Back to the Future: Overcoming Time Barriers in Assessment

Back to the Future: Overcoming Time Barriers in Assessment

Assessment often requires us to work backwards.  We have a vision or dream of where we would like to go or what we would like to accomplish.  Then, we develop our main goal (i.e. program outcome) broken down into smaller goals (i.e. student learning outcomes), and even further at times into objectives.  Assessment could be thought of as time travel. As assessment practitioners, we need to imagine ourselves at the end of the academic year, then a year from now, and even five years from now.  As you journey forward, what do you want to see accomplished when you look back? What are the specific goals we have for our students? As Student Affairs professionals, we engage with students frequently.  What do we want the incoming freshman to be like once they reach their senior year? And then leave as alumni?

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Start with the End in Mind

It sounds simple enough but this process can be stretching for us.  I have learned two secrets through this process. First, dream big. Staff, faculty, and students are all capable of much more than we think.  In order to maximize effectiveness of the assessment process, timing is crucial.


Second, ask yourself, “In the time that we have, what do we want to accomplish?”  It is helpful to ask if an individual who is not familiar with your department could read your assessment report and understand what your department accomplished in the past year.  This is a good test to affirm if we have effectively told our department’s story. I recognize that numbers are important and help drive us but I have also been challenged to tell the story beyond just what was accomplished beyond the numbers  It is important to use qualitative data in addition to quantitative data to paint a clearer picture. For example, qualifying how students grew through your program by measuring specific student-learning outcomes.


Overcoming Barriers

In order to begin with the end in mind, we must be prepared to overcome time barriers.  These time barriers can include people, lack of feedback, additional responsibilities, and time itself.  First, people can be a barrier due to their resistance to change or a lack of response. In order to overcome time barriers, think of a lighthouse lighting a boat safely into the harbor without hitting the rocks.

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Henning and Roberts in Student Affairs Assessment explain an important step in assessment is to “consider and respond to potential barriers, impediments, and challenges, including power dynamics, internal department or institutional politics, and various manifestations of change resistance.”1  Building rapport with those resistance to change by listening to them and being faithful in little things could eventually help break down some walls.  I have personally found, when appropriate, explaining the “why” behind assessment helps others that are resistant to change or resistant to participating in assessment to begin to understand why we do what we do.


The next time barrier is lack of feedback.  There is great value in transparency in assessment.  For example, for a division at the university, the assessment reports across departments within the division can be internally shared which provides transparency, examples, and guides for the assessment coordinators.  Be intentional and provide an early deadline for feedback. This allows time to follow up and make changes without being stressed at the deadline.


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The third time barrier is additional responsibilities.  As Student Affairs Professionals, I believe we can all concur there are multiple things drawing for our time and attention.  Part of the assessment cycle is the time methodology. The barrier of additional responsibilities can be overcome by creating a timeline for the assessment process for the entire academic year.  Ideally, this would be created in the summer before all the students return for the fall semester. At a community college where classes are offered year round, a strategic time to create the timeline is before the next assessment cycle.  Creating a timeline can be tedious but then there is a set schedule to adhere to and know in advance to prepare for the ebbs and flows of different seasons within the academic year. I recommend setting calendar reminders and prioritizing assessment reporting by dedicating blocks of time on the calendar to work on assessment.


In conclusion, we can all begin with the end in mind.  At the beginning of an assessment cycle, ask what learning outcomes need to be met.  We will continually face barriers or time restraints for assessment but they can be overcome with clear communication and strategic planning.  What have you done to help overcome time barriers? What tools or strategies have helped you and your team be successful? We'd love to hear from you - comment below!


Henning GW, Roberts DM. Student Affairs Assessment: Theory to Practice. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing; 2016.

Bethany Williams, Liberty University

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