Today I am recentering. The past few months have seen a lot – student staff hiring, professional hiring, preparing training, updating curriculum, reinventing staff development, planning conferences and institutes, and trying to be a good wife, daughter, granddaughter, and friend. I have heard the comments about the world of busyness –not using it as a badge of honour - but I do think it is okay to take a moment to reflect on the scope and capacity of our world. I do think it is okay, and healthy, to press pause, rewind and reflect, and to appreciate the immense amount of work and life that sometimes feels like a total blur.
Tonight as I sat at home curled up on the couch with a tea in hand and chose to focus on updating presentations, reviewing colleagues’ work, responding to my staff’s questions, and preparing to be out of the office, I took a moment to take a break and look at Twitter. I didn’t expect to be so consumed with the content, and certainly didn’t expect to be (finally) writing another blog post. I didn’t expect to feel... appreciation.
As I scrolled through Twitter I felt an immense amount of appreciation for my colleagues and the incredible work they are doing on their campuses to make their student experience that much better. One colleague was presenting about storytelling as her institution launches a new, and very impressive, strategic plan. Another colleague was sharing incredible quotes and learning moments from a conference. Colleagues I will be on faculty with for the Assessment Institute have profiles posted, and I am reminded of how much their work inspires me. A former student staff was encouraging chatter about what graduates learned at university, and a dialogue about the value of co-curricular learning sparked as a result. And on top of that, there are four emails in my inbox from colleagues and government groups awaiting a reply to speak with their teams and organizations about my work. And my husband is constantly finding ways to spend as much quality time together as possible before I leave. And, and, and. And this feeling of gratitude and fulfillment is reminding me that the term was busy, and the summer will be busy, but instead of thinking about it as a badge of honour or a deterrent, it can be a moment of recentering. Of clarity. Of appreciation.
Repeat after me, when things feel genuinely busy and the summer months speed by like a flash of light: It can be a moment of recentering.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the traditional assessment cycle and how we use it when creating assessment plans to measure student learning. The intention behind it is to ensure that we are not just collecting data, but doing so in a meaningful way by having intentional outcomes and using techniques that help us ensure our questions are measurable. It also helps remind us of the importance of not just the collection, but the gathering, analysis and sharing of data. In fact, as I often say when I present on assessment, we owe it to our students who provide us with the information to close the loop and show them that we value their time and input. While I believe this is a very helpful tool, especially if you are just starting to work in assessment, I find the human element of the approach to be lackluster. A traditional cycle focuses primarily on data – numbers, words and information – rather than people’s stories. If you are moving through the model for the sake of ‘just doing assessment’, it is very easy to forget that the human aspect of it should be included.
Considering the human element (or lack there of) in assessment is something that has been on my mind the past couple of months, which was initially sparked by Lesley D’Souza’s (2017) Design Thinking Assessment model, because it emphasizes the importance of empathy in our work as data storytellers. Since then, I’ve been reflecting on how I talk about assessment, especially in regard to student learning, how I train colleagues or students on it, and how I (often subconsciously) do it in my everyday work. Most recently, as I was compiling, analyzing and sharing the assessment, evaluation and metrics from our Residence Life Staff training in August, I was pleasantly reminded of the importance of how sharing information can invoke a feeling, an experience, and a snapshot in time. Finding the right combination of data has the power to turn numbers into context and imagery, where you can find yourself lost in the picture being painted in front of you; as if you were there, living that experience through the eyes of a student yourself. In my opinion, that moment is what makes assessment not only so important to demonstrating our worth, but can be such a powerful change agent in our work, workplace cultures and across divisions. It is what drives me to continue to evolve, reflect, and learn about ways I can enhance our assessment practices so that I can continue to find ways to paint the picture of our students’ experience.
Sounds great, right? But as I explored all of this, I tried figure out what I could manageably do to be more intentional and I kept coming back to what I love most about Kolbs’ Learning Cycle (1984); I kept coming back to the reflection. To me, the steps in assessment are no different than his idea of a reflective learning experience – you do something (the outcome), you reflect on how it went (analyze assessment data), you conceptualize how to do something similarly or differently in the future (identify gaps, make informed decisions and review/update outcomes), and then you do it again. Over and over. In my eyes, assessment is an experiential process of trying to understand someone’s learning experience and personal journey, so it makes sense to me that it could easily follow a similar structure to Kolb. However, one additional piece I would add is understanding, similar to the idea of integrating empathy (D’Souza, 2017). To truly conceptualize how to recognize or improve an experience, it is important to first try to understand it through the lens of a student. Furthermore, we really should be able to understand and share that experience when we put together infographics, dashboards, reports, charts and graphs – to me, this is where the math and science of data can become art.
