It's Critical to Assess Social Justice Programs

It's Critical to Assess Social Justice Programs

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As institutions engage their communities with social justice and antiracism initiatives in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other people in Black and Brown communities, it will be critical to assess the educational impact of these efforts on our students. It may be tempting for institutions to focus their energy in creating and facilitating social justice programs to be responsive to the needs of our students and calls for immediate action. To make best use of that labor, it is equally important to assess student learning to measure the impact of our efforts, learn how we can improve our workshops and programs, and integrate these initiatives into the broader portfolio of co-curricular offerings because they are valued components of the campus experience.

Assessing social justice programs can be tricky for multiple reasons. In some cases, social justice outcomes may seem hard to define in concrete and measurable terms. For example, a common goal of social justice programs is to develop students’ critical consciousness, yet it may be difficult for staff to agree upon what the term means, much less what it looks like when measured. In other cases, the educational goal may be to simply promote any amount of growth among students, creating challenges for measuring growth that requires insight into a students’ positionality, starting point, and ending point. In both cases, these challenges are magnified if we craft and implement our programs in response to timely events or urgent campus needs while we also attend to our regular responsibilities and provide care for our students at the same time.

Knowing assessment of social justice programs can be challenging and intimidating, I partnered with my colleague, Roger Moreano, to publish a practitioner’s guide to support higher education professionals in this work. Passionate about making assessment of social justice programs a little easier for all, I am more than happy to share from our book  these three steps to incorporate into your program design process:

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Identify the most important learning goals

It is common for educators to feel pressure to create social justice programs that attempt to teach everything all at once. This pressure comes from the fact that there is so much social justice content to cover and the content areas are interconnected. For example, teaching privilege may seem simple; however, teaching privilege in the abstract will be different than when taught relative to specific social identity groups including White privilege, Male privilege, Cisgender privilege, and so on. It can also be difficult to teach students about privilege without also addressing oppression in the abstract, oppression related to specific social identity groups, the link between historical oppression and contemporary oppression, and so on.

These same challenges related to designing programs directly translate into challenges when assessing programs. Therefore, it is critical to give yourself permission to prioritize the most critical learning goals for your program and make those explicit. Being selective not only makes it easier to assess your program but makes it easier to develop a cohesive educational experience that benefits student learning.

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Transform your learning goals into learning outcomes

Prioritizing your learning goals is essential, but it is even better if you transform them into concrete learning outcome statements. While learning goals prioritize the content of student learning, learning outcomes turn that content into specific and measurable statements that will make assessing your programs even easier. Peggy Maki (2010) provides numerous best practices for writing learning outcome statements, with a few being particularly critical for social justice programs. Having clear and concise language that makes evident what we will observe and how it will be measured is essential.

Social justice content can sometimes be broad because of how encompassing our terms are, as well as because of how this content looks different related to specific social identity groups. Therefore, we must be cautious when using language and terminology that may be ambiguous or leaves too much room for interpretation. For example, one time I was asked to provide feedback on a multicultural department’s learning outcomes that stated students would “make meaning of their social identities.” However, when I asked the department staff members to describe what that meant, each person came up with a different answer. When transforming social justice learning goals into learning outcomes, it is helpful to consider the key aspects of the concept you wish to measure and what that looks like in the context of one or more specific social identity experiences.

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Develop the tools to collect and analyze your data

It can feel easier to think about assessment after you have designed your social justice program. However, developing your data collection and analysis tools at the same time you are designing the program is ideal. Doing so increases the congruence between your program and your assessment because you are thinking about them together. It also provides opportunities to consider embedding your assessment into the program itself.

As an example, you might decide you can incorporate a short writing prompt that fits on an index card near the end of the program to collect qualitative evidence of students’ knowledge of privilege, and then design a rubric tied to the ways you plan to teach privilege during the program. Or, perhaps you incorporate a survey students can complete on their cell phones to capture students’ knowledge of privilege at the start of the program and then again at the end of the program to measure growth. Waiting until later to design your assessment tools may limit innovative ways to embed assessment in the program and runs the risk of measuring what you think students learned versus what you intended students to learn.

While there is plenty more to consider when going about planning social justice programming, as well as intentional assessment, these three steps can help set you up for future success. If you take some extra time to integrate these steps into the program design process, it will make your life that much easier when assessing your program. Even though we normally assess student learning at the end of a program, we should always be thinking about assessment at the start of the program design process. This is both good assessment practice and critical to support the continued growth of social justice programs on campus.

Feel free to comment below if you see potential in using these tips. If you’ve done similar work, please share any lessons learned or additional advice to help your colleagues.


  • Maki, P. (2010). Assessing for learning: Building a sustainable commitment across the institution. Stylus.
  • Tharp, D. S., & Moreano, R. A. (2020). Doing social justice education: A practitioner's guide for workshops and structured conversations. Stylus.

Scott Tharp, DePaul University 

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