Exploring the Role and Impact of Assessment Practices at the Institutional Level

Lee Ann J. Clements
Jacksonville University

Our mission is student success. How do we know if we are on track? When is a student successful? What do we do when they aren't? This question swirled around during faculty and administrator discussions of assessment and our newly published strategic plan. We lacked a cohesive plan for assessing our success at fulfilling our mission. Systematic, institution-wide assessment is difficult to get started without a culture of assessment linked to improvement, and linked to the budget; we lacked a culture of assessment. Before going further into how Jacksonville University has worked on this problem, I have some thoughts that frame the context of institutional assessment.

The culture of assessment requires knowledge of the goals and objectives to be accomplished, assessment tools that measure outcomes linked to those goals, and a mechanism for timely feedback that ensures that improvement can occur within the next cycle. Faculty use assessment all the time, and typically understand the requirements as they pertain to their assessment of students in a single class or in a major. The best faculty assess student progress and learning and give the students constructive, timely feedback to enhance their progress - so the concept makes sense to them. Scientists do this all the time with their research - each experiment improves upon the last -adds knowledge, corrects mistakes in design or instrumentation and results in a more accurate conclusion. How to get this from individual classes, to majors, to departments, to colleges, to academic affairs and ultimately to the university level (i.e. budget) was THE question.

At Jacksonville University assessment had been sporadic and uneven across campus. Our accreditation review in 1993 was the impetus to stress assessment in all academic areas, but that did not extend up the ladder to administrative offices and did not necessarily follow the requirements listed above. After a few years the overall focus was diffuse and assessment became the title of another report that was requested annually, but not always done with rigor or the intent to improve.

Beginning in 1999 several things changed. The university Planning Team crafted a strategic plan with the help of all segments of the university community. It contained goals and objectives for each area. The academic portion of the university was to take these goals and apply them at the departmental and major level. As we began our self-study we realized that as an institution we only had the first piece, the goals. We lacked a common language, tools and a structure for building a culture of assessment with improvement. During the past 12 months the Planning Team (now the Planning and Assessment Team) has developed a template for assessment plans, a schedule for annual review of assessment results and revision of goals, objectives and assessment plans and perhaps most importantly a means of bringing all segments of the university to the table on assessment. We spent several months working with individuals and groups in workshop settings to formulate their assessment plans. We discussed, edited and stated the goals, objectives, measures, and expected outcomes and finished with the budget implications and adjustments they would make. The template helped as did examples appropriate for each area. After sixteen workshops in ten days the hard work paid off, in the Fall 2001 the Institutional Effectiveness Handbook was published and posted on our intranet site. All departments, academic and administrative, are talking about how they will know when we have achieved our goals. The preparation for the 2002-2003 budget was informed by the goals set for Fall 2001 and the results of assessment so far. Individual items in budget requests were justified in terms of the goals set by Academic Affairs and how each department could contribute to meeting those goals. The Board of Trustees, at the January meeting, outlined a mechanism for assessing their performance, a first for our institution. Most importantly, conversations on campus have continued. The conversations are centered around our mission, student success. I have no doubt that the students learn something each day. Now I know that the process of assessment can teach us as individuals and as an institution as well.