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What is Assessment?


Originally posted on Ryerson Student Affairs on September 30, 2015.

Assessment & You is an on-going series brought to you by Lesley D’Souza monthly on RyersonStudentAffairs.com. 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.


Assessment. You’ve been hearing that word a lot lately in Student Affairs (unless you’re plugging your fingers in your ears and humming your favorite song to avoid assessment-related anxiety).  Let’s talk about that.

Assessment starts with curiosity; wondering if the work you do all day is actually making a difference. Is it contributing to your goals? What about the goals of your unit or department? How about the institution? We can figure out all of these things simply by asking questions, being observant, writing it down, and trying to use that information to be better at what we do. Which is all assessment really is.

To begin with, there are a few different types of assessment:

  1. Needs—Who are we serving? What do they need/like?
  2. Scope—What is the reach of our program/service?
  3. Satisfaction—Do students like what we have to offer?
  4. Outcomes—What do we want to accomplish? Did we do it?
  5. Benchmarking—How do we compare to other similar programs/services?
  6. Standards—What standards have been set by professional associations? Do we meet them?

You have probably asked at least one of those questions in your day-to-day work. If you take the time to record the answer, you’re already doing assessment. Congratulations!

The field of student affairs has struggled in the past to come up with consistency and variety in the kinds of data we produce that defines the impact of our practices. Our work at Ryerson supports the academic mission of the university, but it has been, at times, challenging to articulate exactly how. When we had fewer students, and programs to support them, it was easier to get by with just attendance numbers and anecdotal data. Now, in an increasingly resource-scarce environment, and serving the largest and most demanding student population yet, we must develop consistent and effective cycles of assessment to be sure we’re investing our resources right. We can’t rely on our passion alone to convince decision-makers, because we’re all passionate. We need to make their jobs easier by showing them clear measurements to support our case. And really, what’s a court case without evidence?

What Are We Afraid Of?

When you hear the word assessment, it can feel like just another thing that you have to find time for in your already jam-packed workday. In reality, good assessment shouldn’t add much to what you’re already doing. It boils down to improving our planning processes and documenting better. If we can work smart, we won’t need to work harder than we already are.

Talking about data can easily induce anxiety for many of us. Assessment and accountability are often spoken in the same breath, and that can definitely make it seem scary. While accountability and justification is real, we shouldn’t lose sight of the real goal of assessment—to make ourselves the best we can be. Instinctively, we know what we do does make a difference, but where does that instinct really come from? The good news is that it’s probably coming from assessment that you’re already doing and just not actually documenting. If you host an event and count the number of people in the room, look around to observe body language, and listen in on conversations; you’re already conducting both quantitative and qualitative assessment. Then it’s a very short step to conducting assessment in a more mindful way so we can gather more and better data.

We’ve come a long way in terms of how we plan and assess our work, but there are still many gains to be made. In Student Affairs we deal in transformational experiences, which, by nature, are difficult to quantify. However, the wonder of assessment is that it doesn’t only consist of numbers, stats, and surveys. There are many techniques designed to collect information from conversations, stories, andcorrelative data that will humanize quantitative data so that it is truly powerful. This is a lot of information to take in, I know. If you find some of these terms and ideas daunting, don’t worry. We’ll be covering all of them in this series of blogs about assessment.

But Really, Why Do I Need To Care?

The benefits of assessment are many and significant. By aligning ourselves more closely to Ryerson’s strategic goals, we can position ourselves to be part of conversations that will shape the student experience, and the future of our own work. I participated in a resource & budgeting webinar a couple of years ago, and the most impactful statement I took away was that you don’t need to look at a mission statement to best understand an institution’s priorities; just look a the budget. We put funding towards things we care about, and we use data to tell us what those things are.

On an individual level, doing good assessment helps us become experts in our work. Just take a look at our own #RyersonSA Staff Competencies and you can see where our priorities should be. Assessment isn’t going anywhere, so becoming proficient at incorporating it into the workday will make us stronger professionals and leaders in student affairs. Planning assessments ahead of programming also helps us by ensuring that we have some control over our work. Data is what will help us build a case to explain what we do and how we do it. I like to think of assessment as the friend who’s got my back.

Above all, it’s a journey and not a destination. We know that learning and development are complex and ever changing, which means our assessments have to be ongoing and comprehensive to give us a complete picture. But don’t worry, we’re in this together—whether you’re an experienced assessor or a newbie—and collectively we can learn and grow. Keep checking back because I’ll be writing more about assessment over the course of this year. My posts in this series will speak to the Ryerson SA competency of Assessment, Evaluation, and Storytelling and help support your development along it. My hope is that we will unearth some new perspectives, tools, and strategies to show you how assessment has your back, too.

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