Singing in Harmony: Assessment as a Connective Tool

Singing in Harmony: Assessment as a Connective Tool

Choral music has been a part of my life since I was a child.  I have nostalgic, fun-speckled memories of being part of the children’s church choir, with an emphasis on volume versus quality, and can recall my excitement at being part of a comedic Gilbert and Sullivan musical as a university undergraduate.  At the university where I work I’ve been a member of the Chapel choir, singing Messiah at December holiday concerts and in more recent years I’ve joined and continue to sing in a 100-plus person secular community choir. 

Photo by David Beale on Unsplash;

It is not always convenient or easy to commit the time outside of work and other personal responsibilities for choir rehearsals and independent practice.  However, the feeling of being together with others in the choir is euphoric: blending together with my fellow altos; threading through and intermingling with the sopranos, tenors, and basses; following the conductor’s cues; and feeling the beat and vibration of the music.

Above all, nothing compares to the feel of togetherness that comes from learning, refining, and sharing the piece of music and ourselves, as a group, then presenting it to an audience and seeing their reactions.  External sharing and synchronicity even has a biological aspect, where choir members’ heart rates fall into a shared rhythm guided by the song's tempo [1].  Music becomes, in effect, a tool that allows choir members to connect with each other not only abstractly, but also on a physical level.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash;

At first, my identity as a choir member seemed distant from that of an assessment professional, where I viewed choir as a separate, unentangled facet of who I am, not to mention a soothing and fun outlet for relaxation.  We recently recruited a new choir director and, as a group, have been reflecting on who we are as a choir, what choir members receive or hope to from their involvement, and what our director’s vision is for the future of the choir.  I’ve come to see many ways in which my choir identity parallels my identity as an assessment professional.  Ultimately, the goal is to collaborate to narrate for an audience a story that you hope will have impact, either with music and feelings or with data and decisions. 

Impact of Growth on Assessment

As the field of Student Affairs has evolved over time, it has also expanded with centers that historically were one or two-person shops bulking up and even splitting into needed off-shoots, necessarily leading to increased staff numbers.  To get some idea of the scale of growth, since its founding in 1919 as the “Conference of Deans and Advisers of Men”, Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education (NASPA) represented more than eleven thousand members at more than 1,400 colleges and universities in 2012 [2] and, present-day, reports 15,000 individuals at 2,100 institutions [3].  American College Personnel Association (ACPA), founded in 1924, has currently 7,500 members representing 1,200 private and public institutions in the US and globally [4]. 

A greater abundance of staff, paired with ever-present siloing, has meant that distancing can and does occur between Student Affairs departments. Ideally, communication, collaboration, and assessment themselves are plaited together, nurturing each other to establish and maintain a well-functioning, data-driven organization.  The “silo mentality”, however [5], can be a barrier to assessment, impeding the communication and collaboration that nurtures assessment processes. 

Photo by Tanya Tulupenko on Unsplash;

Assessment as a Tool

What resonates with me is the way in which assessment itself can be used to bridge silos and to allow centers in Student Affairs to connect with each other and with other offices and departments on campus e.g. with Academic Affairs.  This approach views assessment through multiple lenses: as an active tool for facilitating collaboration and connections, in addition to a passive valued end result of collaboration.

When thinking of assessment as a way to facilitate connections and build bridges across silos, we are thinking of it in its entirety, a comprehensive definition that allows it increased operation and significance.  Instead of thinking of assessment as being made up of solely one method or purpose [6], we’re thinking of assessment in its totality.  The image below is inspired by “Creating an Assessment Plan” tools from the Student Life Assessment Office at the University of Iowa [7] and illustrates subsets of data contained in a robust description of assessment.

[8] “What story are you telling with the data you collect?”

