Vacation Guide to Assessment Definitions

Vacation Guide to Assessment Definitions

The word vacation brings a sense of joy and invokes a positive reaction from most people.  As the chorus the Madonna song, Holiday goes, “if we took a holiday… took some time to celebrate… just one day out of life; it would be… it would be so nice.”  Vacation is broadly defined as a period where work, study, or other activity is suspended and typically used for rest, recreation or travel; recess or holiday (, 2019).  Who wouldn’t look forward to time of escape from the daily grind, away from day-to-day obligations?  But before jumping onto a plane, train, boat, or automobile one must consider not just the purpose for the vacation, but have a travel guide to assist with details. Left unattended, details could make or break the vacation experience.   

Airplane of Words

Why Details Are Important

Have you ever taken a vacation where some of those you are with  appear to be indulging in fun activities or are relaxed while others seem to be grumpy or are complaining about something?  How is it possible that you’re all on the same trip, but your experiences (e.g. outcomes) are vastly different?  Lack of clarity or simply not having an understanding of what the concept of a vacation is, can lead to the disconnect. It is the same for assessment.

Oftentimes, individuals who are well traveled or have vast experiences assume the purpose behind vacations is intuitive. Naturally, experts in assessment may assume that outlining the purpose or providing general information or planning/conducting assessments is inherent for everyone.  NEWSFLASH: just because the intended purpose of a vacation or the assessment process is defined, that does not mean the details have been explained and everyone is on the same page. If the travel agent/vacation planner believes everyone has the same concept of vacation and omits the details, then the best laid plans for a “holiday” may not produce the desired experience. Likewise, if assessment leaders assume all faculty and staff have similar understandings of assessment and neglects to provide clear definitions, then planning efforts to measure outcomes may not produce the desired results. 

Whether we are talking about planning for assessment or a vacation people bring with them, their own perspectives and points of view.  So what does this have to do with placing emphasis on definitions?  Defining terms or concepts assist with setting expectations for the process, activity or experience. Did you know that there are different kinds of vacations for every type of traveler?  Everyone has their own idea or “concept” of what the ideal vacation should look like, so it’s important to have an understanding of what’s involved in the various kinds: solo trips, family, all-inclusive, cruise/beach, adventure/safari activity, city/international tour or stay-cation. 

The same is true for the concept of assessment: academic programs , extra-curricular and co-curricular activities, non-academic programs, institutional effectiveness, or program review.  With regional and programmatic accrediting bodies expecting institutions to outline their assessment process, while ensuring faculty and staff lead efforts for conducting assessment activities and collecting evidence, conceptual clarity is key and definitions are necessary!

A division and department may state the purpose for assessment (i.e. program review, compliance with accreditation or professional standards, alignment with institutional goals, etc.).  However, if institutional definitions do not exist or are not clearly communicated, how can we assure the data collected is accurate to substantiate our claims of success and/or continuous improvement?  Definitions can be used as indicators, mile markers, or landmarks for grasping important concepts or specific details. Therefore, effective planning, implementation and data utilization, is dependent upon institutional stakeholders’ knowledge and understanding of assessment definitions.  With this in mind, terminology helps to reduce false assumptions, minimize confusion while guiding processes along the way. When faculty and staff (and vacationers) are given such tools, they become better equipped for their experiences. 

A Need for Guided Terminology 

Whether you’re a novice, expert, or consider yourself somewhere in between, having a guide to key terms and assessment definitions is most helpful in the planning process. More often than not, regional accreditors offer vague descriptions in the broadest sense, leaving institutions with the responsibility for developing their own working definitions, which can vary depending on the institutional type. 

Over the years at my institution, several faculty and staff requested that common institutional definitions be provided for the concept of assessment. Similar to the general definition of what a vacation is and understanding that all vacations are not created equal, those responsible wanted another level of detail to assist with clarity. What ended up happening was that each division/department established their own definition for assessment. Over time, the silo approach created a culture of inconsistency in assessment reporting and closing the loop in areas where assessment was not a strength. Additionally, when faculty and staff attempted to have conversations about assessment across their respective areas, confusion and frustration set in. Preparation for our 10-year Comprehensive Evaluation with Higher Learning Commission, created an opportunity for administrative leadership to derive the following institutional definitions (RSC, 2019), which are currently a work in progress: 

  • Academic Assessment: The process of setting student and program learning outcomes, measuring progress and using the data to make improvements to the learning process.
  • Co-Curricular Assessment: College activities, programs and experiences that are extensions of the formal learning experiences in a course or academic program.
  • Extra-Curricular Assessment:  College activities and experiences that are not extensions of formal learning.
  • Institutional Effectiveness:  The process of demonstrating the achievement of the institutional mission.
  • Non-Academic Assessment: The process of setting unit outcomes, measuring progress and using the data to make improvements to the institutional operations.
  • Program Review: The multifaceted process of assessing academic programs to facilitate continuous improvement.

There are various research papers, articles, books and journals dedicated to the topic of assessment. What’s interesting is that they delve right into purpose, process, tools and types and use a generalist’s definition for the concept of assessment.  According to Paloma and Banta (1999), assessment is defined as the systematic collection, review, and use of information about educational programs undertaken for the purpose of improving student learning and development. Some institutions use assessment, evaluation, program review as umbrella terms for both academic and support units. However, is this broad definition of assessment enough to assist a new and existing faculty member, student affairs staff or other support unit administrators with jumping into their assessment duties?

Just like there are various travel guides created for the types of vacation experiences that are being planned, additional research is needed to help inform and guide those responsible for assessment to help guide them along the process. Then, once you are informed, look to inform others!

Creating a Collaborative Checklist

Just like you might make a checklist for a vacation, we should have a checklist for framing assessment work. Such a list might include clear definitions related to stages/steps in the process, defined roles and responsibilities, methodological options, deliverables, and available resources. Ideally, we’re including campus partners as active stakeholders in the defining efforts. Doing so can yield many benefits, chief among them ensuring common understanding of the involved individuals and making them active planners/contributors to the process instead of just participants.

How would your institution fare with such a list?  Who are your champion faculty and staff at your institution to include here? Regardless of format and people involved, what definitions are most needed at your institution? Feel free to comment below and share responses to these questions or what otherwise resonates with you for this post. Let’s collaborate in our common goal of continuous efforts to improve the culture of assessment!

Nanette Smith, Rhodes State College

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