Blog: Idea Exchange

Assessment Resolutions and Reflections for the New Year

Dara Wexler, Ph.D. January 25, 2017

Every year around this time, the media bombard us with messages related to coming up with a list of New Year’s Resolutions and actions to help you “stick to it” and change your ways to meet your goals in the new year – e.g., eat healthier food, start going to the gym, stop procrastinating, get more sleep, stay organized, and the list goes on and on. But just because we want to make improvements to ourselves and in our lives, doesn’t necessarily mean that change is easy.

The same optimistic view that we start off with at the beginning of the new year for ourselves is often reflected in my conversations with faculty, administrators, and others at colleges and universities looking to advance assessment and improvement initiatives on campus – e.g., “this is the year we are going to engage all of our faculty in assessment,” “we are going to scale our e-portfolio initiative to support all of our students,” or “we are going to ‘close the loop’ and make real changes and improvements to our programs and better support our students.”

How will this year be different and how are we going to make a plan and “stick to it”?

This year marks my nine-year anniversary at Taskstream and given it’s also the beginning of a new year, I’m in a reflective mode. Looking back at my work in the field of education for over 25 years, including my time so far at Taskstream, I’ve had the opportunity to work with hundreds of institutions and K-12 districts. I’ve heard all kinds of challenges related to engaging a learning community in using data to improve teaching and learning, as well as struggles of how to integrate technology into learning environments. However, I’ve also seen many people and places successfully implement assessment practices and strategies that resulted in meaningful change and improvements.

We are also living in a moment in time with a lot of uncertainty (and possibilities) related to questions to ponder such as how can technology be used for improvement (think: fitness trackers, artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, and data systems), or how can we balance continuous improvement with accountability efforts (think: personal accountability or self-improvement at work and home, or shifts in accreditation requirements)?

So, as I reflect and establish new year’s resolutions for myself, I thought I would share three “assessment resolutions” with examples of how to accomplish these goals. I hope these are helpful for those of you looking to advance meaningful assessment at your institutions this year!

1.    Get the word out. Trying to clearly communicate with others is a constant battle – whether it is with a friend, spouse, colleague, or family members. Do you ever think about why people sometimes mis-understand what we are trying to say? Or, is there a way to get my point across in a more efficient manner? Being clear and concise is often a challenge in emails, texts, conversation or in written reports. For example, “assessment” is often seen as a bad word on many campuses, however we know that assessment can also be misunderstood. We also know that the term “e-portfolio” can be defined in a multitude of ways and can be used for multiple purposes (e.g., is LinkedIn a portfolio? Who is the audience for our portfolio? Should we be assessing portfolio artifacts? How can portfolios benefit students?).

It is important to provide a clear expectation about assessment and e-portfolios – what it is (what it’s not), what it means to the community/constituent groups, and the benefits it can afford others (e.g., students, faculty, administrators, accreditors). Therefore, it is essential to get everyone talking about these initiatives to develop a shared vision, and how they can be used for improvement. Some great examples of getting the word out about assessment and e-portfolio initiatives across campus include:

  • Write an article or present at a conference about assessment or your portfolio initiatives and share it with others (contact Taskstream if you are interested in sharing your ideas in a Blog or co-presenting at a conference!).
  • Create a video about what assessment means to various people to highlight diverse thinking and get people talking about it! (And, try posting on social media to extend the conversation.)
  • Encourage the writing of campus newsletters to highlight best practices of how different faculty and/or students are reflecting on learning.
  • Host e-portfolio contests for students and for faculty.

2.    Be decisive and “Just Do It!”. Taking a cue from Nike and embedding a quest for fitness or adventure in your life, why not apply this advice to our work with assessment and continuous improvement? In talking with friends, family and co-workers, oftentimes we commiserate about feeling overwhelmed with the amount of work that needs to be accomplished within a certain timeframe, spending more time procrastinating to avoid jumping into a new project, or researching endlessly before taking action on a purchase or a task like writing an article. Similarly, I often hear stories about assessment committees taking years to come to consensus on defining their learning outcomes or make a decision on which rubrics to use for assessment. Indecision can easily lead to inaction. Sometimes on campuses the lack of action is because of feeling overwhelmed by “innovation fatigue” (Kuh and Hutchins, 2015)1 where faculty and staff can sometimes shut-down given the ongoing numbers of efforts that they are expected to take on.

Remaining in an overwhelmed state can feel draining, and I’ve learned that sometimes just doing something rather than not, can take the weight off. So why not learn from others’ experiences and best practices rather than spending lots of time reinventing the wheel? Consider leveraging the work that others have already done and think of these possibilities as a spring-board. Obviously every institution has unique attributes, mission statements, timelines, and visions; however often there is no need to start from scratch. Maybe try the following ideas:

  • Select a rubric that already exists and try it out. For example, many institutions look to the AAC&U VALUE Rubrics either in full or more commonly, as a starting point for building their own rubrics.
  • Create an assessment to do list and set priorities by defining what is most important. Should you focus on the creation of program Learning Outcomes? Developing updated curriculum maps? Or obtaining assessment data for one key outcome? For example, see a webinar focused on Transforming Assessment Process to Foster Engagement and Create a Shared Culture of Evidence.
  • Find a “hook” and develop a basic inquiry or research question or lens through which to explore assessment data that might make it more meaningful to each constituent group. For example, what do business faculty want to know? What is important to know about first year students vs. seniors?
  • Consider using more visual examples to discuss and share assessment results with others. Perhaps try using assessment data from another program to initiate a discussion with a prompted question. For example, share assessment reports like those generated in Taskstream using rubric-based assessment processes and try asking, “What does this assessment report say to you? How can we use it to create an improvement action?

3.   Set aside time and space. When I clear my mind and actually set aside time and space to reflect on my work, my best ideas are generated. While I know this to be true, I don’t do it nearly often enough throughout my work day or in my personal life. As we know, having time to reflect is key to learning, and even a small amount of time can go a long way. Many Assessment Coordinators tell me that they started identifying particular days and times for cultivating their assessment cultures, allowing their learning community to make data more meaningful, and setting aside opportunities for conversations about data, analysis, and sharing perspectives. Other ideas to try:

So, cheers to a great 2017! May it be filled with opportunities to set and achieve your goals, to be more reflective, to advance continuous improvement for yourself and others, and to share what you learn. And, if you decide to try any of these ideas in the new year, in the spirit of sharing, I would love to hear about it!


1 Kuh and Hutchins (2015). Assessment and Initiative Fatigue: Keeping the Focus on Learning. (pp 183 – 200), in Using Evidence of Student Learning to Improve Higher Education.