Assessment Day: Leveraging data for a culture of continuous improvement

5th October 2020

By Steven Krolak

(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)–IU Southeast faculty members and staff are always looking for ways to improve the student experience.

At the first-ever Assessment Day workshop, organized by the Office of Institutional Effectiveness (OIE), they learned new ways to use data to better understand their own performance, and to raise their own level of effectiveness.

Led by Sara Spalding, assessment and research specialist, and OIE Director Ron Severtis, well over 100 faculty and staff participants learned the nuts and bolts of creating assessment plans, and became more familiar with tools for assessing baselines at the program level, the first step in the improvement process.

It’s all a bit like putting a Fit-Bit on an entire department, and learning how it can help you get in shape.

Dr. Kelly Ryan, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, led off the event by reminding participants of the importance of such efforts in continuing to build a culture of constant academic and administrative improvement, a culture that ultimately translates into better teaching and better learning.

“Today’s event reorients us towards defining what assessment is and should be,” Ryan said.

That involves more than ticking off boxes when tasks are completed, but using data for strategic planning and decision-making at all levels.

Students are familiar with assessment, in the form of rubrics that define goals and learning outcomes. These produce specific and measurable data points that lead to grades. What they might not realize is that this data, in turn, enables instructors to assess and take steps to improve their own and their students’ performance over time.

The challenge for any institution is to expand this paradigm to units that are more complex and that may operate differently from one another, some of which may not even be directly related to academics. The ultimate goal is to produce a structure of assessment that, like a scaffold, reaches to the campus’ mission as expressed in its overall strategic plan.

As Ryan noted, assessment should not be an end-of-term chore, but a normal part of the daily life of everyone on campus.

Spalding and Severtis successfully demystified the assessment process. If assessment isn’t a torment, nor is it voodoo. It’s an established modus of transparency and accountability that can be universally applied.

The Assessment Day event helped the campus community as a whole–not just instructors but also administrators and directors of co-curricular programs–collect and benefit from data in the same way, and profit from collaboration with colleagues in different disciplines.

After four OIE presentations of best assessment practices, participants relocated to “zoom rooms” for practical workshops in their subject areas. Among other things, they learned techniques for developing program and unit goals; keys to building SMART learning outcomes (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-sensitive); and how to apply accurate and meaningful measures and mapping. Finally, they explored ways to craft a quality feedback loop, so that all that collected data is actually applied to actions of improvement.

When the quantitative data is joined by indirect inputs such as student evaluations and surveys, those actions might involve changes to the curriculum, syllabus, grading scale, or more.

Greg Phipps, senior lecturer and coordinator in sociology, whose department essentially assesses data for a living, valued learning how to effectively report the feedback loop process in assessment reports.

“It was an informative session that provided a forum for discussion and the sharing of concerns,” Phipps said. “It was interesting to see how other programs conduct assessment and it provided for possible inclusion in our program moving forward.”

Adopting an “assessment mindset” isn’t just a job for faculty. Jay McTyier, IU Southeast’s registrar, believes his office can also benefit from what he learned at the event. With the advent of Student Central, the Office of the Registrar and its place within the administration have evolved. It’s a good opportunity to construct a more integrated assessment architecture.

“As I start an assessment plan to contribute to this campus-wide effort, my next steps are to re-examine our office mission statement and the campus strategic plan in parallel, and get those aligned,” McTyier said. “In that process of looking at, for example the retention initiatives in the strategic plan, I’ll be able to identify some SMART goals to get solidly started in inaugurating an assessment plan for my office.”

The Assessment Day event demonstrated the robust capacities in the OIE for training faculty and staff in the creation of goals, outcomes, measurement tools and data collection. With systems like Qualtrics and Taskstream by Watermark, the OIE can help colleagues in academic and co-curricular units quantify–and hence measure and improve–just about every aspect of the student experience.

As the processes and practices involved in assessment become ever more refined and interlaced, Ryan expects the campus as a whole to become more effective at delivering on its mission.

“We’re in higher education,” Ryan said. “Our best selves, like our best students, are open and engaged and willing to  learn and grow.”

Homepage photo by Willi Heidelbach from Pixabay.

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