The Tinkertoy Postulate

I entered the Indianapolis Marriott Ballroom on Tuesday evening, April 1st to watch the Pecha Kucha sessions at the 2014 ACPA Annual Convention. The room was packed and everyone was enjoying the fast-paced 6 minute and 40 second presentations using 20 slides with each slide changing every 20 seconds. These presentations were fast, fun, and engaging. I, too, was captivated.

But this isn’t the focus of my story. What was going on around me is.

In between presentations I observed the crowd. People were talking and laughing with those sitting or standing close by – old friends, new friends, and ACPA acquaintances alike. With a backdrop of “edutainment,” people were connecting.

In a row near the back, I spotted two colleagues I knew sitting next to each other. They weren’t talking to each other like other folks were. I then realized that while I knew each of them, they likely didn’t know one another. One of these friends was Kristin Carpenter, a colleague from the University of New Hampshire Department of Residential Life. The other friend was Kristin Skarie from Teamworks who I have known through ACPA for a number of years.

The moment I saw them sitting together, I knew I had to connect them. Not only because they had the same first name (even spelled the same!) but also because they have a common interest. Kristin C. loves the outdoors, the environment, and intentional living. Kristin S. recently wrote a book entitled A Year of Nothing New: Tools for Living Lean and Green where she discusses how her life changed when she decided to stop shopping as a hobby which resulted in a renewed focus on deliberate, responsible, local living (check out the book here: Based on these interests, I figured Kristin and Kristin would hit it off right away. I went up to them, said hi, and introduce them to each other and suggested that Kristin S. tell Kristin C. about her book.

As I headed to another event later that night, I was reflecting on the connection that I made between Kristin S. and Kristin C. That connection reminded me of a concept I learned many years ago as a hall director at UNH. Ruth Abelmann, Associate Director of Residential Life, talked about residential life staff as Tinkertoys because they connect people to each other. The analogy is perfect for any student affairs professional.
If you aren’t familiar with Tinkertoys or Fiddlesticks (their generic kin), it is a set of wooden hubs and spokes that allow the user to create a variety of constructions. The hub has many holes around its circumference into which spokes can be inserted. In the Tinkertoy Postulate, each of us is a hub and we have connections to other hubs via spokes. Thus, I had a connection to both Kristins individually. But they didn’t have a connection to each other.

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When I connected Kristin with Kristin they created a bond. In this case people are similar to molecules. A molecule is stronger if the atoms that comprise it have many bonds to the other atoms. People are also stronger if they have more connections. They feel integrated and that they matter.

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Now, imagine if everyone were to be a hub making intentional connections between other people. We would have a constellation of connections that were integrated and interconnected.


That would be an almost unbreakable net of relationships. Be the hub and connect others.

The Argument for Competency-Based Higher Education

There has been recent buzz regarding the awarding of higher education degrees based on demonstrated competence of knowledge and skills rather than the traditional acquisition of a set number of course-based credits. In April 2013, the U.S. Department of Education approved the eligibility of Southern New Hampshire University to receive federal financial aid for students enrolled in a new, self-paced program ( Then in May, the U.S. Department of Education notified colleges and universities that they could apply to provide federal student aid to students in competency-based programs and identified a process for that application ( Later this year (2013), Wisconsin’s extension system will start a competency-based program where students with experience and program-specific skills may be able to test out of courses (

I am enthusiastic and optimistic regarding the possibility of competency-based education. There are benefits for all constituency groups involved. Here are a few of the benefits I envision. What benefits to you see?

  1. The focus of the degree is truly on skills and knowledge attainment not credits or seat time.

Currently, colleges and universities award a degree essentially based on seat time. A student satisfactorily completes 120 credits and receives a diploma. While there is an assumption that satisfactory completion of coursework suggests learning has occurred, the degree itself is not awarded based on demonstrated skill or knowledge. Aren’t the knowledge and skills what college and universities should be focusing on?

  1. Graduates are better prepared.

If the focus shifts from completed credits to demonstrated skill and knowledge, then it seems logical that college students will be better prepared than they currently are as they transition from these institution. Federal reports, international rankings, and books such as Academically Adrift decry the academic preparedness of today’s U.S. college students. Competency-based higher education can re-center degree attainment on what really matters to everyone – skill and knowledge.