As I move forward in my own assessment journey, I am going to start thinking about assessment through the lens of this adapted model, which I’m calling a Reflective Assessment Model. I want to see if it will not only enhance the way we tell our story and the importance we place on the human element, but I wonder if it will change the way we implement and gather these stories? I wonder if our student staff will buy-in to the process more when we can show them a model where the stories are an intentional and necessary aspect of our practice as educators? I certainly hope it will remind us of the human side to assessment, and allow us to pause and consider that numbers rarely tell the whole story. And if they do tell a story, is it based on an understanding of our students’ experience?
I’ve taken this model a step further and broken down a couple of our curricular approaches to see how this model could help inform our assessment practices for each educational plan: student conduct, staff training and development, community development, and within our first year and upper year communities. While this is still very much a work in progress, I’ve included my ‘brain dump’ about how this could enhance our conduct program and assessment practice.
We know that student conduct is an opportunity for student growth and development (Karp & Allena, 2004), and our own assessment has proven that assumption to be correct. Over the past couple of years, we have been able to show that learning is happening through meetings, conversations, and sanctions using a variety of techniques such as rubrics and CATs (classroom assessment techniques). When Jordon McLinden (my favourite conduct guy) and I sat down to figure out how to meaningfully and manageably integrate assessment into our conduct strategies, we were intentional about which measures we used so that our data could tell the story of how much our students are learning about overcoming challenges, seeing conflict in a positive manner, examining the Rights & Responsibilities of living in a community, and ways to act for the benefit of others. However, in thinking about our approach through this reflective assessment model, I think that the assessment, evaluation and metrics we collect could paint an even better picture by being more conscious of the ‘understanding’ phase of the cycle. This stage has encouraged me to ask myself a few questions: How can we show what it is like to move through our conduct system through the lens of a student, beyond what they have learned, if they feel as though the process was fair, or how many students we met with? How can we focus on empathy as an educator, and how will that shape the ways we review our outcomes and ‘big p’ program? Why does our conduct process matter to students? What is the value to students? These questions have helped me see that right now we are focused on showing that learning is happening; next, we need to start focusing on how that learning is (or is not) adding value to our students’ experience. Without truly taking the time to understand that experience, I’m not sure we are reviewing and revising our program to the best of our abilities. After all, like I said, we owe it to our students to value their contributions and time, to share their stories, and use their experience to help shape and improve our programs.
I had the immense pleasure this past week of traveling to Chicago to become formally trained in Gallup strengths coaching. In the next month or so, I will complete the requirements to be formally certified and will be an official strength-based coach. While I don't usually thrive in large group training environments, diving into strengths for four and a half days with some amazing people turned out to be such a transformative experience for me. Not only did I learn so much more about myself, being able to dig in and understand my strengths and how each combination contributes to my success, but it also allowed me to see ways that others misperceive me and vice-versa. It has fundamentally changed the way I think about efficient teams, and it has even further provided insight into employee engagement. From a hiring and training lens, I have a whole new appreciation of teamwork, a strengths-based approach to learning and development, and maximizing performance. While I have been able to coach and consult with some teams informally in the past, I now have greater clarity and experience to draw on from this training. Perhaps most encouraging to me is how much better it is going to help support my career coaching conversations moving forward.
There is certainly so much data and information to share; I actually feel like I could go on, and on, and on, and on, but a lot of the insight from Gallup research is available on their website so I would encourage you to check it out. Instead of diving in too deep, or just providing a surface level overview, I thought I would include some of the distinctions, golden nuggets, and ah-ha moments from my experience.
I wish I could be in your brain while you're reading this, because I would love to know if your thoughts were similar to mine; and like I said, this is just a snippet of our week-long conversation. You may have also had similar experiences to me, where I was able to think of specific colleagues or individuals who fit some of information or data. I think that these are some of the many examples that promote the importance of moving to a strengths-based approach in an organization, especially if you manage people. As we start to see the workforce made up a millennials (and soon, GenZ), having a strengths-based approach to managing, development and culture could have some very positive effects, after all, their needs and desires are very different than those before them. Consider how your current organization accommodates Millennial's career desires, in general, from this list (-- and spoiler, can be much easier to facilitate with a strengths-based approach!):
Knowing that, I would encourage you to ask yourself if you currently work in a culture where this growing generation would want to work, grow, achieve and stay.
Is there high turn over?
Are there employees and/or colleagues who you can think of who are 'not engaged' or 'actively disengaged'?
Do some of your teammates or colleagues feel misunderstood or undervalued?
If the answer is 'yes', consider how reframing and investing in being a strengths-based manager, organization and/or team might be a good start!
A creative educator striving to enhance the holistic student experience and committed to exploring personal strengths and fulfillment.