Creating Space for Assessment: The Effectiveness of Open Labs

Creating Space for Assessment: The Effectiveness of Open Labs

SUPERFLEX, ‘The Show Must Go On’, 2019, Kukje Gallery

Throughout the academic year it can be a challenge to corral faculty and staff to prioritize their time to review, reflect on, and provide analysis of findings related to their course and/or program assessments. Facilitating learning, college service, attending division/department meetings,, and recruitment efforts, are just a few commitments which require time management in the life of a college employee.  Then the unthinkable happens: a global pandemic strikes and forces our colleges and universities to make a shift that creates even more competing priorities (e.g. converting courses for remote learning, creating contingency plans, assisting students with finding additional resources to ensure student success).  Which leads one to ask, when will we find time to work on assessments?  Where will the assessment work find itself in the growing list of priorities? 

Regardless of whether or not we have concrete answers, assessment professionals continue to be  charged with providing the gentile, yet for some, irritating (under normal circumstances) reminders that assessment deadlines must still be met. Now more than ever, we must devise innovative solutions.  During times like these, connecting with faculty and staff by providing convenient spaces where they can complete their assessment work is key.  No matter how busy it gets, the ability to “steal away” to brainstorm, ask questions and receive consultative insight is necessary for ensuring assessment information is captured effictly. In other words, “the [assessment] show must go on!”

Establishing the Structure

Just as establishing structured spaces outside the classroom supports student success, it’s equally important to do the same for faculty and staff, who are so busy throughout the year supporting student learning.  In an effort to create structured spaces for assessment work, a year ago (2019) I established our institution’s first Assessment Open Lab (AOL).  Facilitated by the Office of Institutional Effectiveness Planning, AOLs are designed to be spaces where faculty and staff could meet, away from the office distractions (i.e. phone calls, frequent interruptions, emails) to drop-in and complete their assessment work in an informal, engaging environment conducive for productive Q&A.  The key elements for creating such a structure included: 

  • Identify the Location – Since one of the AOL objectives was to facilitate a “get away” from the “noise,” it was important to select rooms, which allowed for a sense of distance from offices, with the capacity for various individuals to spread out, work privately/in small groups, while accessing electronic information.  Providing a dedicated space for assessment affords individuals the opportunity to step back and breathe, clear their head and focus especially if they’re struggling with making time for assessment in the first place. Additionally, the dedicated location gives people space (physical or virtual) to not only engage in the work as they wish, but draw in others (for feedback and insight) who are either supporting the assessment work or collaborators in a project or program.  It was equally important to strategically select at least 2 centralized locations for the AOLs.
  • Build the Schedule – An important goal for creating the AOL structure was to outline the time of day and periods throughout the month that were more convenient for faculty/staff to meet.  Providing faculty and staff with an established annual schedule before the new academic year prior to faculty leaving and staff vacations, afforded individuals the ability to “lock in” meeting dates and add them to their respective calendars.  The schedule aligned with the institutional assessment calendar so faculty/staff could schedule themselves to attend an assessment open lab based on milestone dates.  The AOLs were scheduled twice per month, on Fridays, and in 3-hour time blocks (alternating between 9:00 – 12:00 pm 1:00 pm – 4:00 pm).  Additionally, the sessions were established to be drop-in ready, so faculty/staff could work in intervals of 15, 30, 60 or 90 minutes. 
  • Creating Expectation through Promotion – Assessment Open Labs were designed to be optional, never mandatory.  Nevertheless, email reminders are sent to the campus community each month in order to highlight the dates/times of AOLs, and reiterate the benefits of attending.  Communication from leadership, setting assessment expectations while encouraging AOL attendance created an avenue to promote assessment during meetings, and forums.  Any time there was an opportunity to mention assessment, during department/division meetings) the AOL schedule was provided with an emphasis on how assessment work supports innovation, closing the loop and continuous improvement across every level of the College.  Additionally, AOLs were introduced as part of the Office of Institutional Effectiveness Planning new employee onboarding and the Office of Academic Affairs new faculty/Chairs orientation.


The Power of Presence

The SAAL online open course, Applying & Leading Assessment in Student Affairs (2020) emphasizes that assessment leaders must have clarity as to our role in helping both faculty and staff succeed in their assessment work. Taking time to provide consultative insights, reviewing assessment documents and processes as helpful reminders during sessions, becomes an avenue to build experience, expertise and future assessment champions.

