How Do We Build a Foundation of Competencies?

How Do We Build a Foundation of Competencies?

When I originally drafted this blog post, I was “stuck” in Spokane, Washington due to a flight cancellation and was fresh off the end of an on-campus interview. I never thought about the ways my last graduate school semester would change over the next few weeks. Along with many others, I’m preparing to work from home the rest of the semester, practicing important social distancing, and also preparing to finish out the rest of my last semester of graduate school online. During this time, it’s hard not to think about the field that I’m entering into and how my experiences during graduate school have shaped my perspective. My mind couldn’t help but wander to assessment, what Student Affairs (SA) assessment looks like, and why it’s absolutely essential to our field.

First, I have to admit that I am a bit blessed when it comes to assessment. My undergraduate program was in Middle School Education and I had several courses that focused on this topic. “Thinking with the end in mind”, Backwards Design, and assessment rationale seemed to be drilled into my brain and as an undergraduate student. Although it often left my brain feeling confused, twisted, and tangled, I have come to appreciate those opportunities and how it has impacted me as an emerging higher education professional.

Caption: Picture of a man who looks frustrated. This was often my me and my mind when trying to understand assessment as an undergraduate student.

I’m also blessed with my master’s program because the curriculum focuses on Assessment, Evaluation, and Research. Although the assignments and projects pushed me to learn about the assessment cycle and closing the loop, the one thing that stood out to me most is a quote from one of my faculty members, Dr. Nicole West, who would always say ‘assessment in Student Affairs isn’t going away.’ In this new era of Student Affairs of accountability, dwindling resources, and increased pressures of “Is higher education even worth it?”, I think her statement holds an immense amount of truth.

What’s the question that will define this era of SA assessment?

First, let me start with saying I do not personally know the history of SA assessment. I cannot give a first-hand account of how assessment has impacted the field and higher education in the last few decades, so I have to rely on other professionals and the writings that they create (Schuch, Biddix, Dean & Kinzie, 2016; Henning & Roberts, 2016). What I do know is that the question in SA assessment used to be ‘Is assessment even necessary?’ With this question came uphill battles with conversations about both accountability and improvement efforts. Both are necessary in the realm of assessment, but finding that balance can still be tricky. For myself (probably because Futuristic is in my top 5 strengths), I think about what the current question (or questions) for SA assessment will be and one that comes to mind is, “How do we ensure that all SA professionals have an equal understanding of assessment practices and principles?

How do we teach assessment?

Although assessment buy-in can still be a struggle in certain environments, the rationale of our work has been well thought out. Questions such as “Do we even need to do assessment?” have been replaced by questions such as “Who’s job is it to do assessment?” or “When do we do assessment?” Great resources exist in communicating what a baseline understanding of assessment looks like and these give us a common language for teaching and learning (ACPA/NASPA Competencies, Competencies Rubric).

Although these resources give us the What and Why, they do not give us the how in our assessment efforts. As a field in the profession, I think we are having discussions about what that looks like (SAAL’s Structured Conversation - Building Staff AER Competencies is a prime example of that. Video link.) But this conversation is still ongoing and ever evolving.

I think about our current situations as people and professionals in response to COVID-19 and its impacts on our campuses. Do all SA professionals know how to conduct online assessment efforts? How do SA professionals know about their students’ specific needs during this time? How do SA professionals learn about what others are doing to react to campus closures? Technology and baseline assessment competencies are essential during this time, but how do we teach professionals these skills?

Caption: Picture of an SAAL Structure Conversation. Resources such as these are great for understanding how to teach and learn important AER competencies.

Helping new professionals learn assessment

With my blog posts I think it is important to leave you all with concrete action steps on the topic. Regardless if you’re a new professional trying to learn more or a seasoned professional in charge of teaching others, the following tips can be used in the assessment learning process.

  1. Do some reading on the topic of assessment.
    • ​​​​​​How to learn: Depending on your preferences for reading, there are tons of options. Check out some of the texts referenced in this blog post, access SAAL’s Dropbox folder, or even ask other professionals what resources they might know about. Access SAAL’s Dropbox folder.
    • How to teach: Consider starting a collection of resources that you have found interesting or impactful in the area of assessment. Give access to this collection to peers or create a structured reading and reflection component with those you supervise.
  2. Check out some webinars.
    • How to learn: The 3 resources I have found super useful have come from SAAL, NASPA, and ACPA. SAAL hosts Structured Conversations with information given through the Listserv. Sign up here. NASPA Knowledge Communities and ACPA’s Commissions and Coalitions can frequently do webinars with various topics. ACPA’S Commission for Assessment and Evaluation. NASPA’s Assessment, Evaluation, and Research KC.
    • How to teach: Keep on the lookout for webinars in these areas. If you’re working with a specific professional, give them a heads up on webinars that you know about. There’s a good chance they aren’t on the same Listserv or don’t have access to the same people that you do. If you’re working with units, encourage them to engage with the content available from their specific functional professional groups.  
  3. Go through all the steps on a small assessment project.
    • How to learn: Find a professional to act as a guide or mentor through a small-scale assessment project. If you’re not able to find someone to guide you, check out SAAL’s Online Open Course. Access the course here.
    • How to teach: Offer yourself to guide professionals through the assessment process so they may gain confidence doing assessment on a small-scale. If you’re not able to devote time to this, consider referring professionals to resources or creating institution-specific resources for others to utilize.
  4. Be open to new experiences.
    • How to learn: Remember that you still have a lot to learn about Student Affairs assessment. Regardless if you’re wanting to just get some more tools under your belt or to become a prominent figure in SA assessment, try and cultivate an attitude of wanting to learn more. Find opportunities to be the “dumbest” person in the room so you can surround yourself with others to learn from.
    • How to teach: Remember that everyone is coming to assessment with different backgrounds (SA degree vs. non-SA degree, one functional area vs. multiple, different personal competencies, etc.). Patience is key in building a foundation of assessment competency. And don’t forget to have other professionals as peers! Conversations such as “This is hard for me too, I feel your frustration” can help us feel heard and understood.


  • Henning, G. W. & Roberts, D. (2016). Student affairs assessment: Theory to practice. Stylus Publishing: Sterling, VA.
  • Schuh, J. H., Biddix, J. P., Dean, L. A., & Kinzie, J. (2016). Assessment in student affairs. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, CA.

Aidan Williams, Missouri State University 

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