A 3×5 Plan for Systematizing Assessment

As we know, there is increasing need to assess programs and services within student affairs. Not only do we need to determine how effective and efficient these initiatives are, but we also must document the achievement of the goals, especially learning goals. In the pursuit of documenting goals and identifying opportunities for improvement, any assessment is worthwhile. However, much assessment is ad hoc or happens in isolation across a program, department, or division. Student affairs professionals need to work to systematize assessment.

The plan below can help you achieve this systematization. While the focus is systematizing assessment across a division, this plan can be used to systematize assessment across any type of unit. The plan is composed of three domains: foundation, implementation, and support. Each domain has five components.


  1. Mission centered: Just like every campus that has a real or virtual center of campus, the mission should serve as the center for all assessment. It should be clear how the programs and services that are being assessed are connected to you department, division, and institutional missions.
  2. Goal grounded: The assessment should also be grounded in the goals for the division. Ideally, the goals are positioned within a strategic plan, but even with a strategic plan, there are additional goals. The goals provide focus and should act as a beacon for your work.
  3. Outcome directed: Outcomes provide the “destination postcard.” In other words, the outcomes articulate what goal achievement specifically looks like. This can include what students do, know, or value, or it may be a larger change on campus such as a reduction in the binge-drinking rate or an increase in 1st to 2nd year retention.
  4. Culture specific: Campus culture can be defined as “how we do things here” and the culture on every campus is different. This needs to be taken into account when a assessment is systematized across a division. Some campuses are centralized where all assessment processes must run through an institutional research or institutional effectiveness office. Other campuses are decentralized where assessment is left to individual offices. Some campuses are policy heavy where there is a policy for collecting assessment, for reporting assessment, and for implementing change from assessment. Other campuses are policy light and don’t have any policies for assessment work. Consider “how things are done” on your campus and adapt your assessment processes to that culture.
  5. Literature based: As student affairs professionals, we have an obligation to bring theory into practice. Many great minds are producing research that can influence student affairs work and it is up to practitioners to utilize this research. This literature helps identify what data should be collected and how it should be collected. The literature also provides context for understanding the findings.


  1. Accountability & Continuous improvement: There are two main purposes for assessment. The one most people think about is accountability. Accountability answers the questions: “Are we doing what we say we are doing, and to what extent.” We typically focus on external accountability that comes from the federal government, state legislatures, or accreditors. However, there is important internal accountability. I suspect that everyone in student affairs wants to do the best they can for students. Holding ourselves to that standard is internal accountability and it, rather than the external form, should provide the motivation to perform assessment. If we focus on internal accountability, the external accountability will take care of itself. The second, often overlooked, purpose of assessment is continuous improvement. It answers the question, “How effectively and efficiently are we doing what we say we are doing.” As we collect information to document accountability we should also be collecting data to identify opportunities for improvement. The challenge is that it often takes different types of data to document accountability compared to the data needed to discover ways to improve. Even with this challenge, it is important to find ways to answer all of these questions.
  2. Embedded: The best assessment is assessment that fosters learning in addition to documenting accountability and finding ways to improve. The best assessment is synergistic assessment. Embedding assessment in learning activities is the optimal way to achieve this synergy. Rather than thinking about assessment as something to be completed at the end of the activity, consider ways you can use assessment methods such as classroom assessment techniques to foster learning and collect data.
  3. Collaborative: Assessment is everyone’s responsibility. It cannot be recused to one person or a small number of individuals in division. Assessment should not be isolated within on office or unit. Assessment should occur across departmental lines to maximize resources and identify ways staff could work together to achieve divisional goals. It is essential to break down the silos if assessment is going to be systematized across a division.
  4. Transparent: The assessment process should be transparent. Stakeholders should know why you are assessing and how the data is being used. It is also critical during the assessment process to share the data with those stakeholders, especially students. Assessment data sharing demonstrates that assessment is important and that the information is being used for decision-making and improvement of practice.
  5. Ongoing and never ending: Systematized assessment should part of the fabric of a division. It is built into the everyday workings of the unit. As such, there is no end to assessment. Once an assessment project is completed, another one is started. There should be multiple, continuous cycles of assessment occurring if a unit wishes to achieve its goals and continuously improve.


  1. Vocal and unyielding leadership: Vocal and unyielding leadership is essential for systematizing assessment. Leaders at the program, department, and division level must continually articulate the value of assessment and provide concrete examples of the use of assessment data in decision-making, planning, and practice. There will often be times when the leader receives resistance from staff regarding assessment. This opposition is natural but should not deter the leader from moving forward with assessment. Systematizing assessment is shifting culture and that takes time.
  2. Championed: While everyone should be engaging in assessment, it is helpful to have an “assessment champion” in the division. This person understands the “big picture” of assessment in the division and nudges staff to engage in assessment. It useful that the champion is a liaison to the senior leadership so that she can provide progress reports, articulate challenges, and advocate for additional resources to support assessment across the unit.
  3. Strong infrastructure: Infrastructure includes policies, practices, and scaffolding that supports assessment. Assessment infrastructure may include a reporting process that incorporates assessment data, the development of an assessment committee to promote assessment, or a budgeting process buoyed by assessment data.
  4. Continuous capacity building: Developing the skills and knowledge to perform assessment is an on going process. Provide professional development opportunities on and off campus for staff to build and continue to hone these skills is essential for capacity building. There are many inexpensive resources available include webinars, blogs, and books to assist in this strengthening process. There should be both an individual commitment as well as a divisional commitment to capacity building.
  5. Robust resources: Assessment cannot be undertaken without resources. Oftentimes resources are financial and are needed to send people to conferences, purchase assessment tools, or contract for assessment services. But, time is as important as money. An assessment-oriented leader will understand that assessment is an investment and instead of adding assessment as an additional responsibility to staffs’ job descriptions, she will subtract responsibilities to make room for assessment tasks.

This 3×5 plan to systematizing assessment isn’t’ easy. It is culture change that takes time, energy, and patience. The change requires the investment across the organization both horizontally as well as vertically. While not an easy task, systematizing assessment has tremendous benefits for the unit, for staff, and ultimately for students.

What steps would be in your plan to systematize assessment? 

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