Blog: Idea Exchange

Old Food Grinders Make Good Bookends: The Importance of Using the Right Assessment Tools

Colleen Arrey February 11, 2016

I like to re-purpose things that are perfectly good and can be used in new ways. But sometimes “making do” can actually cost you more than you save. The cost may be not only in dollars but also in time and the good will of others, which may set you back more than the financial loss.


My old, cast iron food grinder

A case in point: I found an old, cast iron food grinder in a thrift store. My grandmother and my mother both used similar grinders to make a traditional holiday relish of oranges, apples and cranberries, so I bought it with plans to do the same. It was inexpensive and so nostalgic. After a couple of uses, I noticed that my cranberry relish was not quite right. The color was off and it tasted a tad rusty. Nobody wanted to eat it. So, I washed the grinder, oiled it and tried again. Now the relish tasted oily AND rusty. I wasted lots of fruit trying to make things work with an old, worn out tool that was probably never intended for use with acidic food. My husband said nothing. He just went out and bought me an electric food processor. The relish made with the food processor was lovely but the family was scared to try it. The lesson: sometimes you can ruin more than just a couple of bags of cranberries if you use the wrong tools.

The same is true with assessment systems. I recently had a call from a college assessment leader who was struggling with a campus-wide process that included a combination of emailed reports, Excel spreadsheets, documents submitted in SharePoint and lots of manual labor. The college was trying to use old tools that were never designed for assessment and it was causing extra labor and decreasing engagement. They were doing it this way because they always had, but he was seeing a decline in participation among faculty and staff while his work just kept increasing. The cobbled together approach did not provide him with a way to centralize assessment, communicate expectations and support people as they did the work. He also couldn’t generate reports on campus-wide goals and results without weeks of copying, pasting and analyzing materials sent in different formats from participating areas of the college. He asked me for information to help him make the case for purchasing a software solution for assessment and accreditation.

Here is what I shared:

• Assessment work is only valuable if the data is used to inform discussions and plans for improvement of student learning and institutional processes. Assessment software solutions make it possible to go beyond simple collection of data to actual analysis and use of data for meaningful change.

• A good software solution acts as a hub for planning, documentation and communication about assessment. This makes assessment processes more sustainable because it allows faculty and staff to collaborate and engage broadly across the campus. Responsibility for assessment does not fall upon one or two people—the work and the knowledge can be shared.

• Another attribute of a strong assessment management system is the way it can reduce fear and resistance to assessment. By providing transparency and access to meaningful information about student learning outcomes achievement and the success of operations and initiatives across the institution, a good system will advance your assessment initiatives.

• Technology can help to automate and improve processes, which makes the work easier and more accessible. You still have to engage with faculty and staff, facilitate meaningful conversations, make your assessment findings actionable, and “close the loop,” but a good assessment management system should help you to streamline and demonstrate this important work through activity logs, discussion boards, reports, and dashboards.

• Assessment needs and practices evolve, and it helps to have a software solution that comes with consulting and support. You want to work with a company that “gets” assessment and will help you to maximize the system attributes as your processes change.

I encourage you not to waste time, resources and the goodwill of your colleagues on a piecemeal approach. Assessment is too important. When done with care, it can help to improve and refine approaches to teaching and other campus operations that have an impact on student learning. This makes assessment an endeavor worthy of good tools—tools that were designed specifically to support and facilitate this valuable work.