Entering into 2020, many professionals engage in self-reflection regarding their professional development and preparing for possible ascension to director roles. While our profession is fortunate to have several opportunities to attend conferences and institutes as well as the opportunity to read deeply in specific areas, the purpose of this blog is to highlight an oft underdeveloped skill in student affairs, assessment. I often tell my colleagues that on my best days I know we are doing our best to serve students; on my worse days, I can’t prove it.
Mid-level professionals are often asked to work closely with students and colleagues to improve student engagement, learning and success. In most departments, this work is firmly defined and often encompasses an individual’s entire role. For example, an assistant director for orientation spends their time planning, organizing and executing one or more orientation programs to ensure students begin their academic journeys in the best way possible. Passionate and dedicated professionals work to ensure their responsibilities are carried out to the best of their ability.
Assessing a department, position effectiveness or program’s impact is often not a straight forward calculation. Some professionals are reticent to engage in assessment for several reasons. A lack of skill and training may be at the core of that resistance as well as issues of time, risk aversion, lack of supervisor support and/or fear. I posit that student affairs professionals must strive to assess our work and engage in long-term skill development.
Assessment can be defined as the systematic collection, interpretation and use of information about learning (Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment website). Mid-level professionals should dedicate time to further their assessment skillset as well as produce tangible outcomes based on objective data and information. I offer a four-pronged approach to improving as a professional for your current roles as well as to improve your marketability in the future. The prongs are being a professional, being inquisitive, being an institutional student and being student-centered.
Being a professional
It is easy to get into a grove in our roles especially when we are succeeding personally and professionally. Passing through that magical 3-5 years post Master’s degree window should be celebrated but it also a great time to self-reflect on strengths and professional gaps. I encourage you to examine your career and identify to what degree you utilized data to inform practice. What has been your relationship with data and how has information informed your development of your practice. Discuss with your supervisor(s), mentor(s) and those that know your “on the job performance” to gain some insights into your objective assessment usage/skill. Being a professional means that one should engage in a career-long process of taking in objective information about our performance and committing to a continual improvement process.
Regardless of the number of degrees hanging on your wall, we all have written research papers. Our faculty demanded that we have a discerning eye for the quality and type of resources we utilize to argue our points. The deeper we get into our professions and develop a professional network it is easy to fall into information gathering habits that may not always serve us. Spend some time dividing the type of information you gather into primary, secondary and tertiary sources. One should be increasingly discerning of balancing these three sources as well as the relative quality of the sources. Being inquisitive regarding assessment means that one should continually interrogate how they are receiving professional insights and to what extent is the information comprehensive.
Being an institutional student
It is easy and for many preferable for our work to be all encompassing and narrowly focused. We enter this field to work directly with students in professional relationship with similar centered professionals. Regardless of the size, complexity and institutional mission, high quality assessment is being conducted all over campus. Several academic departments, many colleges, and the institution itself undergo extensive assessment processes internally as well as externally. As a mid-level profession, you may not be involved in any of these processes but you should understand them. You should know the progress or pressures the institution is under to improve or pivot. Beyond knowing about accreditation, familiarize yourself with institutional research staff and the website. I have found these professionals have refined skills and helpful insights into the need for professionals to better understand and leverage assessment. A commitment to understand institutional data will be helpful in your current role but may give you a pathway into evaluating future professional opportunities. Being an institutional student means understanding your current culture, institution wide assessment work and establishing a relationship with institutional research professionals as well as their data.
I know, I know. Everyone reading this blog is student-centered. My recommendation is for each of us to ensure our definition of student-centered includes assessment. As I opened this post, I know we work tirelessly for our students but developing assessment skills ensures these efforts have the intended outcomes. The challenge is to level up your skill set now while doing our “day job.” Being student-centered means you are continually integrating the previous three prongs and the resulting assessment is informing your practice.
These insights are designed to give you a roadmap to understand your comfort, skill gaps and direction to improve your assessment. A long-term commitment to assessment development is critical for our students and your career development.