From Good Intentions to Evidence-Based Success: A Better Way for Student Affairs

Culture Diagram: Good Intentions - Justification - Strategy - Evidence

Student affairs practitioners can feel as if they’re on a constant crusade to justify the impact of their programs, services, and interactions. Collecting and analyzing data and sharing the findings – and any efforts to make improvements and change – goes a long way toward building credibility for programs and services. To do that consistently and effectively, student affairs practitioners and leaders must strive for a culture of evidence.

In their book, Building a Culture of Evidence in Student Affairs: A Guide for Leaders and Practitioners, Marguerite Culp and Dr. Gwendolyn Dungy define this culture as: “A commitment among student affairs professionals to use hard data to show how the programs they offer, the processes the implement, and the services they provide are effective, and contribute significantly to an institution’s ability to reach its stated goals and achieve its mission.”

In his keynote address at the 2017 ACPA Assessment Institute, Dr. Larry Roper, Interim Director of the School of Language, Culture, and Society and former Vice Provost for Student Affairs at Oregon State University, discussed a similar framework. He shared his perspective on how assessment professionals can “facilitate cultural transformation” through student affairs assessment strategies. Dr. Roper also outlined several steps necessary for developing assessment leadership. His wise words, along with Culp and Dungy’s framework, can offer practical strategies for advancing the practice of student affairs assessment.

From isolation to collaboration

The issue: Those responsible for assessment often perform their work in one-person offices or have assessment as an add-on to an already overwhelming job description. Others in the division and around the institution can assume that assessment work rightfully belongs in the “assessment office” or is to be done only by those deemed to be assessment experts. The challenge is to meaningfully engage staff and think about ways to free the data.

What your campus can do:

  • Get out of your silos and share assessment findings across divisional units – use the data to jumpstart collaborative, evidence-based conversations
  • Form an assessment committee to coordinate and collaborate on unit and division-wide assessment
  • Provide ongoing professional development opportunities for all student affairs professionals via webinars, drive-in conferences, and professional organizations
  • Actively involve stakeholders in the design, data collection, analysis, and reporting of findings for assessment activities
  • Develop routine methods for sharing assessment results within existing infrastructures, such as committee and leadership team meetings

From management support to learning analytics

The issue: Administrators can use data in isolated ways – sometimes defensively to justify existing programs and services. Dr. Roper encourages moving from “unchecked critique” to “reality-informed opinions” and allowing the data to inform decisions rather than reinforce preferences or preconceived notions. Also important is prioritizing the collection, analysis, and reporting of student learning data to optimize learning conditions and outcomes.

What your campus can do:

  • Approach the data with a sense of wonder – what is it telling you? How might you need to change? What assumptions are challenged?
  • Ensure that the use of evidence-based decision-making is included in all staff responsibilities and job descriptions
  • Map all assessment projects across the division and analyze them – do you have multiple forms of data collection? In addition to tracking satisfaction, are you assessing student learning, benchmarking against standards, and triangulating data? Are you avoiding survey fatigue by creating shared assessment projects that serve multiple needs? Are you mining existing institutional data sets without creating a new survey?

From individual entitlement to shared responsibility for student learning

The issue: Dr. Roper framed this through the lens of faculty members who feel entitled to deliver their course material in the way they see fit, as opposed to using proven teaching and learning methods in the best interest of students. Student affairs can be guilty of similar approaches, with practitioners assuming that only they know what is best for students.

What your campus can do:

  • Include students in the design, data collection, analysis, and reporting of assessment
  • View yourself as an educator with direct responsibility for student learning
  • Incorporate Principles of Teaching and Principles of Learning into your programs and services
  • Collaborate with academic affairs colleagues in support of student learning – through experiential learning, internships, general education, service learning, or collaborative research projects

In Coordinating Student Affairs Divisional Assessment: A Practical Guide, Kimberly Yousey-Elsener, Erin Bentrim, and Gavin Henning also recommend integrating current student development literature into your assessment practice to inform program development, data collection, and analysis.

Quote - Too many believe that student affairs offices mainly provide entertainment for students and that true education occurs only in the academic classroom.

From fragmented experiences to educational pathways for holistic engagement

The issue: Without a clear evidence-based understanding of the impact and efficacy of programs and services, higher ed professionals tend to hold fast to traditional organizational charts, programs, and methods of service delivery. Unfortunately, these types of silos splinter the student experience. Data-informed decisions can lead to new ways of creating not just a menu of programs and activities, but intentional, guided, educational pathways. These pathways can support cohorts of students as well as allow for unique individual student experiences.

What your campus can do:

  • Take seriously the call to develop division-wide learning outcomes – and align your programs and services directly with those outcomes
  • Develop clear curricula for your programs and assess both the student learning and the operational outcomes of those programs
  • Recognize that the academic transcript has little value to employers and provides an incomplete picture of students’ learning, competencies, and experiences
  • Work with academic affairs colleagues to design and implement a Comprehensive Student Record (CSR)
  • Acknowledge that assessing and documenting student learning outside the traditional classroom presents a unique set of challenges (there are no grades given at the end of an experience, the skills developed may not fit into one academic area, and there are no national standards or summative curriculum)
  • Use a resource such as Learning Is Not a Sprint: Assessing and Documenting Student Leader Learning in Cocurricular Involvement to evaluate multiple perspectives and a framework to document student learning in the co-curricular environment, with a specific focus on student leaders and student employees 

It’s unfortunate that student affairs professionals can sometimes be misunderstood by their colleagues in academic affairs – and those outside higher education. Too many believe that student affairs offices mainly provide entertainment for students and that true education occurs only in the academic classroom. Even the focus on helping students develop the “soft skills” so critical for the workplace can be devalued. This narrow perspective contradicts the reality of student affairs practitioners as educators. In fact, the ability to create rich co-curricular learning environments and facilitate student engagement and personal growth is an invaluable contribution to the college experience.


Photo of Anne E Lundquist

Anne E Lundquist

Assistant Vice President, Campus Adoption | Campus Labs

Anne Lundquist, PhD, draws on her career as an educator to help campuses understand the value of technology and data-informed decisions. Before joining Campus Labs, Anne served as Director of Strategic Planning and Assessment for the Division of Student Affairs at Western Michigan University, where she championed a holistic framework for student success. In addition to her varied administrative leadership roles at WMU and four liberal arts colleges, she has taught both undergraduate and graduate courses in diverse subject matter, including educational leadership, institutional effectiveness, oral communication, writing, and literature. An expert in enterprise risk management, Anne gives conference presentations, leads webinars, and has authored or peer-reviewed numerous articles and book chapters on strategic planning.