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What is a “Culture of Assessment”?

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“Assessment isn’t an activity, it’s a state of mind.”
– G. Henning

That was a quote Gavin Henning shared during a presentation at ACPA 2015 about cultures of assessment. It struck me a bit like a small lightning bolt, since I was used to framing assessment in terms of projects and tasks. The idea that assessment isn’t a discrete action made so much sense, and suddenly I understood why there is significant resistance to assessment. It’s so easy to become emotionally attached to our work, and to believe at our core that we know the best way to move forward. It becomes part of our identity. Decades of student development theory have taught us that impending change to our identity is the most challenging part of transition. When we’re talking about adopting assessment as a state of mind, it means being open to shifting our understanding of our work and, more importantly, ourselves.

What Is A Culture Of Assessment?

We know that the term culture refers to the sum of beliefs, experiences, knowledge, and values that distinguish a group of people as a collective. When we’re talking about a culture of assessment, we’re saying that our commitment to assessment is one of those attributes. According to Dr. Henning, We can recognize a culture of assessment by looking for some key characteristics:

  • Staff are comfortable being self-critical.
  • All are committed to being accountable and continuously improving.
  • Decisions are data-informed.
  • The assessment process is rewarded—not results.
  • A variety of types and tools of assessment are used.
  • Everyone is involved in assessing.

You might wonder why a culture of assessment matters at all. Why can’t we just hire an expert to complete all assessment and evaluation across our departments? Well, expertise in assessment doesn’t translate to being an expert in the work of each department. We are the best experts available that can inform how and what needs to be assessed in our own work. In short, assessment has to be everyone’s business. The real role of assessment leaders is to help us use the best methodology, translate assessment-speak, facilitate our efforts, and keep us positive.

We each have a job to do when it comes to assessment, even if it isn’t written in our job description (yet). So what can you do, personally, to contribute to our assessment culture?

Get Over Yourself

Step one to assessment success is admitting that you and your program are not perfect. A culture of assessment means that everyone is comfortable being self-critical. Results from your assessments will tell you positive things about what you’re doing, but I guarantee that they will also shine a light on areas for improvement. If they’re not, then you’re not doing very good assessment. It takes courage to be vulnerable and admit that we have room for improvement, but once we do, each program, activity, and event will be better than the last.

Coach And Be Coached

If you feel out of your depth, I’ll save you the suspense: all assessment experts started out knowing nothing about assessment. Now is always a great time to start learning; ask a colleague for help, or read some books, blogs, or attend a webinar. Whatever you do, don’t let imposter syndrome hold you back. But if you still feel like you don’t know how to properly contribute to assessment, this is one of those times where you just need to “fake it ‘til you make it.” I think you’ll be surprised with what you already know.

For those who feel more confident with assessment, take this opportunity to share your knowledge and acknowledge the efforts of those around you. Teach someone how to write better survey questions. Discuss different methods of evaluation. Explain how you incorporate assessment into your day. Try to practice good mentoring by validating others when issues arise, sharing your wisdom, and recognizing success. It costs so little to share words of understanding that can take the sting out of failure, or give someone a glow because of a quick email from a colleague saying they’re rocking it. Success is a renewable resource and there’s plenty to go around.

Commit To Learn Something New

Whether you’re a rookie or an expert when it comes to assessment, we all have new things we can learn. The magic of learning is that once we learn something new, we hunger for more. Learning doesn’t just feed curiosity—it creates it! If you’ve read the articles in this series, you know that curiosity is at the heart of assessment. Commit to learn something new about your work or about assessment itself. Going through the process to find that knowledge will not only hone your assessment skills, it will give you the confidence and motivation to learn even more. Then see where this new understanding takes you.

Use Humour

One of Gavin’s comments about the hallmarks of an assessment culture really stuck with me. He noticed that once it was established, people started cracking jokes about assessment. It doesn’t mean that we hate assessment if we can join together and make light of it. I think that finding joy in the process and camaraderie with your team is one of the most defining pieces of a positive culture of assessment. And who doesn’t love to laugh?

Embrace Your Positive Restlessness

The key to holding onto the momentum that leads to innovation is an ethic of positive restlessness. It means never being totally satisfied with the status quo and constantly seeking to become better. We can still celebrate our successes and recognize positive efforts, but let’s get comfortable with not getting too comfortable in our work and using that handy self-critical lens. Create cyclical reviews of established programs. Ask questions about how you’re doing. Never assume that because something was awesome 2 years ago, that people still love it. Innovation repeated over and over very quickly becomes mundane.

Ask Yourself “Why”, Every Time

In an assessment state of mind, you never make a decision without thinking about why you’re doing it. In a successful culture of assessment, all the decisions are driven by relevant data. We’re often very reactive in Student Affairs. Sometimes it feels like a whole year has gotten away from us without allowing ourselves any time to think about our “why”. Building assessment into our work and our minds forces us to be more proactive and reflective about tying all our decisions back to our original values, goals, and outcomes (i.e. our why). The positive effects go beyond a better work product—individually we will be more fulfilled and mentally healthy if we have certainty that our daily actions are feeding into a higher purpose. (Plus, if we make sure that higher purpose is connected to our institutional mission, we’ll be much more likely to have access to resources.) Stop making decisions because they’re quick and easy. Don’t cancel a program, overhaul a service, or create something new without having an answer (with supporting data) that tells you how it supports your why.

When it comes to managing assessment, our workplace culture is a vital element, since managing assessment is really about managing change. Only by inviting everyone to move forward together will we succeed in building a culture of professionals who are committed to finding truths that can inform our decisions. I know that those of us who are excited by the prospect of assessment are a minority, but it seems strange to me that assessment experts are often classified as data nerds who obsess about numbers and findings, because I can tell you that it’s actually about having vision. Finding the truth definitely takes courage and openness to change, but using the truth to help us be better than we are requires nothing less than a clear vision of what we can become. And that vision includes us all.

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© Copyright 2016 - Lesley D'Souza * Photos by Katherine Holland Photography