  1. There is a clear delineation of acquired skills and knowledge for employers/grad schools.

As I talk with colleges working in career development, they discuss the inability of seniors to articulate what they have learned during their undergraduate careers. Yes, they can list off all 1.3 million items on their resume (that they actually started developing in kindergarten). However, they cannot explain what skills and knowledge they acquired from these experiences no how they can apply what they learned to different situations. Developing competency-based educational program would require clearly defined sets of skills and knowledge that would have to be demonstrated to graduate. This delineation would make it easier for students to describe these knowledge and skills. This explanation would also make it easier for employers and graduate schools decipher resume’s to determine what students know.

  1. Alternate college journeys are validated.

Competency-based higher education is student-centered. Rather than making students conform to an antiquated, mode of education most appropriate for the industrial age, this model focuses solely on competencies and acknowledges the real fact that students can acquire these competencies multiple ways. This model honors the multiple journeys students take to achieve their degree. Students can swirl between institutions to acquire the skills and knowledge required to graduate. They can also double-dip by attending two institutions at the same time. Students may acquire skills and knowledge when they stop out of college because they are developing skills on the job or in other settings. As the number of diverse paths to a college degree increase, a model for degree completion is needed to align with these myriad journeys.

  1. College will be cheaper for students, colleges, and the federal government.

Competency-based education would be cheaper for most higher education stakeholders. If the focus is competence, students wouldn’t need to take courses at the same institution and articulation agreements wouldn’t be needed. In addition to coursework, students could also acquire skills in a variety of ways including working a job, volunteering, or serving in the military, etc. All of these options could decrease the cost of degree attainment for students. With decreased costs for a college education comes a reduced need for financial. A reduction in need for financial aid would ease fiscal burdens for individual institutions as well as federal aid programs. It is important to note that a shift to a competency-based model would include an initial investment at the institutional and possibly federal and state level for development and implementation.

  1. Assessment will be easier.

It also seems that assessment would be easier in a competency-based system, or at least much more clearly focused. Right now, it seems challenging for many academic departments and institutions to identify learning goals and outcomes and find ways to document their achievement. In this new model, goals and learning outcomes would have to be clearly articulated (which would take time of course). Competency milestones on the path to degree would need to be developed to help a student know if she was on track. The assessment process wouldn’t be easy. However, the end result for student learning would be much clearer that it currently seems to be.

While there are benefits to competency-based higher education, the process to implement this model nationally would be a long, challenging road. It would require agreement that this model is the best for students and the U.S. higher education system. Once that understanding was reach, the conversation regarding which skills and knowledge would need to be demonstrated for each discipline would begin. This discussion couldn’t be resolved during a weekend retreat. It would take longer. But, that conversation has started and I am interested to see where it leads.

What benefits and challenges do you see to competency-based higher education?

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? 

Suggestions for Summer Reading

As the semester has come or is coming to an end for most of us, it is time to think of the intellectual stimulation we didn’t quite have time to during the year. It is challenge enough trying to balance student needs with our personal life, let alone make committed time for one’s one professional development. There are many self-directed professional development opportunities out there including blog posts, Twitter feeds, and video series such as TED Talks. These may be easier to partake of during the academic year because of the small amount of time needed. However, books provide a more in depth exploration of a particular topic. Here is a list of 15 books to consider placing on your summer reading list from a variety of categories including education, business, leadership, and philosophy.

  1. Tribes by Seth Godin
  2. Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation: Tim Brown:
  3. Disrupt: Think the Unthinkable to Spark Transformation in Your Business: Luke Williams:
  4. Creating Magic: 10 Common Sense Leadership Strategies from a Life at Disney: Lee Cockerell:
  5. Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard: Chip Heath, Dan Heath
  6. The Art of Power (9780061242366): Thich Nhat Hanh:
  7. The Naked Presenter: Delivering Powerful Presentations With or Without Slides (Voices That Matter: Garr Reynolds
  8. Assessing Student Learning: A Common Sense Guide: Linda Suskie:
  9. Student Engagement in Higher Education: Theoretical Perspectives and Practical Approaches to Diverse Populations: Harper and Quaye:
  10. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable: Patrick Lencioni
  11. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die:  Chip Heath, Dan Heath:
  12. Linchpin: Seth Godin:
  13. 15 Minutes Including Q&A: A Plan to Save the World From Lousy Presentations: Joey Asher:
  14. Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time: Brian Tracy:
  15. Read this before our next meeting: Al Pittampalli

What would you add to this list? Share your thoughts and keep the list growing.

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.