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How to Leverage Assessment and Strategic Planning for Beneficial By-Products

As institutions look to strategic planning and assessment for higher education moving forward, thoughtful planning and definitions need to be put in place to justify relevant results to leaders. 

As 2020 came and went, many institutions embarked on new strategic planning cycles. 

Sights are now set on 2025, 2030, and beyond. As this work unfolds at institutions, it is imperative to draw the connection between strategic planning and assessment. 

There exists a symbiotic relationship between these two practices that yields beneficial by-products for their efforts, the people involved and the organizational culture as a whole. Anyone involved in assessment can leverage the strategic plan to elevate the importance of their work and collaborate with new colleagues across campus. Meanwhile, those in strategic planning can use assessment to generate quantifiable metrics and actionable results. 

But before I get too involved in the details of benefits, let’s first establish some definitions.

Strategic Planning

For the purpose of this article, I’ll define strategic planning as the process of envisioning a desired future, translating this vision into broadly defined goals or objectives and creating an action plan or sequence of steps to achieve those goals. 

Strategic planning is a systematic process to determine the long-term outcomes you want to achieve and how you will measure the results. In other words, it’s a process through which people think about, assess, view and create the future.

Common elements and flow to a strategic planning process involve reaffirming the organization or team’s mission, values and vision. From there, a situation analysis is conducted with input from all relevant stakeholders–internal and external–with the objective to formulate a strategy to work toward the agreed upon vision. 

Rounds of review, brainstorming and action planning go into formulating a strategy and embedding it with milestones to review progress. At these milestones, evaluation and analysis enable review of activity, where data-informed decision-making charts the best path forward for each strategic initiative.


Goals of assessment include to:

  • Exhibit accountability for continuous improvement as an institution
  • Assess whether students are developing the knowledge, skills and competencies expected of graduates 
  • Create a culture of data-informed inquiry

Assessment is an intentional process to help organizations ensure that the expectations of student learning outcomes match what students are actually learning and demonstrating.

The typical assessment cycle begins with defining learning outcomes and setting a plan for measurement and reporting for a given year. It helps to have an outcome or curriculum map to understand and leverage alignment between interventions and outcomes and, in turn, inform how results are planned and applied. 

Once a plan is set, data is collected through existing or created methods and instruments. Analysis, reporting and meaning-making occur with relevant parties to take action on the results. Taking action includes making changes in hopes of improving student learning, as well as sharing information with relevant audiences.

By-Products and Benefits

Assessment and strategic planning are concerned with answering the following questions:

  • What does success/achievement look like?
  • How (and when) will we know we achieve our intentions?
  • What have we learned that we can use to improve in the future?

Aspects of both processes share similarities and familiar steps. The foundation of strategic planning is purpose and formulation of the plan for implementation—just like assessment, intentional planning helps ensure meaningful measurement and results. 

Alignment is crucial in both activities, where the strategic plan maintains a vertical relationship among strategic elements, and assessment crucially leverages outcomes with respect to differentiated learning–both in terms of frameworks (such as Bloom’s TaxonomySOLODQP, and the Medicine Wheel) and organizationally (within the department, division and institution).

Beyond parallels in process, there exists a mutually beneficial relationship between assessment and strategic planning such that:

Assessment Itself Can Be A Strategic Plan Metric With Respect to Student Learning

Institutional strategy can shape method selection and data collection, as well as elevate the importance of reporting and taking action to advance actions, interventions and resources toward a desired future state that better serves student success and organizational purposes. Besides, why wouldn’t higher education institutions be concerned with student learning as a strategic priority? 

Strategic Plans Can Be Used As A Collaboration Catalyst For Assessment

Despite organizational silos, assessment has increasingly universal appeal when situated within strategic initiatives. This is especially true and common for key learning goals such as critical thinking, civic and global learning, and career readiness. Learning outcomes become a common language for faculty and staff to communicate across the institution as they work toward serving students’ best interests. Moreover, the strategic plan affords plenty of momentum to capitalize on when trying to garner support or partners for projects.

Strategic Plans Can Be Used to Focus Assessment Efforts

Given that there are many interventions and an abundance of student learning outcomes, it can be hard to determine what and how much to measure. Action plans and strategies between each milestone offer guidance to keep work manageable. Assessment planning should definitely consider the strategic plan and institutional momentum in addition to area-specific needs, using this concrete and high-profile process to help justify data wants versus needs.

Assessment Can Help Ensure Measurable, Specific and Actionable Strategic Plan Efforts

With such a large initiative of weighty importance, it’s all the more important to develop specific targets for measures to clearly discern progress and achievements. Use the milestone moments of the strategic plan as guideposts to determine what progress are meaningful and manageable to achieve. Exercise discernment according to measure when setting single-year targets versus multi-part targets spanning years of the strategic plan.

I can’t help but see these parallels, but perhaps that’s because I lead assessment work, and it’s part of my job to make sure assessment is represented in our strategic planning efforts. However, I think these points transcend an assessment person’s perspective and can be useful to anyone involved in strategic planning as an opportunity to advance strategic initiatives. 

Even if you are only involved in assessment work, it is good to be aware of these elements. Consider them tips for your practices as you look to set your plan for the year or pull together colleagues to collaborate on measures. 

Be mindful of strategic plan priorities to put your results in contexts that attention and justify relevance of results to institutional leaders. I hope this information proves useful and wish you the best of luck in executing your work toward your goals, be they annual, five-year, ten-year or beyond!

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