A Decade of Discussion: Themes from the SAAL Listserv (2009 – 2018)

A Decade of Discussion: Themes from the SAAL Listserv (2009 – 2018)


The Student Affairs Assessment Leaders (SAAL) Listserv officially began with its first posted message on January 12, 2009. Since then, the Listserv has become a place for student affairs assessment professionals to learn about and to understand their role as it developed, to discuss emergent ideas and trends in the field, and to share job opportunities.


The Listserv initially included 73 assessment professionals working in various roles. Some professionals worked full-time job in assessment, while the majority of members worked in other positions whose responsibilities featured or included some assessment tasks. Today, the Listserv includes over 1,000 members who have participated in over 2,900 conversations.


Posts to the Listserv act as a time capsule of sorts, showcasing how student affairs assessment has evolved in the last decade. Reading the archived messages reveals how a few full-time professionals with small (if any) office staff, limited direction, and insufficient resources developed and continue to advance. Curious to trace the development of this emergent and evolving field, we reviewed the Listserv archives. In this blog post, we present a summary of our findings, generated by analyzing posts from each year that had five or more responses.

By the Numbers

The subsequent table shows a descriptive summary.


Posts with 5+ Responses






















Our review suggested major trends in the development of the profession. Following is an overview of the content from posts with 5+ responses, with specific thread titles from posts denoted by italics.


Stanislav Kondratiev via Unsplash

Development of the Field, Functions, and Tools (2009-2010)

Discussion in 2009 involved the process of developing an assessment office and centralizing functions. Robust conversations included assessment team roles and responsibilities, developing research protocols, managing data requests for outside research, and the benefits to incentives in assessment. Discussion in 2010 also included topics focused on the development of assessment offices. The most thorough conversations included strategic planning, director salaries, and assessment plan examples. However, a subset of conversations centered around assessing specific initiatives such as campus climate surveys and methodological conversations including surveying pre-college factors, and using Twitter in assessment. While these conversations were as prevalent as office development, they suggest that practitioners were beginning to consider data collection and methodological questions. Discussions in these early years paralleled larger conversations in higher education about assessment in student affairs. Although assessment was not a new function for practitioners, emphasis on the role as a separate field was emerging.


The Roaming Platypus via Unsplash

Expanding the Scope and Refining Methods (2011-2012)

Conversations in both 2011 and 2012 showed assessment in student affairs was continuing to evolve and expand in terms of scope; specifically, discussion extended to what assessment entailed and what could be assessed. Prevalent conversations centered around non-cognitive assessments, assessing a students of concern committee, and assessing campus recreation and intramurals. Data collection tools and recommendations for software and hardware gained prominence during this time, as well. The most robust and continuing conversation involved card swipe tracking system. Additional methodology-focused conversations included developing a social media survey instrument and qualitative software for assessment, and focus groups for veterans.

William White via Unsplash

Diversity of Functions, Growth of Field (2013-2014)

The 2013 to 2014 years were among the most active on the Listserv and facilitated a diverse range of conversations. Prevalent discussions focused on specific sections of student affairs included assessing living-learning communities and assessing campus police departments. Conversations also reflected the increased awareness of social justice in student affairs. High reply social justice-related posts included assessment/research terminology and inclusive language, campus climate survey for diversity, approaches to asking about gender on surveys, and assessing self-efficacy of student employees in working with diverse others.

An expansion of data collection and analysis considerations is also notable. For example, there were robust replies to conversations on communicating with students: Twitter, big data analytics in student affairs, and informed consent for card swiping/tracking student participation. Parallel conversations during this time, such as acceptable responses rates and preventing survey/assessment fatigue, suggest a focus on identifying new ways to collect data.


Louis Maniquet via Unsplash

Assessing Environments and Outcomes, Methodology, Career Development (2015-2016)

The 2015 and 2016 years exhibited a depth in the level of individual topics, with some discussions revisited several times. Campus climate surveys reflect a continued interest in understanding how the college environment affects students. Additional threads about outcomes and assessment for conduct process, campus climate surveys re: sexual assault, and sense of community and sense of belonging scales further demonstrate this emphasis.

Writing, using, and teaching about learning outcomes gained prevalence, reflective of a shift in the field of assessment from transactional and attitudes/values/beliefs metrics to understanding what and how students learn through their interactions with student affairs. Rubrics were also an important topic, occupying several different discussions for a total of 20 posts. Continued expansion of methodological considerations was a prominent theme as well, with discussions about the integrating qualitative data collection.

The continued increase in assessment office scope and functional responsibility is reflected in multiple posts. Personnel discussions shifted from assessment office staffing, extending resources to others through colleges/universities with an assessment champion (decentralized structure). Conversations about professional development and training (assessment-related professional development, assessment skills) also emerged along with career-based discussions (other duties as assigned - your story wanted!, career question about assessment positions, what would YOU recommend for someone in a new leading assessment role?).


Nick Morrison via Unsplash

From Learning to Teaching, Data Reporting (2017-2018)

The past two years of discussion have extended conversation about the reach and educational functions assessment professionals offer including professional development/capacity (assessment retreats), statistics/research methods course, survey design workshop templates, practical student affairs projects in graduate courses, goal writing worksheet, and logic models. While posts solicited advice for training and professional development, a key difference was the emergence of advice for teaching or finding help for others about assessment. This trend suggests a shift from learning about assessment foundations as part of professional development to a teaching function as a job responsibility.

During this time, data collection was the subject of multiple discussions. Topics largely focused on data reporting (student success dashboard, using Tableau in SA, student affairs annual reports, student organization categories and reporting, assessment report samples, division-dashboards, infographic software/platforms, and templates for assessment and communication division wide). In 2018, three specific requests for help/advice were prominent: evaluation of welcome week programs, health promotion assessment, and recommendations for a list of student engagement platforms.



This small data project grew from an interest in learning how the field of assessment evolved in the past decade, as reflected in practitioner discussions. We were interested in what professionals from the field were talking about, how those conversations reflected current events in higher education, and how those conversations evolved as the field grew. Taking a broader view, we would suggest 1) professionalization of student affairs assessment and 2) advancement of data collection, use, and reporting as the two major trends over the last decade.


Absolut Vision via Unsplash


Has your work experience mirrored or differed from these conversations? Do you see different major trends? What are your predictions for prominent topics this year or beyond? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


J. Patrick Biddix and Gresham D. Collom, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville

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