When Assessments Don’t Provide the Results You’re Looking For

When Assessments Don’t Provide the Results You’re Looking For

With the barriers many in Student Affairs face to create buy-in for the much-needed assessments, it can seem like an Olympic winning when others begin to see the importance of assessments and participate. But what happens when you are past the data collection phase and your results are not what you were looking for? Sometimes our hypotheses are incorrect, our best assumptions are wrong, and the experience we hoped students were having are far from their real experiences. Obtaining results that are not what we are looking for can feel like a step back, but they can be what propel positive change and enhances the quality of the Student Affairs.

The Truth is Still Good, even if it Hurts

Assessments can provide insight to deeply held beliefs or assumptions, regardless if they contradict what we believed. Whether the assessment is evaluating programmatic or student learning outcomes, perceptions of staff members, Grade Point Averages, or retention and graduation rates, all results can lead towards making changes and providing positive and supportive experiences for every student. It can sting when we discover that experiences are not reflective of what we are sharing to campus and community partners. However, when we receive surprising results from an assessment, we now have the tools for improvement and making meaningful experiences for students.

Finding the Silver Lining

Although a popular cheesy saying, find the silver lining in the data you do have. If the data revealed something you were not expecting, look within the information you have and determine how it can inform your current practices. Whether that is developing new initiatives, collaborating with others, or modifying current policies, there can be positive outcomes amid frustrating results. Remember, the data is telling us a story. A story of how student’s are experiencing this significant part of their development. A story of how they are seeing the world and the hurdles they face. While we cannot predict the stories of others, we must be prepared to hear a story that differs from ours, but the nonetheless, still holds meaning and truth. Assessments go beyond numbers and statistics; they reveal the voices of students who may go unheard.

Remaining Trustworthy

It can be tempting to reconfigure or manipulate data to show the results you are looking for. With that being said, sharing a false representation can lead to more trouble, a disruption in trust, and poor role modeling for the students that we work with every day. Do not risk your reputation and the reputation of the institution. Remember that all institutions have its strengths and areas of growth. It is how we address our areas of growth that sends a message to students. This can come up when programming data shows that a group of students who do not feel included or heard. It can be tempting to look at the majority of students who do feel valued and apart of the community, but I encourage you to strategize ways to work with and identify the needs of all student groups. Take this opportunity to be authentic and transparent. There is no need to sugarcoat as we strive to be the best institutions for the students, faculty, and staff that we engage with every day.

Making Change

Lastly, take the data you do have, and make a change. It can be easy to administer assessments and not do anything with the results. Change is difficult and often involves a lot of individuals, trial and error, and time. Although arduous, intentionally developing assessments with the goal of implementing change can bring in new perspectives and ideas. Not all change has to be a complete revamp of the program or department. Simple changes like more availability, consistent communication, and more intention behind programming and training can bring forth significant impact and positive change. Assessments can make sure that our choices are intentional and purposeful. Having results that are not what we were hoping for can propel us to provide the services and resources students need.  

Jillian M. Blueford, Graduate Assistant at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville

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Thank you, Jillian, for this blog. I agree with each of these strategies for following up on unexpected results. I would add one more: celebrate.

When I saw the title, I wanted to finish the sentence with "celebrate!" We celebrate the findings that fit our expectations. Those findings definitely deserve celebration, for they indicate that our hard work and focused intent paid off for our students: Yes! The participants DID have a higher grade point; Yes! The participants were less likely to commit another student code infraction. Yes! Students at high risk of attrition who completed Retention Intervention were more likely to continue to enroll than their counterparts who did not complete the intervention.

The unexpected findings about which you wrote here deserve equal celebration, for they can teach us better ways to serve our students (or perhaps, better ways to assess their engagement and outcomes). When we get results we did not expect, we can celebrate them as a learning opportunity for us. We are still human beings after all, and we make mistakes. Learning to pause, savor our mistakes, and learn from them deserves celebration.

So, here's to unexpected findings! Cheers!