Advancing curiosity, equity, justice, and intentionality.

Who Tells Your Story?: Reflections on NASPA’s Annual Conference

In the not-too-distant past, my family and I spent about a year of our lives immersed in the experience of Hamilton.  This included listening to songs from the musical every time we got into the car, a school project featuring Alexander Hamilton, an appearance of the Schuyler sisters in a talent show, and a Hamilton-themed birthday party that included a water-gun fight based on the Battle of Yorktown.  I was reminded of this obsession when I attended NASPA’s annual conference in Philadelphia last week.  Although Philadelphia’s history makes this connection an obvious one, my thoughts of Hamilton had less to do with being in this city that proved to be of such importance to the American Revolution and more to do with my attendance at multiple conference sessions focused on assessment.  Specifically, as I engaged in assessment-related conversations, I found myself thinking of Hamilton’s refrain, “Who tells your story?”

For most student affairs professionals, assessment is generally not associated with Broadway musicals; however, as I listened to presenters speak about their use of assessment data, I heard several references to data telling a story.  These included:

  • large-scale stories provided by data from Project CEO (“Insights from Project CEO:  Leveraging Data to Improve Student Learning Experiences”), with insights on employability skills, based on national data collected from about 10,000 students;

  • the stories of vice presidents of student affairs and the areas they identified as significant to their success as VPSAs (“The Changing Role of VPSAs:  Knowledge, Skills, and Competencies Required in Today’s Higher Education Environment”);

  • a way of creating and sharing individual stories of student skill development, as told through the development of competency-based records (“Documenting and Assessing Co-Curricular Learning”); and

  • attendee conversations on Twitter focused on sharing data, getting data-driven stories in front of decision-makers and institutional leadership, and thinking critically about whose stories are represented or told.

The attention paid, and priority given, to assessment in student affairs has been growing and there is no indication this trend is going to change.  At a pre-conference meeting hosted by Campus Labs, Dr. Gavin Henning (New England College) provided an overview of the history of assessment in student affairs.  It was encouraging to see the increase in assessment-related publications specific to student affairs and how assessment has evolved to become a distinct area of focus within our discipline.  To quote Hamilton once more, “This is not a moment. It’s the movement”.

Assessment allows us to document the connection between the work that we do in student affairs and specific student-related outcomes.  Fortunately, we don’t need to do this work in a vacuum. The conference exhibit hall at NASPA provided opportunities to connect with vendors offering an assortment of assessment-related solutions.  Closer to home, we all have resources on our campuses who can serve as valuable partners in our assessment efforts. The conference session, “Data, Analytics, and Student Success: Perspectives from IR, IT, and Student Affairs” highlighted the value of collaboration between student affairs staff and staff from institutional research and from information technology.  On my own campus, I have connected with the Office of Institutional Research, Planning & Assessment and benefitted from access to a large data repository and assistance with assessment-related training for staff.

As student affairs professionals, we can all point to specific programs and interventions on our campuses that we believe have impacted our students in a positive way.  By maximizing campus collaborations and technology-based solutions, we can pair anecdotal evidence with data to showcase the ways in which our work supports student success.   We have an effective means to answer the question, “Who tells your story?”. Assessment allows us to demonstrate to various stakeholders that the work we do has an impact and to share the specific areas of impact.  It allows us to tell stories of student success and to do so in a powerful, evidence-based way.

What lessons have you learned about assessment from attending recent (NASPA or ACPA) conference sessions or from participating in backchannel conversations?  What are you learning that will facilitate your ability to tell a data-driven story?

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