Assessment Isn’t An Activity. It’s A State of Mind.

I have said this in other venues including blogs, presentations, discussions, and my classes – “Assessment isn’t activity. It’s a state of mind.” Many people think assessment is something you do at the END of a program or delivery of a service. I argue it is something that you must consider BEFORE you even begin. Without thinking about assessment from the get go, you won’t be as effective or efficient as you can OR should be.

I have been out of the full-time student affairs assessment game for about 18 months, and upon reflection, I have realized that not only is assessment a state of mind, it is actually a particular way of thinking. Because of my assessment work over the past decade, I see the world in a particular way. And it is not just how I see higher education. It is the way I see all corners of my world. I have the same perspective if I implement a project on campus, teach a class, go grocery shopping, or deal with a flat tire on the highway 150 miles from home at 10pm at night. This way of thinking is Assessment Thinking.

Assessment Thinking is a way to conceptualize or approach an issue or problem that views assessment as a process with the following 6 steps:

  1. REFLECT. The first step is to reflect upon the issue or problem to be addressed by breaking it down into its elemental components to fully understand the complete scope of the issue. Often times, the issue is more complicated that it looks on the surface. To be able to address it, we need to fully understand its breadth and depth looking at the problem from as many perspectives as possible. In higher education, look at it through the eyes of students, faculty, staff, parents, and other constituents. An issue such as alcohol use on campus looks differently to each constituent group and this will impact other steps in the assessment thinking process.
  2. GOAL SET. In the second step, you need to determine what you want to achieve to resolve the problem or issue and develop the goals and outcomes that concretely conceptualize the end result. The goals and outcomes will serve as guideposts for the process giving you a picture of the end result. Think about “backwards design.” You need to decide what you want to achieve and then draw a road map for getting to your destination. Depending on the issue, you may need to set short-, medium-, and long-term goals. In regard to alcohol use on campus, we need to clearly define our goals. Is my goal to decrease the number of hospitalizations per academic year? Is my goal to reduce the mean Blood Alcohol Level of students taking an annual survey? Is my goal to reduce the number of alcohol incidents in the residence halls spring term? While all of these goals are related to reducing alcohol use on campus, they are all very different goals and require different  routes to reach them.
  3. CONSIDER. The third step is the consideration of the issues that will impact achievement of the goals. Consideration should include the mission and culture of the organization or institution in which you work. This step would also include consulting the literature and research to better understand the issue. For example, what might be environmental variables affecting alcohol use your particular campuses? It is also important to ponder the stakeholders and what their stakes may be in the issue. What are the perspectives of town police or local residents regarding alcohol use on campus? It is essential to contemplate the resources available to address your issue or problem. Resources are more than just money. There are fiscal, physical, human, and intellectual resources. While you may have three staff members able to contribute 25% of each of their jobs (human resources) to addressing alcohol use on campus, do they have the skills and knowledge to be able to do deal with this issue (intellectual resources) or will they need professional development which may require financial resources? Resources will dictate step four.
  4. STRATEGIZE. The fourth step is where a lot of folks start. But, it is the middle point of assessment thinking, not the beginning. During this step, the strategies and action steps are developed to address the problem, keeping in mind the learning from steps 1-3. If you decide that your goal is to reduce the number of hospitalizations resulting from excessive alcohol use, one strategy you may employ might be a peer monitoring system whereby students are tasked, formally or informally, with watching out for each other. You may also develop a medical amnesty policy whereby students will not receive judicial sanctions if a friend calls for medical assistance if they are intoxicated.
  5. MEASURE. Measurement serves two primary purposes. First, it helps you know if you achieved your goals and outcomes (accountability). Second, it helps you know what you could do better next time (improvement). Improvement doesn’t assume that goals aren’t achieved, either. Even if you did achieve your goals there may be a way to do so more effectively or efficiently. For example, can you reduce the number of hospitalizations even more? Can you do so with less money and fewer staff so those resources can be used to address other student issues?
  6. REPORT & REFINE. The final step is closing the loop. Results of your measurement should be reported to the appropriate constituent groups. They have a right to know if you achieved your goals or not. Regardless, if the goals were achieved, the recommendations for improvement should be implemented. Without reporting and refining, the assessment process isn’t complete.

The six steps above are not just an assessment process. They describe a thinking process that we should use in everything we do in higher education. We cannot impact the student experience and student learning if we are not intentional and use logic and data to inform our work. As you continue to use this thinking process, it will move from conscious to unconscious. It will become seamlessly integrated into your daily work.

I would love to hear what you think. Take a moment to share your thoughts.

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