Hackman (2012) elaborated on six “enabling conditions” that foster true group effectiveness and what I’d call connectedness [9].  These include having a “real team,” the “right people,” “clear norms of conduct,” “supportive organizational context,” “team‐focused coaching.” My favorite condition, and the one where we tend to have most agency, is called “compelling purpose.”  According to Hackman, “a compelling purpose energizes team members, orients them toward their collective objective, and fully engages their talents.”  I believe that when departments and centers engage in assessment, seeking and drawing inferences to answer questions such as those presented in the above diagram, it allows them to find their “compelling purpose.”  This is akin to the classic notion of the “superordinate goal” [10].

A Purposeful Connection

The key to assessment as an effective tool is alignment to center, division, and overall campus priorities and goals.  Articulating how your own center or office answers questions about usage, student needs, student identity development, and student experiences with campus culture, and connecting those to unit, division, or university goals allows overlaps to be heard.  These are the cornerstones for connection, linked to Hackman’s “compelling purpose”.  Collaborating on data collection for overlapping questions of interest and data needs naturally follows.  Malenfant and Brown (2017) state it wonderfully, “When an assessment project aligns with campus priorities, the focus is no longer isolated on the needs or issues faced by one unit or department. Everyone is working toward common goals and priorities, thereby breaking down silos and insular perspectives.” [11]

These overarching goals and priorities serve in a similar capacity to a choral director.  Can work continue and can data for assessment purposes be gathered in the absence of goals and priorities? Yes, but activity has more opportunity to suffer.  When a choir is without a director, there is no common tempo, no signals to know how and when to articulate, enunciate, and change tone; all the details that keep the choir singing together and color the music to be more than just notes on a page are missing.  A competent choral director transforms a potential cacophony into beautiful soaring harmony. That potential exists, too, in well-set and communicated goals and priorities to which assessment processes can be attached.  The tunes or specific center goals and data results may be different, but an assessment tool, using overall goals as part of sound assessment practices, allows the centers to intersect, intertwine, and connect elegantly.

Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash;

My unit has recently been giving a lot of thought to ways of connecting efforts, making alignment a priority initiative in process.  As colleagues’ assessment capacity increases, the questions revolve less around the “how” and more around the “why.”  There is a palpable yearning to show how the department-level story is incorporated into the larger stories of the unit and the division, and to hear an overall narrative.  One way we are currently changing our approach in my unit is using our annual reports and the assessment components they contain as tools for connection.  Annual reports tend to be departmental chronicles of accomplishments and challenges over the year. They are a means of communication to multiple stakeholders about the work done, reflection moving forward, and a way to preserve institutional history. 

The overarching questions my departments want to answer are about the campus culture/environment for students.  Each department has data drawn from their students of interest but students’ experience on campus overall is the melody we want to weave around.  By using a common template with integrated data findings and impact prompts, each department can carry the tune for a bit, and layering aspects of students’ experience, pulled from the data, reflects a cohesive harmonic whole that is of value to all. 

Does using assessment to find a “compelling purpose” and sing harmoniously resonate?  How do you see assessment being used as a tool for connecting in your Division? Feel free to comment and respond below.


  1. Haensch, A. (2013, July 10). When Choirs Sing, Many Hearts Beat As One.  Retrieved from: 
  2. Long, D. (2012). The foundations of student affairs: A guide to the profession. In L. J. Hinchliffe & M. A. Wong (Eds.), Environments for student growth and development: Librarians and student affairs in collaboration (pp. 1-39). Chicago: Association of College & Research Libraries. Retrieved from:
  5. Henning, G. & Roberts, D. (2016). Student affairs assessment: Theory to practice. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
  6. Gilbert, E. (2019, March 20). Retrieved from:
  8. Jonsson, E. (2019). Tips For Student Affairs Assessment Life, Part 1 of 3.
  9. Hackman, J. R. (2012). From causes to conditions in group research. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 33, 428-444. Retrieved from:
  10. Sherif, M. (1958). Superordinate goals in the reduction of intergroup conflict. American Journal of Sociology, 63, 349-356. Retrieved from:
  11. Malenfant, K.J. & Brown, K. (2017). Creating Sustainable Assessment through Collaboration: A National Program Reveals Effective Practices. NILOA Occasional Paper #31. Retrieved from:

Eulena Jonsson, Duke University

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