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How Higher Ed Leaders Can Enhance Student Affairs Through Assessment

Student affairs can have a huge impact on retention numbers, so it’s important that these departments conduct regular assessments to continuously improve their work and thus better serve students.

Assessment is crucial to making any informed decisions when it comes to a student’s educational experience—and student affairs shouldn’t be excluded. After all, this unit rounds out a student’s whole experience with their institution. In this interview, Daniel Bureau discusses the importance of making assessment an informed practice, overcoming common obstacles and collaborating with student affairs.

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

Daniel Bureau (DB): First, we need data-informed practice, and that aspect of assessment is very important. We often default to the methodologies and data we collect. Assessment as a framework is to continually ask how we can do better.

At the same time, we want to honor the work our staff are doing, and they might be overworked. Ultimately, we must prioritize our student affairs work within higher ed. Student affairs assessment is important in helping us evaluate how to become more effective and efficient to result in better student outcomes.

Evo: What are some challenges that come with assessment?

DB: When it comes to capital A assessment, there are things like methodologies and surveys. And there’s a lot of concern around the competencies in those. I’d say that competence to be better at both developing protocols as well as collecting data requires continual improvement. It’s equally important to work on being a more assessment-minded person.

Many of us come to work and do the same old things, with well intentions behind them. But the challenge is to be more competent at doing it effectively. And we need to ask those questions to get there.

Evo: What are some best practices leaders can use to overcome some of the obstacles you mentioned and begin to elevate student affairs’ profile?

DB: If we approach our work with real intention to achieve certain outcomes and drive our decision process by the outcomes we need to achieve in these interactions, we can be more effective. Then we can collect student data, information and perspectives that can help us improve the design of programs.

There’s a concept called curricular approach, and it’s often found in residential education. One thing they do is create an interview template for resident assistants to talk with their residents. It’s because this practice that they are there for their people. This scripted protocol can be helpful to students and staff doing that work. We must focus on how to better support, listen, ask questions and use information once we get it.

Action research often found in K-12 is also important in student affairs. When you’re in action with your students, you’re actively engaging in the educational process. You take the information and immediately apply it to modify something that isn’t working. We can do a lot better with that within student services to better serve our students.

Evo: How does collaboration play a role in assessing student affairs to then effectively demonstrate the broader institution’s recognition of that value?

DB: It’s important that student affairs folks recognize the power that comes with collaboration. With assessment geared toward outcomes, it’s important to be collaborative. We see this a lot in how an institution might approach accreditation when we know different departments are doing things tailored to certain learning outcomes. Let’s partner across those units to provide more evidence to what’s happening.

In that, we must look at the shared assessment tools we want to use and decide how to use that data to improve the student experience. Our relationships have to be focused on a shared purpose, outcomes and goals. That cuts across not only student affairs but also our academic colleagues across the institution.

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

DB: Student affairs is an interesting aspect of higher ed. It’s infused across campus because many people are doing this type of work. In looking at student retention, student services can identify ways they might contribute to those outcomes. Joining student organizations increases the likelihood that students might graduate or persist. It can have a positive influence on a student’s experience with an institution.

Evo: Anything you’d like to add?

DB: We’re at a tipping point with student affairs and assessment. It’s important now more than ever to approach this from a way of defining and prioritizing outcomes you want to assess. We don’t have to assess everything, and there are different ways to assess things.

In our day-to-day work, how can we document the ways we impact the students’ lives? We must look at all of this with a continuous improvement approach. Whatever data we collect we must leverage it in the best way. There are still some lingering pressure and concerns, but it’s a great opportunity for us to continue and enhance the work we do to better serve students.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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