of student affairs, it does not exist separately. Thus, someone needs to be interested in student affairs first, then want to do assessment; rather than be drawn to assessment, then student affairs. That we’re a people profession and since assessment often structurally comes from within student affairs, we have a misalignment of needs and workforce skill-set.

Our offices are too small to support a staff member who focuses solely on assessment. Most student affairs consist of only a handful of full-time staff and cannot justify a full time position committed to assessment. Even if an office did have the resources to hire an individual whose primary responsibility is assessment, who would they hire? As I established in the previous point, we don’t have an abundance of interest in such positions within the student affairs workforce.

Assessment has no hard deadline. Come orientation, the students are coming and we will orient them whether we’re ready or not. Assessment doesn’t work that way. It often lives at the periphery of our roles and requires us to “get around to it” before we can make progress.

Maybe, just maybe, the thought that assessment efforts might indicate we’re doing a poor job of educating our students is enough to put this on the back burner. Since assessment is often an internal activity, the results — in some way — indicate the effectiveness of an office or individual. In most situations, assessment shouldn’t be used as a performance review tool, but it’s hard to ignore numbers.

It’s clear that assessment is swimming upstream; and these are only a few of the barriers. How do we promote an environment where more assessment is happening? It’s tough to say. I think we need to talk about it. We need more higher education professionals who are comfortable with this line of thinking. If I’m reading the climate well, it seems the pressure to measure our impact on our students as a means of justifying our existence will only increase.

What barriers have I missed?

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Ok, but why read an assessment blog?!

2015-03-14_OhNoLogo22-mark3You might be wondering: Who are these people? Why am I reading an assessment blog?

If you work in higher education, you’re probably not wondering: Why did they call this oh no, it’s an assessment blog? If you don’t work in higher ed, then you probably don’t know that assessment is an activity in which more and more institutions find themselves obligated to engage. It’s all about measuring what students get out of their experiences with us (e.g., advising offices, career services offices, housing offices, colleges and universities as a whole, etc.). The catch is that learning is messy.

In higher ed, we’re helping students identify their values; helping them thrive in today’s complex and dynamic world. If we’re going to help students build these skills, we need to know how we are doing.

But I’m not sure that we as a workforce are naturally equipped for assessment. We’re great at establishing relationships and meaningful conversations, but when it comes to making sense of data, we’re a sports car trying to move a family of 5. We may be a bit cramped, but look at how well we’re taking these corners!

In a quantitative analysis course in grad school, I tried to explain to a classmate how to perform an Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) on a given dataset. I tried everything. I drew graphs, I made pictures, I tried using our friends as examples. Nothing worked. Phoebe continued to look at me as though a giant lizard was right behind me ready to swallow me whole. After about a half-hour, she said “Mark. I don’t need to know how this works. Just tell me how to do it.” We were exhausted. I felt that I was one short example away from her getting it. She felt that I was just saying the same thing over and over again.

For us (i.e., higher ed folks) to make any progress here, we need to continue having these conversations. We need the numbers people to keep trying to explain things and we need those less numerically comfortable to keep asking questions. Because the numbers have implications for the entire office, and sometimes the numbers people — well, I anyway — are so focused on the numbers that we are oblivious to the big picture.

Why a blog? Why me?

If you’re ever trying to get me to do something, all you need to do is to get other people involved. Heck, I started watching The Bachelor because, I’m not really into love stories — please, save the debate about whether the show constitutes love — but the thought of friends, a beer, and a common experience was too much to pass up.

Abby knows of this weakness. Last fall, she proposed we start an assessment blog. My first thoughts: “Sounds like a lot of writing,” and “Do people read assessment blogs?” Now that we’ve created one, I hope the answer is yes.

I come from a background of numbers. My bachelor’s degree is in Mechanical Engineering. This, along with my love for Microsoft Excel, kept nudging me toward assessment. I’ve devised assessment strategies, created surveys, and analyzed loads of data. Along the way I learned not everyone in higher education enjoys the numbers the way I do — but I hope to change that.

 

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Don’t worry, you do NOT need to be a “numbers person” to be excited about assessment. It sounds like a lie, but I’m proof that it’s Truth! My bachelor’s degree is in French (très chic!) and I was a stereotypical humanities major: loved language and culture; hated math.

 What drew me to assessment was my love of teaching, learning, and student development theory. I work in career services and, while I do want students to get jobs post-graduation, the true metric of the value of higher education is when students apply their interests, values, and critical thinking skills to a meaningful post-graduate path. Graduates often change jobs multiple times within the first few years after college. Designing learning outcomes and using them to structure office programming, goals, and data collection shows institutional decision makers that college not only prepares graduates to get a job, but also to face the ever-changing demands of a complex 21st-century workforce.

I’m not the best statistician and that’s ok, because assessment is about people (and I’m best with people). Regardless of your comfort level with data, you can find your place in assessment, and we think it can be fun. Hopefully, Oh no, it’s an assessment blog will help with that.

