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Storytelling & Assessment

Originally posted on Ryerson Student Affairs on November 18, 2015.

Assessment & You is an on-going series brought to you by Lesley D’Souza monthly on Whether you’re an experienced assessor or a complete newbie, she’ll introduce in-depth knowledge on the best practices, methods, and how-to, while demonstrating the act of assessment using this very series.

I was always a good high school student, interested in a variety of topics, but I stopped taking history classes after Grade 10. Nothing bored me more than sitting in a morning class listening to my poor teacher drone on with too many dates, names, and meaningless (to me) events that I had to memorize and regurgitate on tests. I was 15 and I just couldn’t relate to the people my teacher talked about. I dropped it from my course load as soon as I could and it wasn’t until years later that I became interested in history entirely due to my thirst for fiction. It was storytelling that finally got through to me and gave me an amazing gift—a love of history. One of my top 5 strengths from Gallup’s Strengthsfinder is “Context,” which is essentially a talent for looking back at the past to understand what is happening now. I completely attribute that skill to my interest in history…but not to high school history classes.

Storytelling is by no means a new concept. Humans have been using stories to educate, entertain, and remember for thousands of years, because stories stick with us. They attach themselves to the emotional centre of our brain (our limbic brain if you’re a Sinek fan) and help us to contextualize and process things that are happening in our lives now. The saying “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it” is frighteningly and demonstrably true. So how does this relate to assessment?

We know data is important to decision-making. It’s how we record what has happened and learn from our experiences, so we aren’t doomed to repeat our failures. The problem is that not everyone connects with numbers or spartan facts. We can gather data and report it until we’re exhausted, but it won’t make a difference if people aren’t hearing us. What we need is a way to translate those numbers and facts into a story to help readers really feel the impact of what we’re talking about. We have to tell people what our data means, and to do that we also need to make meaning of it ourselves. If you are someone who identifies as “not a numbers person”, then you’re also an ideal candidate to weigh in on what kind of story will appeal to the widest audience. So start by asking yourself what kind of storyyou would be interested in hearing.

It can definitely be difficult to look at raw data and manage feelings of apprehension when trying to figure out what to do with it. If you’re facing a screen of stats and numbers (a.k.a. quantitative data), you might not know where to begin when constructing the story. Rest assured, if you dig deep there is one there waiting to be told.

  • What were your original goals? Did you meet them? Why or why not?
  • If the participants represented certain demographics, why might that be? Who was missing, and why?
  • What does the data tell you about the experiences that participants had? What did they walk away with?

All of these questions, when applied to your data, can help you form a story. The key to making it a compelling story is to make it human and relatable.

You might talk about the results by telling a story about a hypothetical attendee, or by finding an intriguing angle to your data. For example, in a recent presentation I did about the 2015 Ryerson Orientation survey results, I analyzed the demographic responses based on who did and did not attend any programming. Then I created a slide where I talked about the identities of students who chose not to attend orientation and how that shows us where we need to improve.

Orientation Week 2015: Who Didn't Attend

By reframing the results and talking about the people, rather than just reciting demographic percentages, it made a bigger impact on the listeners and served as a call to action. (If you’re interested about those results, be sure to check out our upcoming post about the Orientation 2015 assessment in the new year.)

Living in 2015 also gives us access to a myriad of technology that is designed to help you tell your stories. Once you’ve found your compelling and relatable tale, put good use to mediums like images,infographics, videos, or social media in addition to formal reports to help get your information out there. The sharing of your data is just as important as the gathering itself; after spending all that time and effort collecting it, what was the point if you never get around to reporting and sharing it? From a different point of view, if you never share the stories that are hiding in your data, you’ll never convince decision-makers that you are a) uniquely good at what you do, and b) worthy of additional resources to do more. This is your chance to shine light on your work and potentially offer a dissenting perspective that is vital to the growth of RyersonSA.


But that’s not the only story here (pun intended). There’s two sides to how storytelling fits into assessment: our ability to tell stories as a result of data we’ve gathered, but also, our ability to gather stories that will provide data. Yes, stories and narratives can be data themselves; if you’re gathering them, you’re conducting qualitative assessment. You might be collecting stories from interviews, written reflections, focus groups, or by observation. This kind of assessment sometimes gets a bad rep for not being as generalizable as quantitative data, but it gives us a valuable window into the “how” and/or “why” that quantitative assessment can’t. It also brings forth that human element that can make your data so compelling and relatable. It’s much easier to tell stories about your data when it’s already in story-form. That is why it is important to have variety beyond numbers in our assessment methods—so that we can make our data speak to everyone.

I think my favourite part of gathering stories for assessment is that the simple act of asking a student to tell their story can be a transformative experience for them—and for us. Think about it: telling a story about yourself requires a great deal of self-reflection and even vulnerability. And by asking for a student’s perspective, we inherently validate them. This process can play a vital role in supporting the development of students as they move through stages of identity development.

Many of us already use reflections or sharing as part of our efforts to make programs impactful and support student development, but we’re missing the boat if we’re not also finding ways to capture that information for the purposes of measuring our success. The next time you plan your program, think about how you incorporate things like reflection, discussion, or actual storytelling into it. Then ask yourself what you can do to record the stories that are told and make it possible to share them with others as part of your data.

The final thought I want to leave you with is that stories are incredibly powerful. We can change opinions and beliefs with them, plus, we have access to storytelling tools barely dreamt of by past generations. It’s funny—until yesterday, I used to think assessment had two purposes: to provide accountability, and to facilitate improvement. But I’ve found a third purpose. We can address social injustice by practicing mindfulness in the stories we choose to tell. We can ask for stories from those who feel silenced and not only empower them, but give them access to a larger audience. By working in Student Affairs we are in a position of remarkable privilege, and how we choose to use our influence will define our success. Our campuses are a breeding ground for the ideas of tomorrow. If we commit to using our power to tell the right stories, maybe we can change our campuses—and then the world.

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