The only way one can provide the support, guidance and necessary reminders to our campus community is to be present. And being present means a great deal when assistance is needed. Accessibility goes a very long way with new faculty/staff who may not understand the nuances of the institutional processes, systems, or platforms used for managing assessment data. Creating a safe space and the opportunities for folks to ask even the simplest of questions as it relates to their assessment work, establishes credibility with the assessment office.

Allowing participants a space to step outside their respective silos to share and provide each other with examples from their own experiences ensures that institutional learning is ongoing.  Utilizing AOLs as incubators for “ah ha” moments while closing the loop aids in reinforcing an assessment culture that is continuous and, in some instances, transformative.  A compounded benefit is the presence of assessment subject matter experts (individuals with a depth and breadth of experience with assessment) in making themselves available to answer questions related to what, when, why or how, faculty/staff contextualize the bigger institutional picture as it relates to the effectiveness of courses, programs and activities or initiatives.  To best facilitate possible benefits, whether there were one or a dozen participants attending an open lab, the facilitator gave each attendee or group their undivided attention.

Meeting Folks Where They Are

What compliments presence, especially during times of chaos and change (like our current COVID-19 situation), is meeting folks where they are.  When our institution (like many others) had to suddenly begin working remotely, assessment was included in those duties.  With assessment structure in place - with dates and times already set and promoted - all that was needed as an accommodation for us was to shift our location.  Since our institution moved to Microsoft Teams to hold meetings, the Office of Institutional Effectiveness Planning decided to shift to a virtual open lab format... Virtual Assessment Open Labs (VAOLs).  We didn’t skip a beat!  Outlook.  To meet folks where they are, the following steps were initiated:

  • VAOL Reminder – Sent via email, 3 weeks prior and 2 days prior to the scheduled open lab. Information embedded included the updated schedule with dates and times.
  • Participant RSVP – Using the voting function within Microsoft Outlook, emails sent to faculty/staff requested that they indicate whether or not they planned to attend the VAOL by responding and selecting the “Yes”, “No” or “Maybe” buttons provided.
  • MS Teams Meeting Invite – For those who selected “Yes” or “Maybe”, a MS Teams invite is sent so it appears on their Outlook calendar (for the scheduled time); and
  • Open Lab Drop-in – Within the scheduled time period, scheduled faculty/staff participants can drop-in to the Teams meeting.  They’re welcome to stay for the entire meeting or a specified time period for discussion, review of information, Q&A or to listen in on insights being provided by others.
  • Screen & File Sharing – The facilitator and participants use the screen sharing and file sharing features within MS Teams to highlight information depending on the discussion (very similar to what occurred in the face to face labs).

Let Real-Time Insights Be Your Guide

Implementation of AOLs and VAOLs is only as effective as the evaluation of the effectiveness of the process itself. Since this initiative is only a year old, the Office of Institutional Effectiveness Planning needed to track participation and solicit feedback from participants. Attendance was tracked each term (summer, fall and spring) by Cabinet area, division/department, location, and minutes (converted to hours) spent in the open labs.  The facilitator welcomed feedback about process and format at the end of each session and made tweaks along the way.  During the summer, an online survey will be sent to all participants for more formal feedback.  

What’s cool about implementing a new assessment initiative is sharing of information and lessons learned across various department areas across the institution. At the end of the academic year an update was provided to academic leadership (another will be provided to staff leadership this summer) highlighting how creating a space for assessment open labs, face-to-face or virtual has become another step for assuring assessment is not just something we say but what we do!

Embracing the Role of Assessment Concierge

Let’s face it, our folks were already busy trying to squeeze assessment into their busy student-focused lives. Coronavirus simply added another layer of complexity.  To help maintain focus and meet institutional expectations, leaders of this important work must begin to view our role almost like an assessment concierge.  When we think through all the details of “creating space,” faculty and staff with the responsibility for assessment, can embrace it wholeheartedly.   Establishing a structure taking into account location, schedule, what to expect in a distraction free environment, is the first step.  Second, the power of presence reinforces the importance of work and that no one is alone on the assessment journey.  Meeting individuals where they are is a critical third step as it reinforces a spirit of agility especially during times of challenge or change.  Lastly, but certainly not least, is allowing real-time insights to guide the evolution of the spaces being created.  As we begin to take a holistic approach to providing assessment support, we just might begin to notice more of our people embracing the notion that everyone needs an assessment spa day!

What innovative ideas can be implemented at your institution to support a shift in getting assessment work done (especially during this time)?  What platforms might be used to encourage faculty and staff to engage in ongoing assessment?

Nanette Smith, Rhodes State College

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