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Promoting Assessment through Staff Development

By Kim Black, Director of Assessment, University of Northern Colorado

Demands from policy-makers for greater accountability, coupled with shrinking resources for higher education, have exerted pressure on institutions to adopt systematic and ongoing assessment of their educational programs and services (Peterson & Augustine, 2000; Schuh, 2003). Student services professionals are not immune to these pressures; however, several writers have commented on a lack of preparation on assessment methods among student services practitioners (Cooper & Saunders, 2000; Pickering & Sharpe, 2000; St. Onge, 1999). Doyle (2004) found a significant need for training in assessment practices, and Cooper and Saunders suggested student services practitioners need professional development in understanding assessment methods, noting that many do not have research methods skills or practical experience in conducting assessment. In her discussion of reasons why administrators do not participate in assessment, Bresciani (2002) cited several factors including an incomplete understanding of assessment, lack of knowledge regarding data analysis, uncertainty about how to accurately report results, and a fear that credibility may be diminished if a low level of familiarity with assessment terminology, standards, processes, and instruments is revealed (pp. 99-100).

Student Services Assessment Institute

Given the high need for improving assessment skills, it is important that institutions and practitioners have information about how to deliver effective training in assessment methods. To address this need, administrators at the University of Northern Colorado developed the Student Services Assessment Institute (SSAI) to improve assessment knowledge and practice among student services professionals. Based loosely on a program model suggested by Green et al. (2003), the SSAI was launched in August 2007. The first SSAI cohort was comprised of 30 individuals representing fourteen different student services programs across the university. Participants attended monthly workshops on topics ranging from developing an assessment plan to using surveys and institutional data for assessment purposes. In addition to attending the workshops, participants worked with their supervisors and SSAI staff to design and complete an assessment project relevant to their area of service. In developing the training model, SSAI staff relied on elements of best practices in program delivery including the use of a cohort model, technology-enhanced instruction and support, and experiential learning opportunities. SSAI staff used a variety of methods to assess the efficacy of the training model, including observation of the workshops, a participant focus group, interviews with supervisors, a program evaluation survey, and evaluation of the participants’ assessment projects. Assessment data on the SSAI were collected throughout the year and several months after the training ended.

SSAI Outcomes

Program evaluations indicated that 100% of the participants reported an increase in their knowledge of assessment and that they were able to apply what they learned to their work. Based on the results of a participant focus group, several components of the SSAI emerged as contributing to participants’ increased knowledge and application of assessment practices. These included the opportunity to network with other departments, on-going individualized follow up with SSAI staff, completion of the assessment project, resource materials that were provided throughout the year, and support from area supervisors. In general, participants viewed the institute as a good investment of their time and energy, reporting that their participation led to program improvements through their enhanced conceptual understanding of assessment, practice of general assessment methods, and increased skill and knowledge concerning specific assessment tools. Participants described a number of examples of how they used what they learned in the institute in their day-to-day work. These included creating and applying specific assessment tools for measuring student learning outcomes, standardizing existing processes to support assessment activities, and aligning and enhancing data entry methods to support specific goals and objectives.

Throughout the year, SSAI instructors emphasized the need for “closing the loop” by applying the results of assessment to program planning and decision-making. A majority of participants indicated they were successful in doing this in their areas, and their completed assessment projects demonstrated the ways in which they were able to apply what was taught in the SSAI. For example, one participant developed a rubric for assessing advisor knowledge and used the results to identify advisor training needs and standardize the delivery of advising to students. Another participant examined whether there was a relationship between when student athletes participated in study hall and team grade point averages. Results of the assessment were shared with the athletic coaches to inform decisions about study hall requirements and scheduling.


Previous research has identified a need for training on assessment among student services professionals. The University of Northern Colorado’s Student Services Assessment Institute is one model intended to address this need. Assessment of the training model indicates the SSAI is an effective approach for increasing knowledge and application of assessment among student services practitioners.


  • Bresciani, M.J. (2002). External partners in assessment of student development and learning. New Directions for Student Services, 100, 97-110.
  • Cooper, D.L., & Saunders, S.A. (2000). Assessing programmatic needs. New Directions for Student Services, 90, 5-20.
  • Doyle, J. (2004). Student affairs division’s integration of student learning principles. NASPA Journal, 41, 375-394.
  • Green, R.L., Jones, C.R., & Pascarell, R.B. (2003). Encouraging buy-in to assessment in student affairs via professional development workshops. Assessment Update, 15(3), 3-5.
  • Pickering, J.W., & Sharpe, M.S. (2000). Slicing the pie: Institutional research, assessment, and student affairs research. New Directions for Student Services, 108, 79-89.
  • Schuh, J.H. (2003). The financial environment of student affairs. New Directions for Student Services, 103, 3-16.
  • St. Onge, S. (1999). Developing a strategic plan for assessment in student affairs. Assessment Update, 11(4), 10-11.

About the Author

Kim Black is the Director of Assessment at the University of Northern Colorado. Dr. Black previously directed UNC’s McNair Scholars Program and also was the Student Services Coordinator at Aims Community College. She has published research and articles on graduate school preparation among first generation students, the campus climate for diversity, and undergraduate research. For more information about the SSAI, Dr. Black can be reached at kim.black@unco.edu.