Five Tips for Designing Your Residential Curriculum Assessment Plans

Assessment and accountability are important features of modern student affairs work. We have always known our work was important, but we are being asked to show how what we do impacts our students in tangible ways. The topic of assessment can make people nervous. What if the programs and services we offer aren’t as effective as we think they are? What does this mean for our work and for our jobs?

Instead of viewing assessment negatively, it is better to frame it as an opportunity to advocate for change and additional resources. In the following post, I’ll cover five tips to help you re-imagine the context of your assessment, develop strategies for assessing your work, and make assessment a central focus for yourself and your department.

Assessment isn’t one person’s job.

While it is important to have someone coordinating your assessment efforts, it is impossible for one person to plan, create, and implement all of your assessment measures. Assessment needs to be a year-round and department-wide effort and focus. All of your employees, from professional to student staff, should have a hand in either creating or implementing assessments or in using the data gathered from assessments. Everyone has a role to play, whether it is as a planner, a facilitator, or as a user of collected data.

When attempting to put together assessments for my department, it was imperative that directions were clear, logistics were simple, and that it was coordinated and planned. Attempting to ensure a consistent delivery of information for over 20 live-in professional staff members and nearly 230 student staff members is a monumental task. Being clear and concise with your assessments creates an atmosphere of trust and an understanding about how these efforts will help you meet a common goal.

Surveys are one method of assessment, but they shouldn’t be your only method.

Everyone assesses in some way, whether it is tracking attendance or gauging participant satisfaction. There is a tendency to use surveys as the main (only) form of assessment because it is what we know. We have all had to fill out surveys, we can all write questions, and, with the wonders of e-mail, surveys are easy to deploy from the comforts of our desks. However, just as building a residential curriculum challenges you to rethink how you are engaging students in learning, you need to rethink how you are engaging students in assessing that learning.

While surveys will sometimes be the optimal way to collect data, you should expand your repertoire of data collection methods. Focus groups, one sentence summaries, application cards, “tickets out the door,” and rubrics are all fantastic ways to get the same or better data. Asking questions or getting data in different ways can open up opportunities to engage more deeply with your students, hear more about what their experience was, and provide insight on how to improve it.

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Focus on learning first, and satisfaction second.

Residents in our buildings are both our customers and our students. They are receiving services, but they are also here to learn. One of the main reasons for transitioning to a curricular approach is to claim and enhance our roles as educators. As you are building assessments, you are seeking to obtain knowledge about what students learned based on the outcomes you have established. You can then use this data to work towards the continuous improvement of the learning opportunities you provide.

When creating assessments (especially surveys) it is tempting to add questions about a student’s satisfaction around a particular experience. Your assessments should first and foremost provide you with information about what your students learned. Don’t completely ignore satisfaction—essential needs such as sleep or safety will be tied to a student’s satisfaction. If a student’s basic needs are not being satisfied they will not be in an optimal space for learning. However, focusing exclusively or putting a stronger focus on satisfaction will rob you of the information you need to show the effectiveness of your curricular approach.

Don’t assess everything all the time.

Embracing assessment as a core part of your work is an important factor in the amount of success you will be able to achieve as an educator. However, with this newfound calling to assess, make sure to be strategic about your plans for assessment. Considering the sheer number of programs, intentional interactions, conduct meetings, community meetings, and all the other educational strategies you may have in a given year, recognize that assessing all of them at the same time is asking for trouble.

As you reflect on your learning goals and departmental learning outcomes, engage in a conversation with your departmental and divisional leadership. Is there particular information that decision makers on campus are lacking that you can provide? Is there a push for more details about students feeling connected to campus or being involved and engaged? Coordinating your assessment efforts into manageable and digestible chunks will help staff keep track of what is a major focus at a given time, as well as feed information to campus stakeholders when they need it most.

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Doing something is better than nothing…unless you don’t use it.

If you currently aren’t doing any student learning assessment, now is the time to start. Even if you feel like you are without the proper tools or information to carry out a large scale assessment plan, just doing something to try to gauge what students are learning is the first step to take. Assessments of student learning are only growing more and more important as our field continues to evolve. It is imperative that you begin to prepare yourselves, your staff members, and your department to successfully navigate this ongoing transition in higher education.

If you are currently doing assessments, such as through yearly surveys, ask yourself, “What are we doing with this data?” A colleague once told me, “Data is not an egg, you can’t just sit on it.” The data you receive from assessments are just snapshots of moments in time. If you do not act or create change based on your data quickly, then within 2-3 years, your data will be less helpful to your cause. It is important to collect data and then report it out and what you are going to do with it. Nothing makes someone happier than when they feel listened to. If you inform students that you are listening to them and making changes to their experience because of it, they will feel more connected to and valued by the institution. Creating this value and connection only serves to further your mission of assisting and educating our students.

Key Questions:

  • How can you involve all of your staff members in the assessment process? What are their roles?
  • Do you use other forms of assessment data collection that move beyond surveys? How can you vary your assessment methods?
  • Are your assessments focused on satisfaction or learning? How can you make the focus on learning more clear and present in your data collection efforts?
  • Where will you assess? What will give you the information you need without “over asessessing”?
  • How are you using your data? Does the assessment data you collect lead to improvements or does it just “sit on a shelf”?
  • Who do you report out and “tell the story” of your data? How are you informing students, staff and upper level administrators about what you’ve learned and what you’ve changed?

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