3 Ways to Encourage an Assessment Cycle-Strategic Plan Love Match

3 Ways to Encourage an Assessment Cycle-Strategic Plan Love Match

In my role as an assessment expert and consultant in higher education, I have definitely experienced both professional highlights and nadirs. 

These peaks, or the part of my work that I’ve found I enjoy the most, tend to occur when my colleagues and I are having a discussion first rooted in their assessment plan.  The focus will be a specific piece of data information and the best way to capture it, but then they start thinking beyond that smaller element, to what it means for their center or office.  That’s when, in my eyes, gold sparkles light up the space around them as they begin to dream out loud.  They start to become excited, with sentences bubbling out that include “and then we can…,” “and that would lead to…!” as they picture how the data they plan to collect would move students’ development forward in a certain way and how that would ultimately nurture their center’s growth.

Granted, my colleagues do not always seem over-enthused about data and its implications.  Such sparkly situations do not often occur, but when they do materialize, I jump up and down internally (and sometimes in reality), declaring to myself “Yes! This is why I’m in this field!”

Facilitating Strategic and Assessment Plan Interaction, a.k.a. “Let’s Get it On!”

I’ve pondered these pinnacles in hopes of increasing their number.  What are the characteristics of discussion that lead to these moments? Are such moments energizing and valuable for my colleagues as well? How can I, in my role of sounding board, orient and encourage more people toward strategic thinking?

Much of our building capacity focuses on assessment cycles, and for good reason, as they assist our colleagues in communicating a rich narrative of the amazing work they carry out to support students, staff, and faculty.  Strategic plans, however, can come to be seen as effortful documents without much practical purpose. Often, they can be written or directed at the request of the division, written at that level (detached from area), filled with jargon, and seemingly not impacting day-to-day work. Once constructed, strategic plans and assessment plans can become confounded, decreasing the efficiency of both.

How do we connect and implement the plans optimally, while respecting and acknowledging the agency of both?

Illustrated below is what I see as the ideal for connection between an assessment cycle and strategic planning.

Image by Eulena Jonsson; excerpted from resource manual Tips for Student Affairs Assessment Life, Part 1 of 3

How do we reach this point, and furthermore, what is the value in doing so? To create such a connection — and in essence make a love-match of strategic and assessment plans — clarity, awareness, and (some) effort are necessary.

Step 1: Clarity; Know the Plans

I am positing that assessment cycles and strategic plans enhance each other and function more ideally together that they do apart.  When I say this I am referring to cycles and strategic plans at the unit level, optimizing a unit’s efforts.  Such cycles and plans are informed by cycles and plans at the Division and institutional level but my focus is on the unit-level.

First, let’s characterize the two.  This is how I would summarize what they each entail:

A strategic plan is essential to effective, proactive, organizational functioning.  It focuses on and frames the overall direction and growth of your center

It is a higher-level, guiding document, written in terms of where you would like your office to be in a defined time period. It includes your plan to get there and concrete evidence of success.  It answers questions such as:

An assessment plan focuses on and frames the impact of programs, initiatives, and interactions on students’ experience and development, providing content and context for decisions made. 

Your assessment plan articulates your cycle for gaining evidence of your programs’/ initiatives’/ interactions’ effect on students and other recipients. Questions it answers includes:

  • What is your ideal dream/vision/ aspiration for what you would like your area to be?
  • Where is your area currently in terms of reaching that vision?
    • What are the strengths/ weaknesses/ opportunities/ threats for your area?
  • What ideally would the steps be to reaching your vision?
    • What can you realistically attain?
    • How are these planned steps prioritized?
    • What interactions (encompassing activities/programs/initiatives and more) are needed to carry out the steps?
  • What does success look like at the end of the time period?
    • What does success look like, in terms of your strategy, for each step?
  • How does your vision connect to higher-level priorities?
  • Who are you interacting with in various ways?
    • Are there gaps in who you are reaching?
    • What are your stakeholders’ needs?
  • What do participants get out of their various interactions with you?
    • What are students’ take-aways or outcomes?
    • What have they learned?
    • What new skills have they picked up?
    • How have their attitudes or perceptions changed?
    • How have you facilitated their development in various ways?
    • Have the resources you’ve provided met students’ needs?
    • What information is most valuable to you?
  • How do you match/measure up to standards?
    • Your own?
    • External?
  • How does your work connect to higher-level outcomes?

Step 2: Awareness: Know the Plans’ Roles

Ultimately at the most basic level the purpose of assessment cycles and strategic plans is quite different.  The purpose of a strategic plan is to drive or maintain the growth of your unit, to essentially set and track priorities, while the assessment cycle’s purpose is to describe student experiences with and the impact of unit programs, initiatives, and interactions.  The plans may overlap in some ways, for example where data collected may serve dual purposes, as evidence of impact linked to a student learning outcome, or as a success indicator linked to a strategic goal. Even though the data may be the same, the inferences would be constructed using different bases and material, as the context and intent would be distinct.

