Creating a Culture of Assessment in
Higher Education

A report by the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment draws attention to the fact that while 92% of American colleges and universities are now using at least one assessment tool to evaluate academic programs, most colleges are having difficulty integrating the results into a system of continuing improvement.

It's clear that often the roadblock to action isn't a lack of data, nor is it the lack of an assessment process. The roadblock is the lack of a culture of assessment on campus. As one example, 66% of provosts surveyed said what they needed most in order to translate assessment into action was more faculty involvement.

Donald Norris, president of Strategic Initiatives, Inc. and a key thinker on this issue, offers some practical strategies for moving people to take action based on assessment.

Dealing with Issues of Turf

"Turf battles should disappear based on one simple question: What do we need to do to maximize student success and academic performance?"
Donald Norris, Strategic Initiatives, Inc.

To adopt a culture of assessment, it is key to relay succinctly -- and repeatedly -- to all stakeholders the message that what is at stake is the success of the student. Bring the critical question into key conversations across campus -- How can we use assessment tools to maximize our institution's performance and the success of our students? Asking this question often and vocally redirects attention away from fears about the transparency of data or perceptions of the onerous work of assessment toward the goals of assessment and the actions needed to reach the goals.

"Silos get in the way of student success and performance," Norris remarks. "That's what needs to be communicated. Shame those who would use the silo as an excuse."

It Starts at the Top

Building expectation for action across departmental silos starts at the top. Norris advises that institutional leaders -- president and provost -- need to set specific performance metrics and hold their direct reports accountable. "Make it transparent how data informs decisions," Norris advises. "Build a performance culture among top officials first, set expectations for improved performance. And always connect what you're doing back to how improved performance means improved success for the students."

Analytics for the Masses

"We are making a critical move away from 'analytics for the few' and are getting into an era of 'analytics for the masses.' We have to make data shared across the institution, to inform action."
Donald Norris, Strategic Initiatives, Inc.

Norris cites the example of a small public university that employed an analytic application to assemble the school's financial data and make it available to 400-500 faculty and staff. The provost headed the initiative, hoping to empower deans, department chairs, and faculty to analyze costs and productivity without having to rely on the provost's office. This institution also intended the new transparency around data to end some of the more debilitating turf issues and false rumors around costs. Faculty and administrators who previously would have argued over what particular decisions would mean could now turn to real data. The expectation was communicated and reinforced that faculty and academic leaders would make decisions based not on personal values or anecdotal evidence but on analysis of real data and actual performance.

Norris adds, "This is happening in a lot of places. It's not always pretty. It's never pretty when someone's sacred cow gets scored, and there's a need to change." The key is to keep the focus on better outcomes for students.

"Most of the people we hire for academic positions are not hired with an eye toward analytics or using business intelligence in sophisticated ways," Norris notes. But institutions do hire professionals who care deeply about the success of the student. Coach the members of your organization to stay focused on actions toward an ultimate goal, not on process.

"In a culture of evidence, we value evidence and act on it 'when we can.' But in a culture of improvement, we are reflective practitioners dedicated to having metrics for continuously striving to improve performance and reduce cost, thereby increasing value to our learners."
Donald Norris, Strategic Initiatives, Inc.