During an assessment planning meeting with an office, as we started to dialogue on the multiple major take-aways that students interacting with their center would have, a distinct discordance started to emerge. While one colleague clearly enjoyed expounding on the broad theoretical ways that the office served students in the past, present, and future, another colleague evidenced antsy discomfort. This colleague, whose eyes were clearly glazing over, communicated that it was very difficult for them to think in such broad picture ways without specific activities to tie lofty aspirations to. Their preference would be to list all of the activities, programs, and initiatives that the center provided, then work through what students would take away from those activities and work up to what it means for the goals of the center overall. The first colleague communicated that going into such detail without a higher order idea to connect to felt wrong, and made them uncomfortable.
Does such dissonance between colleagues sound familiar to you? When colleagues clearly seem to prefer and engage in completely different information processing, how do we as assessment professionals manage such interactions and facilitate assessment harmony between colleagues? What understandings do team members need to have, and how do they arrive at that point?
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A Flash of Illumination
Talking with a colleague in my Student Affairs Division recently, I started sketching out for her my theory, based on observations, of how approaches to assessment planning sometimes reflect different thought processes altogether. I began to diagram out loud how mismatches between types of processing preferences can set the stage for clashes or stalled assessment planning processes if not mitigated. She mulled it over for a bit, then mused “That sounds a lot like personality.” My brain fireworks went off and I exclaimed, much to her amusement, “Yes! That’s exactly what it is, different assessment personalities!”
Many of us are familiar with taking some sort of personality profile or descriptive test. Perhaps such a test was taken during undergraduate years through a Career Center resource, more recently through a professional development opportunity, or just out of personal curiosity. There is a wide spectrum of such tools, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the CliftonStrengths assessment, and The True Colors® Personality Assessment being just three popular examples. These tools are connected by the theme of purporting to describe some part of you, with a focus on how one tends to take in and process information and how that potentially impacts your interactions with others.
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A Clear Path?
In consulting with centers, initial steps usually include sitting down, ideally with the whole team of staff, to discuss and detail the center’s purpose. The team starts by reflecting around two main questions, two connected parts of an essential inquiry related to the center’s mission or purpose. What is the center providing to the students it serves? What are students expected to take away from their many varied interactions with the center?
When starting the process, I usually refer colleagues to a model such as the Wiggins & McTighe’s (1998) backward design model, a favorite of mine. Framed specifically to be part of a teacher’s toolbox, it has always felt very applicable to the current theory-driven co-curricular programming and initiatives. To me it is a series of clear, sequential steps.
This model is referred to as backwards as it starts with the end in mind. You start first by articulating your goal, referring to larger, long-term, big picture changes expected. Next you move through to the kind of evidence that would be acceptable to indicate that such change or impact has occurred. Finally you detail the experiences, referring to the initiatives and activities your center plans that will deliver the results that you desire. This process, moving from “enduring understanding” or “linchpin” through to the smaller details or specific activities has always felt natural and intuitive to me.
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What I’ve found over time though is that there is subjectivity inherent in perceiving a model such as the backward design as being universally clear and user-friendly. It is akin to being right- or left-handed, and using the model for some can feel as unwieldy as trying to write with the non-dominant hand. Such a preference, I’ve found in practice, resembles personality preferences, connecting specifically to information processing preferences. In many ways it reminds me of the Sensing versus Intuition preferences described in the Myers-Briggs Personality Type inventory.
Writ minimally, Sensing or Intuition preferences refer to whether you are a big picture thinker or are detail oriented. Sensing refers to preferring to attend to details, to the practical, the current, and real. People with sensing preferences often learn best experientially, and experience matters more than the theoretical. Those with Intuition preferences favor internal processing to experiential learning. They tend to be more interested in possibilities and the future; more intrigued by theories and impressions than actual details or specific facts.
Overall, a personality preferences framework provides a fitting lens for putting assessment personality conflicts into perspective. Being able to recognize the potential forces at work in the room, that there may be disparate types of information processing preferences present, allows you as facilitator to be a more objective guide and to provide a set of useful steps to your colleagues. These action steps allow your colleagues to themselves take a step back, recognize their processing differences, and to see these differences as parts of a vehicle for collaboration.
