Cultivating Curiosity to Build Assessment Culture

Cultivating Curiosity to Build Assessment Culture


Simon Sinek is known for his philosophy of starting with why. When writing this post, we thought through our why. Why do we do assessment work? What makes us tick in this field? How do we help others engage with assessment practice in meaningful ways, even in the face of limited resources and sometimes, fear? Here’s how we responded.

“Why assessment? Kind of a niche career path, right? What is it about assessment that makes you tick? What I appreciate most about assessment is the level of intentionality and impact that it brings to our work; maintaining an assessment-centered mindset pushes me to think more critically, engage stakeholders more effectively, and sustain greater accountability to the work being done on my campus. That’s what makes me tick.”

“Why assessment? Assessment is about asking good questions, getting curious, and representing the impact that SA pros have on students. In a lot of ways, my toddler is my best teacher. He is in the “why, mama?” phase for everything. “What is it mama?” “It’s an orange, baby.” “Why, mama?” ...He has the ultimate gift of curiosity. Assessment allows me to be curious, to have the same data set and just keep asking questions. But the best part about assessment, is that when we ask the right questions we have two options with the answers. One, we find a way to be better. Two, we have a reason to celebrate our impact and one another. For me, that’s why assessment.”  

For others, assessment isn’t a tick of inquiry, a tick of enthusiasm to solve problems or puzzles, or a tick to learn more and dig deeper. No, for some staff, assessment is the eye-twitching tick of the clock as it slogs on while they begrudgingly check the box next to “assessment report” while thinking about the 625 other things they have on their task list. Or, it’s a tick of declining dollar signs, constricting budgets, and diminishing resources. How do we knock that tick in the other direction to build an assessment culture with a shared sense of curiosity in the midsts of environmental challenges? How do we cultivate curiosity?

Drawing from concepts in Sanford’s Challenge and Support Theory (1966), how do you ask the right questions, the hard questions, to speak to the right motivations and help staff grow their assessment practice to the next level? How do you balance challenge and support within your relationships to ignite a sense of curiosity in others? Here are strategies we have found to be successful when working with SA pros to cultivate curiosity and build a culture of evidence.

Make it personal & Ask for their why. What we have found most surprising about sustaining a culture of assessment, is the critical importance of interpersonal connections. Assessment strategy isn’t a one-size fits all approach.

Envision yourself as a ninja of interpersonal dynamics focused on cultivating curiosity. Why do you do this work every day? What impact do you feel your work has? What drives you? What does your vision of your best team or office look like? Where are you currently compared to that office, and how can we work together to leverage the data you have around your work to move you closer to your vision?

Keep conversation open and ongoing so that the dialogue can continue in an open and trusting way. As an assessment coach, sometimes you have the opportunity to champion the successes and sometimes you are their to instigate and challenge others to know better, do better (as Maya Angelou would say). Assessment often sheds light on areas where programs or services are achieving great success, and other times, where we could do better. When working one on one with others to review unpleasant data, foster a “judgement free” assessment zone. You are not there to critique or criticize - instead, route any defensiveness or energy into action planning for improvement. Asking questions like, “is this the result you were expecting? What were you hoping for? How do you think you can get that result when we ask students for the next round of feedback?”

Stay objective. You are not the data, but you might be the messenger. Leverage tools like SWOT analysis regularly, to keep the conversation focused on a balance of points of success and points of improvement. Use frameworks like the Council for the Advancement of Standards action plan to keep the conversation focused on our agency to act on data and improve.Leaning on frameworks like these protects your relationships and points to the data from a distance.  

Speak and show your vision for assessment practice. Show others where they can go with their data. Producing and sharing outcomes-based reports, dashboards, graphics, key performance indicators, etc. helps paint the picture of the data. Sharing these reports or dashboards at staff meetings, divisional retreats, leadership meetings, via email gets the data out there and seen. On two separate occasions, when sharing data in a visually appealing format at a staff meeting, it has been pivotal to advancing a culture of evidence and cultivating curiosity. Staff have all kinds of questions like, “Why is this unit represented but not this other unit? How did you get this number? Can you send this to me so I can share it with my staff?” Another outcome of sharing this data with a large group is the development of a layer of peer influence and pressure. Use your storytelling skills and communication strategies to bring the data to life for staff and faculty, but more importantly for students and parents. Make it visual, make it meaningful, make it speak to the core of not just why our work matters, but how our work matters.   

Create wins by starting with what you have. If you have an annual or mid-year reporting process in place, do something with that data. Play a trivia night style game, put people in teams, engage them in the data by making them guess the results Family Feud style. Anything to get people interacting with and talking about the information. This also builds collegiality across units, shares successes, and fosters trust in you as the assessment pro, because the data did not fall into a black hole, and you shared people’s wins.

Build trust, mitigating fear. Listen. Validate a fear of the unknown. Provide support. For some, assessment is just scary and they have a fear of reduced resources or negative consequences in light of “bad data”. Try to foster a culture where there is not bad data, just actionable data. Data that we can take the sage advice of Maya Angelou and know better, do better.

Cultivating curiosity in a climate of limited resources (time, money, technical knowledge) is challenging. It only takes one small win to move the needle and help people get curious about the impact of their work. What tips or tricks to you have for moving the tick in a more positive direction, or cultivating curiosity to build a culture of evidence? How do you navigate the availability of resources to still move your assessment culture forward? Share your strategies in the comments! We would love to learn from you.

Whitney Brown, University of Alaska Anchorage
Ciji Heiser, Western Michigan University


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