“Why is a Raven Like a Writing Desk?”* Storytelling in Assessment

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Lisa Endersby and Elizabeth Clune-Kneuer

June 11, 2014

* Carroll, L. (1898). Alice in Wonderland. New York: MacMillan, p. 97.

Like a record stuck in a near infinite loop, assessment is constantly cited as important. Vital. Necessary. Mandatory. But why? We have all been impacted in some way by the most obvious answer. In both the United States and Canada, there is increased pressure for accountability from accreditors, governments, industry, and consumers. Soaring tuition fees have sparked an even louder international debate on the ‘worth’ or ‘value’ of a degree, particularly when the usual promise of a secure professional and financial future after graduation seems to no longer apply. Among many other things, institutions of higher education are a business, beholden to similar standards for performance and output. To survive in such a volatile market, providing proof of success is paramount. 

The business side of higher education, however, can easily swallow up the human element behind our data. Behind the numbers, charts, and reports lie a myriad of stories, each colliding with the story of every staff and faculty member working toward the common goal of student development and success. Assessment, then, isn’t just writing down a series of facts and figures, but rather collecting pieces of plot to tell an often dramatic coming of age story, featuring each of our students in turn, all (whether they know it or not) acting as well as minor or major characters in someone else’s story. Participating in this phenomenon gives us, as higher education administrators, the privilege of helping students tell their own story rather than having it be told for them. Widening our perspective, it also allows their story to become part of our larger narrative. The typical movie or TV plot lines of moving away from home, starting at a new school, or ending a relationship play out daily on our campuses, bringing with them fear, excitement, uncertainty, doubt, and many other emotions that assessment as storytelling can help us recognize, share, and learn from. 

A story adds life to a report, filling out the pages of data with the messy, complicated, and fascinating lives of our students, our departments, and each other. Whether stories are told in books, on screens, or in quiet office conversations, no two paths are alike, and no single path is correct. 

As adults, we may consider certain stories as simply children’s stories without realizing the parallels that they have on our pathways beyond adolescence. Alice in Wonderland may be one of those stories. On the surface, it can be a simple story of a girl falling into an exciting adventurous land forced to find herself and her path. However, Alice, Wonderland, and the cast of interesting characters, can reconnect with us as higher education administrators as we fall down the rabbit hole to Assessment Wonderland.  

As the main characters have difficulties presented to them that must be overcome, student affairs and assessment professionals may also face challenges that can take many different internal and externally driven pressures.  Higher education professionals are not immune to the stressors, fear and uncertainty that students face, though it may be in a different realm. Students may have concerns about an upcoming exam, significant other, finances, or any multitude of issues that impacts their ability to both live and work while within an educational environment. Assessment is a topic that can cause some excitement, while others great anxiety and the feeling that they have been dropped into Wonderland with the Hatter’s chaotic tea party or with the Queen of Hearts issuing demands.

While working with students, many professional staff members may feel that they need to help others, and in turn provide assistance and guidance to encourage them find their own path within their story. Having roles reversed of being the learner rather than the leader can be an uncomfortable (or even scary) thought.   Even if we can overcome the initial pangs of fear to be able to find our voice to tell part of the story, there can still be stopping points within the journey.  There may be points where we see something important immerge within a project that is important to tell within the story, but are afraid of hearing the Queen of Hearts yell, “Off with their heads!” if it is outside of the realm of what may be expected.  If information is power, not all will use the powers for benevolent intentions.  There may also be concern with what people will do with information once it is distributed as information cannot be taken back or retracted. 

Professional staff and faculty challenge each other and students both within and outside of the classrooms to broaden their horizons and frame of references on a daily basis in institutions of higher learning.  How can we challenge students to reach beyond their comfort levels, if we are unprepared to do the same in our roles as administrators and faculty? What message are we sending to the students if they see other categorically refuse to engage in a continual process of renewal?  How can we encourage students to find their own voice within their story if we struggle to find ours? 

The stories told at our institutions don’t need to be made up; the characters, tragedies, and adventures are being played out every day. As a storyteller, our job isn’t to write the words that fill the pages, but rather to provide the materials and platforms for students to create and share stories of their own.