Come back to ‘Oh no’ on Monday for Mark’s first post!

Oh no, it’s an assessment blog – FIRST of April, FIRST post, FIRSTS

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Hi, I’m Mark. When we first started fleshing out this blog, Abby and I laid down ideas for how often we’d post and what we’d write about. As I now sit on my living room couch, typing my first entry, constantly deleting paragraphs, I realize that no amount of preparation would make writing any easier. Frankly, I wish I understood just how difficult it is to get your thoughts into words a decade ago when I was an undergraduate. In the few papers I had to write, I spent so much time trying to get them to the minimum page length that I hardly put any effort into whatever I was writing.

The plan for this entry was to jot down stories about some of the firsts of our lives. I had a paragraph or two about the time in eighth grade when I calculated my age in seconds. Or another one about how I spent the first weeks of my first real job as a design engineer creating a mediocre model of the Batmobile:

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Why on earth did I save that screen shot?

The paragraphs felt forced, so I decided to ditch the plan all together (apologies Abby).

Most decisions I made in my life up to my early twenties were made by the people around me. I went to college because that’s what I thought everyone did. I chose Mechanical Engineering as a major because I was good at math and science and everyone kept telling me it was a good job and that it paid well. Not until six months into my first real job did it hit me that I hadn’t put much thought into what I wanted to do with my life. After some reflection, I remembered the only job I had that I truly enjoyed — I was an orientation leader before my senior year of college. I researched graduate programs and landed at Miami University. The experience introduced me to an academic world I didn’t even know existed. It was one of those leaps where you jump first and worry about the end point later. Like that scene in Divergent where Shailene Woodley jumps off the building before knowing what’s at the bottom of the dark hole. Somewhere around the second year of the program, I decided it was a good decision.

For the last five years I’ve advised first-year students in Michigan’s College of Engineering. Over time I’ve noticed that the same problems arise with each new cohort of students: like me, most of these students struggle to connect their skills and talents with callings important to them. They want to see all of the options, and choose. As student development fans might say, they’re not yet capable of identifying their values and crafting a future. Isn’t that partly our (i.e., student affairs folks) job? And if so, isn’t it important that we continue to refine the way we measure that development? Or at least, have an idea of how well we’re doing?

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Hi, I’m Abby, the other half of the blog.

And, I, unlike Mark (!!), stuck with the FIRSTS theme in honor of our first blog post. As a higher ed professional, I remember fondly (and some, not so fondly) my notable “firsts” in college:

  1. First (and last) time sharing a cell phone – My mom and I shared a Nextel flip phone my freshman year of college — and she lived in another town. WHO’S IDEA WAS THAT?!
  2. First time writing on an online journal – I poured my heart out daily on a lesser known cousin of Live Journal. I’m CERTAIN it was boring reading. I printed a copy of it for when I write my one woman stand up show entitled: Boyfriends, Early Lactose-Intolerance, and Me: Musings on Harry Potter. Which leads me to my next item…
  3. First time realizing information freely published on the internet is not private (duh…but hey, it was early 2000s and people didn’t understand) – Let’s just say I was mad about something and ran my mouth off. Mistake.
  4. First time living in another country – France will always hold a piece of my heart (see below photo of me on the Eiffel Tower). So will: [a] eating wheels of camembert, and [b] drinking lots of wine in the midday and then having pseudo life epiphanies in St. Jean’s Cathedral (sorry, God).
  5. First time eating Jello Poke Cake (yes, this is a “notable” first) – Thank GOD for the Midwest and her obsession with putting gelatin in EVERYTHING. Loved it so much I later served it at my wedding. Yum!
  6. First (and only) time speaking fluent, beautiful French – A French native asked me which part of Normandy I was from and I thought I was going to die and go to camembert heaven.

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You may be saying, “Hey! I thought I was reading an assessment blog!” (::angry face::) I promise these are related to assessment in higher education.

Walk with me here.

What all of these firsts represent is a walk through one (former) student’s account of her development. If colleges and students partner together effectively, the result can be deeply meaningful moments in college that leave a lasting (and Mark and I would argue, necessary) impact on graduates. And it’s hard to track something as non-linear as human development but it is a worthy cause and the reason I love my job in the Career Center at Carleton College.

I was a French major, and I, like many of you, didn’t get into student affairs for the data crunching. But the complex nature of the 21st century and increasing conversations about college return on investment require that we pick up our Excel spreadsheets and care for our students, and assess their learning. This will capture a more complete picture of a college’s return on investment. This former French teacher is up for the task. Are you?

It seems every time the topic of assessment is brought up, there’s a running joke that you’re not supposed to enjoy it. That really grinds  our gears. We need a space where we can poke and prod at assessment — a space where folks can weigh in and present ideas. We decided to start this blog because we have thoughts! We believe that assessment in higher education needs development, and the only way to move us forward as an industry is to get a conversation going. Oh no, it’s an assessment blog.