But how do we facilitate such a shift in perspective?
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Recommended Action Steps to Facilitating Team Harmony and Forward Movement
No Right or Wrong Way; Instead, Consensus in Communication Processes
Similarly to negotiating difficult conversations a large part of preventing and assuaging such conflict is acknowledging that colleagues’ different takes on assessment planning and how different approaches feel to them is valid. Feeling that there is a “right” or “wrong” way to approach an assessment planning process can be demoralizing and stop a center’s excitement about telling the story of their work with data right in its tracks! A first and considerable part of moving toward a comprehensive plan together is awareness and communication that part of the assessment planning process is subjective and that there is more than one way forward.
Educating on Assessment Approaches/Models
Another essential step to help colleagues connect across their differing assessment personalities is professional development and education on different assessment planning models, validating the message that there is no one path to assessment done well. While there are essential components inside of an assessment plan, the parts themselves are movable, or can be articulated in different arrangements. Building capacity through educating on assessment planning models gives center staff a common language to use in their discussions. It allows colleagues to name and look more into models that they feel “fit” them, and gives colleagues a powerful way to discuss and find overlaps between their preferred models.
For example, the more theoretical colleague might feel instant connection with a backward design framework. The more detail-oriented colleague who prefers to start with activities first might instead prefer the approach and visual of a traditional logic model. What if we pulled out components and matched them with the colleagues to whom that step was most intuitive, letting individuals start at preferred points, then coming together to discuss as a team with the parts already articulated to some degree? For example, we could pull out center goal/impact/“Why?” and desired results/outcomes for the big picture thinker, and experiences/activities/objectives for the detail oriented thinker, then come together to determine acceptable evidence/output and connect the pieces. What if we turned the logic model around or used a “reverse” logic model to show how it presents if we start with the outcomes first, and that it can even be a way to structure a backward design plan? Sometimes just the awareness of different information processing preferences and different assessment planning approaches can stave off conflict and allowing for convivial and productive team dialogue.
Highlighting the Hidden Value of Different Assessment Personalities through Reframing
Part of a harmonious and effective planning process is laying out potential frameworks or processes, and giving staff language to express any differences that they may notice. This is part of a sweeping reframing effort recommended when managing different assessment personalities, and is the sustenance for a positive assessment planning process.
For example, rather than using words such as “clashes” or “mismatched preferences” even, it is illuminating to frame such preferences as the wealth and range of skill sets that they are. Having a team with different assessment personalities is akin to having a larger toolbox with a wider selection of tools. Just as teams with different personality preferences can be stronger and more balanced than a group of all similarly thinking people, a group with colleagues of different assessment preferences can be more powerful and effective as well. A wider range of perspectives and viewpoints informs plans drafted and decisions made. Big picture colleagues can be encouraged to consider more down-to-earth, practical matters by their more detail-oriented team-members, and the latter can be encouraged include more theoretical, aspirational items by the former. Instead of working sequentially, a team with differing skill sets can approach assessment planning as a set of simultaneous actions, likely increasing productivity and efficiency. The differences themselves provide value.
Have you seen different information processing approaches in practice with colleagues? How do you help colleagues recognize and reconcile their assessment personalities?
- Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (1998). What is backward design? In Understanding by Design. (1 ed., pp. 7–19). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall. Retrieved March 21, 2019 from https://educationaltechnology.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/backward-design.pdf
- Stone, D., Patton, B., & Heen, S. (2000). Difficult conversations: How to discuss what matters most. New York, N.Y: Penguin Books.
- W.K. Kellogg Foundation. (2004). Using logic models to bring together planning, evaluation, and action: Logic model development guide. Retrieved March 21, 2019 from https://www.wkkf.org/resource-directory/resource/2006/02/wk-kellogg-foundation-logic-model-development-guide
Eulena Jonsson, Duke University