“Higher education is in the throes of a major transformation. Forcing the transformation are economic conditions, eroding public confidence, accountability demands, and demographic shifts resulting in increased numbers of people from historically underrepresented groups going to college. More people are participating in higher education than ever before, yet the resources supporting the enterprise are not keeping pace with the demand. Because of these and other factors, legislators, parents, governing boards, and students want colleges and universities to reemphasize student learning and personal development as the primary goals of undergraduate education. In short, people want to know that higher education is preparing students to lead productive lives after college including the ability to deal effectively with such major societal challenges as poverty, illiteracy, crime, and environmental exploitation.”

—Student Learning Imperative, 1996

In the 23 years since the Student Learning Imperative was written, the environment for higher education has continued to be complex and challenging. The external demands on higher education institutions to be accountable to stakeholders, to show that they are, as the authors of the Student Learning Imperative stated, “preparing students to lead productive lives after college including the ability to deal effectively with… major societal challenges” continue to put pressure on colleges and universities.

More than this, though, is the fact that those of us who work and study at colleges and universities have dedicated our time, energy, training, education (blood, sweat and tear, sometimes) to the work of these institutions—to work with and for students. The meaning and purpose of that work is crucial. Getting paid is important, having a good relationship with coworkers is important, but having a sense of meaning and purpose for our work is crucial to our well-being as humans and our ability to lead successful and fulfilling lives. The focus on assessing outcomes for students, on preparing students to be productive and effective members of society, not just clients or customers, adds meaning and dimension to our lives as college student educators.

The times in our work that are most meaningful and memorable involve student learning moments—the “aha” moments, the times that we see students change their mindsets, expand their abilities, overcome challenges, come back and thank us—but those moments that are evidence of the impact of our work are often serendipitous or unexpected. I have a “smile file” of those moments, and that can help you get through a tough day. But I don’t think that we should be relying on accidental or spontaneous learning moments—for ourselves or our students. We should be making it a systematic process that our work is girded in the foundation of our goals and that everything we do connects to those goals. Then you don’t need to rely on a student having a revelatory moment in a student conduct meeting or a graduate sending you a thank you note to get you through the week—you just know that the work that you are doing is designed to foster meaningful outcomes every day, and you have assessment data, you have clarity, you have purpose. Fill your smile file up with quotes from focus groups or higher graduation rate data!

In the book “Building a Culture of Evidence in Student Affairs,” Marguerite McGann Culp notes two meaningful results of a culture of evidence:

  • Increasing the probability that we will design and implement programs, processes, and services that really matter; and
  • Creating a continuous professional and personal learning loop.

Creating a culture of evidence in the work of student affairs holds both the context of meaning and that of accountability:

  1. firstly, it is inherently more meaningful and impactful to view ourselves and our work as central to the educational mission of the college, to view our work with students as transformative and central to their learning and growth as people, and to aspire toward continual progress and learning in our work;
  2. and also, that within an environment that is often critical of, and in which the value of higher education is surely not beyond public reproach, showing evidence of the impact of our work matters—because when we show that we are doing good work, that we contribute to student learning and ultimately to societal good, we protect the resources that allow us to continue to do that good work.

What is a Culture of Evidence?

“A commitment among student affairs professionals to use hard data to show how the programs they offer, the processes they implement, and the services they provide are effective and contribute significantly to an institution’s ability to reach its stated goals and fulfill its mission.”

(Culp, 2012)

A word about “hard data:” hard data or evidence does not necessarily mean large quantitative data sets.

The Assessment Cycle

The concept of a cycle of assessment helps us to conceptualize the ongoing and continuous nature of inquiry in a learning-centered organization. Whereas a research study might pose a question about a phenomenon, initiate a one-time study to explore that question, and then present findings from that study, assessment is not intended to stop. This is because the phenomenon that you are studying is your own activities, interventions, and strategies, and their capacity to meet your goals. As you engage in inquiry and study of questions about your practices, you then take that data, those findings, and put them back into your practice as changes and adjustments.

When we begin to work within the Assessment Cycle, we first start with the process of Defining Learning Objectives, or other specific outcomes or goals. Engaging in an assessment cycle doesn’t mean that you implement the same survey each year to the same population on the same timeline, though. It means that in a systematic and continuous way, you are using a variety of tools and techniques to gather evidence and data about your activities and strategies. The cycle is also operating in an organic and informal way. A culture of evidence is operating when everyone is using this framework in the implementation and improvement of their areas of responsibility, to assess initiatives both large and small. And then there are mechanisms for communication and information to flow among different areas to improve and inform larger levels of practice. This is why it is important for us to become familiar with and think about many different types of assessment activities.

Making the Time

One of the concerns that I hear again and again from student affairs professionals about Assessment is that they don’t have time to do this type of work with everything else on their plates. Other concerns that are less frequently admitted outright are a lack of skill and expertise, and fear of actually finding out that your efforts aren’t working as well as you believed. These are all real concerns that can prevent us from moving forward with assessment practice, even if we believe that it would be valuable and beneficial for our work. This is why I think that it is important to see the journey toward creating a culture of evidence as an organizational change process.

Creating a culture of evidence is not as simple as learning skills. That type of work does help—having the technical knowledge to address a problem is an important starting point. However, changing your organization to prioritize something that has previously not been prioritized requires undertaking a change process that requires using your time differently, prioritizing different work tasks, and changing your professional sense of self. I recommend reviewing literature and resources about organizational change and organizational learning, some of which you can access here.

I think that it is truly worth it to make these changes, because the benefits of increasing the meaning and purpose in your work and being able to effectively protect the resources that allow you to serve students are quite significant. I prefer to look at it from that positive perspective, but I think that we also realize that there are many potential negative consequences to maintaining the status quo as well.