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Deepening Student Learning with Assessment in Higher Education

Data analysis is critical for student affairs assessment, as it allows the division to glean so much information on who their students are and what they’re seeking out to adjust their offering accordingly and better meet student needs.

Higher education begins and ends with the student. How a student interacts with their intuition and what they take from it are critical to knowing how effective it is for them. Evaluating these elements requires student learning assessment—the territory of student affairs. In this interview, Michael Christakis discusses why it’s important to understand how we’re influencing students, the challenges that come with that data and how to better position the institution for student success.

The EvoLLLution (Evo) Why is it important for higher ed leaders to focus on assessment in student affairs?

Michael Christakis (MC): There are a few reasons. Essentially, it allows us to better position ourselves to support our students and their success. Secondly, student success has entered the higher ed vernacular, not as a passing fad but a matter of what we do. With data and outcomes, how we’re influencing student success is important. That’s why student affairs assessment matters. Thirdly, it’s about key performance indicators (KPIs). These are the most fundamental data because they help us make a case for expanding our services if needed.

Not engaging in these elements is shortsighted. If you’re not engaging in assessment, then you’re asking for trouble. You must engage with data most, if not all, of the time.

Evo: What are some challenges that come with assessing student affairs?

MC: One of the age-old challenges is that student affairs does not function within the four walls of a classroom. That’s shifted a little with the pandemic, as we’re engaging a little more virtually, but we’re not quite there yet.

We recently talked with our institutional researchers about how we’re accounting for student engagement data as it relates to retention, persistence and graduation, taking what we capture and building it into various models and analyses. Learning Reconsidered challenged us to think about assessment and evaluation outside the classroom. It continues to be imperative to our work in student affairs.

Evo: What are some best practices to overcome those challenges?

MC: It’s critically important to have staff buy-in and have them appreciate the value of assessment. We must demystify how we conduct assessments because there are many ways of going about it. Once we have that buy-in, then staff can begin to use the data for good. You want a unit head or mid-level manager who’s interested in data and can lead with it effectively.

You must make sure you also closing the loop when engaging with assessment by sharing results with stakeholders. This could be internal or external. When we reduced our student health center wait times, we proactively shared with students that we had identified the problem and addressed it.

The third element is culture. How are you building assessment into the culture? One person can make all the changes, it must trickle down to others across the institution. Once you have the buy-in, you can train people to create a shift in culture.

Evo: How does collaboration play a role in student affairs assessment, and how does that effectively demonstrate the broader institution’s recognition of the value student affairs provides?

MC: The first and most important point of collaboration is with our institutional research office. At the University at Albany, we’ve certainly benefitted from our very supportive colleagues who appreciate, understand and value the impact of student affairs as it relates to the student experience. And it relates to the data we have access to and our commitment to continuous improvement in student learning. That’s indicative of an institutional commitment to student affairs assessment.

Second, you must collaborate with academic affairs to understand the whole student experience and your students. It’s about all their experiences with the institution. Auxiliary services are another important area of collaboration. We have a large auxiliary arm that oversees our dining and ID program. The ID card alone has so much data that helps us understand who our students are and what services they’re engaging with on campus. So, collaborating with these various units gives us a holistic view of our students.

Evo: How does the assessment within student affairs impact student retention and success?

MC: That’s the next frontier for us. Right now, it’s imperfect. Our institutional research colleagues will conduct reports on retention, persistence and graduation to the extent that we’re pulling in engagement data. The next step for us is to see how these metrics contribute to student success metrics.

Student success can mean many different things to different people. From first-year retention rates to graduation to placement after graduation, it’s important to take in all the data and look at the areas where we have influence.

Evo: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

MC: I want to underscore the importance of assessment in student affairs. If student affairs divisions are serious about their role in contributing to student success, they need to consider the ways we’re focusing on and investing in a student affairs assessment infrastructure. You may have to train people or pull in a vendor for support. There must be additional ways to continue this important work and play a significant role.

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