By: Lesley D'Souza
Assessment has to start at the beginning and starting at the beginning means having a plan. If we carry it out as an afterthought – tacked on the end of a program, we will fail to collect information that makes it possible to make meaningful, data-informed change.
Before We Start Planning…
Start with a read through any strategic institutional or departmental documents you have available. All this information about missions, priorities, and goals should feed into your program design process. There are also countless professional documents that have been created about assessment and best practices that you can draw from.
Starting The Cycle
There are four phases within the assessment cycle. You need to define what success will look like, create a program to reach that success, figure out if you actually succeeded, and then work out how to make success look even better next time.
1. Establish Criteria For Success
How can we figure out what success will look like? Well, your foundation is built on those institutional and professional documents. You can pull broader program goals directly from them and then begin to set outcomes. Your outcomes are the evidence that you’ve achieved your goals, which means they must be measurable and specific. And when I say measurable, that means that you already know how you’ll measure them. The key here is that all of your assessments should tie back to your original goals and outcomes so that you can find out if you reached the success you set out to achieve.
It is absolutely imperative that you design your assessments at the same time as you set your outcomes (e.g. when you’re creating your program). They should be linked throughout your program design process in order for you to have meaningful data.
2. Provide Programs/Services
This is the time where all your planning in the first phase comes together; if you’ve set clear outcomes, created your assessment tools, and designed your program with those in mind, you’re laughing. I bet you can think of a time where that hasn’t been the case—perhaps some panicked moments at a computer as you print off some feedback forms 10 minutes before your program starts? Save yourself the headaches and build your assessment planning into your program planning.
3. Determine Effectiveness
Your program has ended, and your assessments are complete. Now you’re left with a mountain of raw data and wondering what to do with it. The only bad thing you can do at this stage is stick the data in a drawer to get dusty. Now it’s time to set aside some hours to analyze & interpret your data. Be careful - stats can be used to support any number of arguments, even conflicting ones. Before you start, you need to understand your own biases and how they might affect your interpretation of the results. Data truly is a self-fulfilling prophecy—if you’ve already decided what you’re going to find, you can arrange to find that result.
It can be hard to stay open-minded when analyzing and interpreting data about a program you’ve poured yourself into, but we constantly challenge our students to learn and grow, and here’s our chance. Look at your data as objectively as you can and break down how well you reached your outcomes. Always remember, failures are where we learn the most, but we have to have the courage to recognize them.
4. Using Results For Improvement
Congratulations! You are now, officially, the most educated person out there about your program. You are the expert and that means it’s up to you to communicate and make recommendations about what happens next. That might mean writing a report for superiors, sharing the data with campus partners, making the results public, or all of the above. Not only will you likely get some good suggestions from the community for possible improvement, but it will establish your program as well-planned and transparent, and you as a trustworthy professional. It’s also key to helping us create a culture of assessment because positive role models are powerful. In time, the process will feel natural for everyone.
Lesley is the Manager of Student Affairs Storytelling at Ryerson University and is responsible for managing the Student Affairs Creative team, as well as leading assessment efforts within #RyersonSA to help staff use data to tell compelling stories. She received her MA in College Student Personnel from Bowling Green State University. Tweeting from @lesleydsz.