As in any potential relationship, the characters bring strengths and weaknesses with them into the match, some similar and some disparate.  Being aware of these characteristics and how they best can complement and support the other is crucial to compatibility and a successful pairing.  Understanding the roles of the two plans, the very nature of the plans, is key to identifying the value of initiating and maintaining contact points.

The strategic plan serves as an anchor, location pin, and GPS, all bundled together.  Its strength lies in providing stability in the strategic plan-assessment plan relationship with calming confidence about what is possible.  It gives perspective and context, allowing us to situate ourselves in terms of where we’ve been and where we want to go.  It’s that encouraging voice that cuts through the noise and says “You’ve got this!  I see and champion you in your aspirations and will help you to get there.”   It’s the retirement planner, the future-focused one in the integrated planning relationship.  Assessment planning can occur without it, but it would be a dream-less and direction-less version.

blue boat on body of water

The assessment plan is the present-focused partner.  It is a doer, akin to the partner running around getting things done.  It is cooking dinner, paying bills, getting the washing machine fixed, making sure field trip permission slips get filled out.  It needs help looking beyond these ongoing tasks however; assessment can get distracted from reflection or bigger-picture thinking as there’s always something that can be done.  It can get buried in the now without a partner (like strategy!) to help it dream and reflect on what the tasks all ultimately contribute to and why they matter.

While there is still work to do around affirming and demonstrating the value of comprehensive, well-written assessment plans, I’d argue that they tend to be the norm these days rather than an anomaly. The real challenge that has emerged in the wake of this progress is for our colleagues to be able to answer the “So what?” questions, and unit-level strategic plans can help with this. 

For example, one of the centers I support has set strategic goals for the year, the priorities it will focus on, one of which is increasing student employee roles and responsibilities for the center, ultimately incorporating them more into the fabric of the center and of Student Affairs itself.  One initiative then is crafting the experience for student employees over the year, including competencies, learning outcomes, training, and tasks.  The assessment plan for this initiative connects up to higher level outcomes including student leadership as do other center initiatives, and the student employee data that is collected over the year will be reflected on to see if expected outcomes have been realized and how specifically students' experience can be improved for the next iteration.  This is a good assessment process at work, and provides great information for the work the center does.  What a connection to the unit’s documented strategic goals does is amplify such an assessment cycle.  The assessment cycle shows how the work being done by the center potentially impacts stakeholders, here student employees, and why such is important, as in theory it will lead to students’ increase in leadership competencies.  The strategic plan adds to this by positioning this initiative in the shaping of the center itself, reminding staff always where this assessment cycle plugs into higher level priorities, and providing a channel for assessment cycles to  connect upwards to Divisional and institutional priorities on campus.  It is the assessment plan’s faithful foundation.

Step 3: Effort: Relationships Take Work (but it should be a labor of love!)

I do not want to discount understandable reluctance at the idea of putting time and people resources into the creation of yet another document.  Not only might it sound like more work and potentially overwhelming, but also especially if there have been negative, even traumatic, strategic planning experiences in the past, having both documented and connected can sound less like a love-match than a nightmare.

The Pay-off is Worth It: Drafting comprehensive, context-driven assessment cycles and realistic, past- and future- focused strategic plans does take up staff time set aside for pro-active thought-work. However, the ability to clearly describe how the unit’s work is experienced by students and its impact, and how this impact pushes forward the center’s priorities and moves the center forward toward its vision on campus and connect upwards not only to overall Division outcomes but also to Division priorities — communicating this both internally among unit staff and beyond to other campus partners — is invaluable.  I believe this time pays off exponentially on the back end, especially not having to scramble to pull together robust narratives, and with the team feeling of the work being connected to known purpose and priorities.

Moving Past The Strategic Plan Ex-Partners: If you’ve had negative experiences with a strategic plan in the past, it’s best to treat it like a toxic/“bad” ex-partner.  Just as exes can be toxic and you’re best to be rid of them, the same can be said for some strategic plans.  In order to connect effectively and usefully, the strategic plans must themselves be structurally healthy.  Quality rather than quantity is the criteria of a “good” strategic plan. As such, plans should be built on essential priorities that are driven by context (including data), operationally defined to the point where specific action steps can be constructed, and possess identified key success indicators. Reframing strategic plans as priorities which are defined, tracked, and reflected on may alleviate some of the fear of future assessment cycle-strategic plan matches.

Additionally, as in any relationship, communication is extremely important.  In the case of strategic and assessment planning, communication refers to sharing about the plans themselves.  Ideally for a unit, the unit team would have been involved to some extent in the creation of the strategic plan, as well as the assessment plans.  One way to enhance the feeling of being a true team working together toward a shared dream is by making sure that each team member knows and is on board with the unit’s strategic plan and how this plan is driving their programs, initiatives, and interactions with stakeholders.  Such an approach also enhances the accountability that the team as a whole feels to reaching the ideal.

Does the idea of a unit-level assessment cycle-strategic plan love-match resonate with you?  How would you describe the relationship between strategic and assessment plans in your Division?  Are your strategic and assessment plans completely unaware of each other, flirting, in a committed relationship, or contentious exes?  Perhaps they are just the best of friends?

Eulena Jonsson, Duke University

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