Just as we teach our students that the paths they walk aren’t straight, well lit, or easy to navigate, we as professionals must also find our own path to storytelling. Some of us can turn complex numbers into engaging anecdotes, while others can tease out important themes from pages of written reflections. A motto that rings true in so many areas applies well to assessment efforts - start somewhere and start anywhere. Build on your strengths to help students discover and share their own, and model the way by finding others who can enhance or complement your strengths in turn. 

Regardless of where our strengths lie, we must model the way of learning in doing assessment; when we fall, we must get back up. Stepping outside our comfort zone when engaging in assessment carries a double guarantee of failure - we may stumble as we learn new skills while also finding more evidence of mistakes and errors we or our students have made. Any institutional or departmental mission that trumpets learning, growth, engagement, or leadership must make room for the necessary mess assessment to encourage meaningful learning. 

Telling a story can begin with a single page, a solitary image, or a few well chosen words. Assessment isn’t just about finding out what went wrong, it’s also a celebration of the successes, big and small, that make up the soaring plot points in our stories. When Alice drank and ate what was offered to her, she shrinks and grows, expanding and narrowing her view of the world and herself. Telling a story with assessment allows for both a micro and macro view of the world, depending on whether we want to read an epic saga or dig deeply into a single moment in time. Knowing your institutional and departmental vision, mission, and goals provides the structure your story can be built on, merging unique elements of your programs, workshops, and events with the unique ways your students will experience them and the unique ways they achieve and demonstrate mastery of the skill or topic you teach. That thank you email from a student after a productive meeting? Those students who offered compliments and comments after you finished your workshop? The staff who came into the office after reading the announcement you posted on your website? Each instance is a data point - a beginning of a story waiting to be told.

Though assessment may be similar to a story in terms of demonstrating a narrative of continual improvement, they are not identical.  A story has an arc following by an ending point, while assessment is an ongoing cycle. Though one assessment may conclude, the entire process of critically looking at one’s self and the organization can build upon many challenges/successes and can, and should, continue indefinitely.  The true successes may be in what is least expected: the lessons learned that were not sought initially but may have had a greater impact.  Alice may not have been searching for Wonderland, but that does not mean that it did not change her (or others that she impacted) nonetheless.  By allowing yourself the freedom to go to the Hatter’s tea party, and explore alternative options that may be nonsensical or outside of the ordinary, you may find the perfect solution for the project at hand when faced with an issue in need of a solution such as, painting the white roses red. 

About the authors:

Lisa Endersby is an “Advocate for Awesome” & National Chair-Elect of the NASPA Technology Knowledge Community. She holds a BSc in Psychology from the University of Toronto and an M.Ed. in Leadership Studies from the University of Victoria. Serving with the NASPA Assessment, Evaluation, and Research Knowledge Community and the Student Affairs Assessment Leaders (SAAL), her work encompasses all points on the assessment cycle. Her research and professional interests include program development, student leadership, digital identity, learning technologies, and online communities. Balancing living in her own (full) head with a voracious need to externally process anything and everything with anyone, Lisa proudly calls Canada home and hits the gym, mostly, so she can eat. She can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Twitter at @lmendersby. 

Elizabeth Clune-Kneuer is the Associate Director of Institutional Research at St. Mary's College of Maryland.  She holds a B.A in Economics and East Asian Studies from the University of Delaware, a M.Ed. in Social Foundations from the University of Virginia and a Graduate Certificate in Institutional Research from The Pennsylvania State University.  Elizabeth is active in the Institutional Research community by being a Steering Committee member and Chair-elect of the Membership Committee on North East Association for Institutional Research (NEAIR) and a past president of Maryland Association for Institutional Research (MdAIR).  She has also received a Fellowship to the National Summer Data Policy Institute hosted by the Association for Institutional Research (AIR), National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), and the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2011.  Elizabeth lives in Southern Maryland with her husband, Bobby.  In addition to baking, Elizabeth crochets colorful blankets in her free time.  She can be reached on email at [email protected] or on Twitter at @eliza_c_k. 

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