Assessment in Student Affairs
Through its core values and objectives, the Division of Student Affairs at the University of Guelph plays an integral role in supporting and advancing the institution’s mission and strategic directions. Our integrated plan emphasizes our commitment to enhance teaching and learning, to promote global engagement and internationalism, and to provoke cultural change and continuity. Currently, the division is working hard to develop an all-encompassing assessment plan designed to measure our success in achieving these outcomes. During Winter 2011, the Student Affairs Assessment Committee (SAAC), comprised of representatives from every department in the division, undertook an inventory of programs and services across the division. This work culminated in the identification of five core learning outcomes that are common across our eight departments: Personal Development, Practical Competence, Knowledge Acquisition and Application, Leadership and Citizenship. (For more details about these outcomes, how they are defined, and examples please refer to the document "Learning Outcomes" listed under "Assessment Materials" in the column on the right.) In the coming months, SAAC plans to develop short- and long-term assessment plans designed to measure these outcomes, along with more intentional and standardized assessment activities throughout each academic year.
According to Suskie (2009), assessment is defined as the ongoing process of
• Establishing clear, measurable expected outcomes of student learning.
• Ensuring that students have sufficient opportunities to achieve those outcomes.
• Systematically gathering, analyzing, and interpreting evidence to determine how well student learning matches our expectations.
• Using the resulting information to understand and improve student learning.
Assessment is necessarily distinct from other processes such as program or performance evaluations, research, and grading. It is aimed at entire cohorts of students and is designed to identify how effectively we are helping them to learn. Ultimately, wherever we intend student learning and development to occur, we should identify goals for that learning, and assess these programs to understand whether we are achieving those goals. The data we collect will help us to make evidence-based decisions that are grounded in a culture that values assessment.
According to Peter Ewell (2002), successful assessment activities assume a “craft-based” rather than a scientific approach. It is a form of action research aimed at informing and improving our practice rather than making broad generalizations. It is disciplined and systematic and grounded in traditional research. In fact, many of the methodologies utilized in traditional research undergird successful assessment programs. However, available time, infrastructure and resources ultimately dictate the breadth, scope and rigour of any assessment plan.
According to Suskie (2009), learning outcomes are direct evidence of student learning - the knowledge, skills, attitudes and ‘habits of mind’ that students possess, hone and develop while engaged in a program or service that we deliver. By undertaking summative assessments (those delivered at the end of programs) we gather direct evidence that learning is taking place and, as a result, we are better able to make the necessary adjustments to improve learning in the future. However, this form of measurement in and of itself does not help us to understand why students are learning (or not). Formative assessments, measurement of inputs, and a review of environmental factors are also important considerations.
Formative assessments – those conducted in the process of learning, such as interviews, focus groups, journals, and counts of interactions – help us to identify impediments to learning and to make changes immediately. While a dimension of formative assessment may help us to gauge levels of satisfaction with what we are delivering, this data alone does not affirm that we are achieving the outcomes we are intending.
By measuring inputs – those factors in place before the learning process begins, such as student-staff ratio, funding, previous training or experience – we can make adjustments to programs and services prior to delivery.
Likewise, an analysis of the context for learning such as employer expectations, professional standards, and institutional demands aids us in ensuring that outcomes we have identified are consistent with those expected by both internal and external audiences.
The Student Affairs plan will ultimately include multiple, diverse approaches to assessment, that provide both direct and indirect evidence of student learning. It will serve as an important foundation for future planning and the strategic development of programs and services that promote student learning, growth and development throughout the division.