All I Really Need to Know to Be a Professor, I Learned Doing Assessment

All I Really Need to Know to Be a Professor, I Learned Doing Assessment

Gavin Henning 

Professor of Higher Education, New England College

In 1986, the year I graduated from college, one of the hottest books in bookstores (on bookshelves, not on Amazon since it didn’t exist then), was All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulgham. Through brief, but engaging essays, Fulgham demonstrated that the life lessons we learned as children such as play fair, share everything, and clean up your own mess, serve us well throughout life. 

In a recent conversation with a professional who interviewed me for an assignment for the SAAL MOOC, I had a similar revelation—all I really need to know to be a professor I learned doing assessment. During that interview, I was asked what prepared me for my current role. While the question was intended for someone currently working in student affairs assessment, it gave me pause to reflect on what prepared me to be a professor. After a few moments of thought, I stated that my experience in assessment was the best training for this role because it provided me a variety of knowledge and skills that I utilize daily. 

One part about being a student affairs assessment coordinator I enjoyed most was learning about the various functional areas in the division. Previous to my assessment role, my experience was solely in residence life and housing. But, through assessment, I learned campus safety operations, the ins-and-outs of career development, fundraising strategies, and more. This helped me develop a broad student affairs generalist perspective.

The knowledge I acquired regarding learning, specifically the importance of aligning outcomes, strategies, data collection, and data analysis has been vital to my job as a professor. I’ve been able to not only effectively design individual courses but to also revise and develop program curricula. This knowledge was also essential when I was asked to revise our academic program review process and is useful as I provide professional development for faculty to ensure alignment of program learning outcomes, course learning outcomes, learning activities, and graded and ungraded assessments. Assessment helped me become a teaching and learning generalist. 

The research skills I developed while conducting assessment cannot be understated as they are central to my ability to teach research methods and support students’ dissertation work. Given my experience conducting and teaching assessment, I can effectively teach our quantitative methods course demystifying statistics and reducing the corresponding anxiety, provide direction for qualitative methods, and guide dissertation research regardless of methodological approach. I’m a research generalist in the doctoral programs I direct.

Experience writing assessment reports has been more valuable than I ever anticipated as it prepared me well for academic writing whether it is being a writer myself, editing books, or providing feedback to my students on their writing. It seems that I’ve become somewhat of a writing generalist. There are a few other skills that I developed through assessment practice that are applicable to being a professor. Being in assessment required reading the literature regarding student demographics to understand how these relate to success measures. Having served in assessment coordination roles at two very different institutions, I gained a keen understanding regarding how institutional context influences not only student success, but also organizational and assessment cultures helping me to manage power dynamics and horizontal and vertical structural politics. I apply this knowledge when I teach in the classroom and when working on institutional committees. 

I developed solid administrative and project management skills which I use more frequently than I anticipated. Since I co-chair our institutional assessment committee and support the program review process, I have to motivate faculty to do assessment without having any legitimate supervisory power and use similar strategies as I did as an assessment coordinator. Implementing assessment across a division of student affairs requires a large number of meetings for which I became skilled at effectively and efficiently running, a talent that very few faculty have—and it shows! Assessment helped me become a higher education generalist. 

I’m finishing my 11th year as a full-time faculty member and until last month, I hadn’t realized how much assessment has prepared me for this role. While assessment is a specialized skill, it provides opportunities to develop myriad generalist skills that can be applied to almost any setting or context in higher education. Don’t underestimate the power of your assessment skills and knowledge and how they can prepare you for many jobs in higher education.


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