Why I Love Student Affairs Assessment – and Why YOU Should Too!

Amy Biesterfeld, AER KC Representative

February 10, 2019

This time of year, I often reflect a bit on my life and think about where I am and how I got here.  Being a math person, I see my career as a bit of a “random walk”.  While my work has always been in higher education, my story is probably a bit different from many of you because I am not a “career” Student Affairs professional.  I only began working in the area of Student Affairs (SA) about 2-3 years ago, as the Director of Assessment for Housing & Dining Services.  About a lifetime ago (at least in terms of my career), I used to teach statistics to college students.  Now, in an interesting series of events (or possibly fate), I apply statistics to student data that is collected outside of the classroom.  I truly enjoy my assessment work in SA because it combines both of my loves – helping students and using my math skills.  Of course, “helping students” can feel intangible sometimes, as I rarely interact with students directly in this position. 

Regardless of whether my work (or yours) involves directly engaging with students, all of us in Student Affairs play a role in helping students successfully navigate the non-academic aspects of college life.   As we know, this is as important as a student’s academic success in college.  How do we show the important contributions we make to student success?  I bet you know where this is going… Yes, ASSESSMENT allows us to tell our story. 

Assessment is powerful.  It can be used to determine which students are most at-risk in college (i.e. in not being retained to the following year or graduating).  This allows specific strategies to be designed and implemented that provide additional support to these students.  Then, assessment is used again to show the effectiveness of those strategies.  This is illustrated beautifully in a NY Times article about a 45-minute online intervention that UT-Austin implemented for first-generation freshmen.  What did the assessment results show?  A significant increase in the first-year retention rate for the first-generation students that participated in this intervention.    

Now, this example from UT-Austin was a large-scale, randomized, controlled experiment.  Obviously, not everyone can perform assessment at this level.  However, on a smaller scale, we can all use assessment in our SA offices to make continuous improvements to our programs and services.  This “data-based decision making” process can be expressed as an “assessment cycle” which has four phases:

  • Plan: Create an assessment plan for your unit that includes a mission statement, goals, and measurable outcomes with target values.  Assessment plans are for a specified period of time, e.g. one year is typical. 
  • Implement: Implement the strategies you have identified that will help achieve your outcomes.
  • Assess: Collect and analyze the data (e.g. quantitative or qualitative) that measure the progress toward achieving your outcomes.
  • Report/Revise: Report the key findings from your assessment and the next steps that you will implement as a result of your findings.  Revise your assessment plan, as needed, for the next assessment cycle.

As a brief (and over-simplified) example of using assessment for continuous improvement within your unit, consider CU Conference Services (CUCS) at University of Colorado Boulder: 

  • Plan: CUCS had an outcome on their 2017-18 assessment plan about “maintaining a high level of guest satisfaction”.  CUCS measures this outcome through a Guest Satisfaction survey administered to guests at the end of each conference.  CUCS’  target was to have at least 90% of the 2018 conference guests rate their overall satisfaction level with CUCS as “satisfied” or “very satisfied”.  This target was based on their 2017 results in which they received 90% guests reporting satisfied/very satisfied levels.
  • Implement:  In an effort to increase their guest satisfaction in 2018, CUCS implemented a strategy of replacing the bed linens for their on-campus lodging guests, as this was a known area for improvement. 
  • Assess: The Guest Satisfaction survey was administered throughout the 2018 conference season.
  • Report/Revise:  At the end of the 2018 conference season, after full implementation of the new bed linens strategy, 93% of guests reported being satisfied/very satisfied with CUCS - a statistically significant increase from the 90% reported in 2017.  For the 2018-19 assessment plan, CUCS is keeping the same outcome of maintaining a high level of guest satisfaction, but revising their target to 95% for the 2019 conference season. 

The assessment cycle for CUCS begins again with their revised 2018-19 assessment plan and new strategies being determined and implemented during the 2019 conference season to help achieve their new target. 

I hope the two examples above help illustrate the power of assessment and using it (1) to show the effectiveness of programs/services and (2) to make data-based decisions for continuous improvement.  Now… don’t you love assessment too?! 

If you would like start integrating more assessment practice in your Student Affairs role, I highly recommend registering for Applying and Leading Assessment in Student Affairs, a Mass Online Open Course (MOOC) offered through Student Affairs Assessment Leaders (SAAL), Colorado State University (CSU) Online, and CSU’s Student Affairs in Higher Education MA Program.  This eight-week course opened on January 21 and runs through March 18 but since it is entirely self-paced, you can still register.  Complete the entire course for a certificate, or just complete the modules that are of the most interest to you.  For more information, go to http://studentaffairsassessment.org/online-open-course

Other ways that you can easily learn more about assessment and integrating it into your SA work:

At University of Colorado Boulder, assessment work is growing at an incredibly fast pace as large campus-wide initiatives are being implemented and will need to be assessed for their effectiveness.  Is this occurring on your campus as well?  If not, it is probably just a matter of time.  Being knowledgeable and comfortable using assessment will help you as higher education continues to move in this direction! 

Amy Biesterfeld, Ph.D.

NASPA IV-W AER KC Representative

Director of Strategic Planning & Assessment

Housing & Dining Services, Division of Student Affairs

University of Colorado, Boulder

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