Why Assessment Staff Should Operate as Consultants

Math. Exercise. Vegetables.

All things everyone should engage with (to a certain extent) for their own benefit. Some people like these things, some don’t, few are ambivalent. For those in the latter two categories, there is assistance or support available: tutors for math, personal trainers for exercise, and dieticians for vegetables. Each of these roles can be both feared and appreciated.

I know, because I’m in a similar position with assessment.

Assessment is relevant and applicable to everyone in higher education (Kuh et al., 2014; Maki, 2010; Suskie, 2009; Yousey-Elsener, Bentrim, & Henning, 2015). As an assessment professional, I daily experience the pendulum swing of reactions from folks welcoming my support to groaning when they see me coming.

I’m fine with both reactions.

For those already viewing me as a partner, I am excited to support them in achieving their goals and answering questions they have with data as evidence. For those not so happy to see me, I recognize there is work for me to do in communicating the purpose of assessment work, positioning myself as support in their success, and empowering them to be able to confidently lead their programs from a data-informed perspective.

Context for Assessment Professionals

I’ve established that assessment may not be everyone’s favorite topic, but it’s not going away (for evidence, check out any regional accreditors standards/criteria). If anything, evidence of student learning outcomes is going to be increasingly important and necessary to multiple external entities.

Institutions hire folks like me as subject matter experts to ensure compliance and good practice related to the assessment of student learning. The mistake or misunderstanding some assessment professionals, faculty, or staff may have is that it’s on the assessment professionals to “do” the work. This is the furthest thing from the truth.

In trying to discredit or avoid the work entirely, faculty sometimes prove the point that assessment professionals should not be doing all the work. Assessment professionals know assessment; they are not subject matter experts in business, chemistry, literature, residence life, student activities, or civic engagement. We know faculty and staff aren’t necessarily trained in assessment, but assessment professionals are.

A collaboration is necessary to pair the subject matter experts in academics or student affairs with assessment professions to best measure student learning.

Assessment Consultants Needed

Collaboration needs to be further examined here. Typically, assessment professionals do not have authority over the faculty and staff with whom they are partnering. Assessment professionals need to operate as a consultant. Aligned with assessment leadership recommendations (Walvoord, 2004), here’s what that can look like:

  • Seeking to understand the needs, goals, and important questions of faculty/staff
  • Providing pros and cons, as well as alternatives in planning for measurement and data collection
  • Offering guidance and considerations for reporting and strategy for data-informed action

As a consultant, you offer your experienced perspective. Know that it may not be accepted. What matters is the collaborative and intentional effort undertaken. It is also important to empower the subject matter experts to make the final decisions and lead assessment for their respective areas.

 Taking a consultative approach asserts your position as a thought leader whose perspective should be seriously considered.

If the idea of being a consultant is new to you, here are a few recommendations to ease into the approach:

  1. Stop doing all the work. This is both good for you time and capacity, but more importantly, it involves and empowers faculty or staff in assessing their students.
  2. Find your voice. Use your knowledge and expertise. Offer suggestions and don’t be afraid to disagree with whom you are consulting.
  3. Don’t push too hard. Remember you are offering suggestions for the subject matter experts to execute for their area. Do your part, speak your piece, and take whatever wins you can.  
  4. Keep an end goal in mind. It can be easy to digress, offer too many considerations, or allow inquiry and “wants” to get out of hand. Focusing and addressing the “needs” is often plenty.

It takes time and practice to ease into the role. Even if you’re ready to assume a consulting workstyle, your faculty or staff may not be ready to take on their share of the work (which you may or may not have been doing for them). Don’t get me wrong – assessment professionals should work to make assessment easy to understand, provide resources, and help ensure infrastructure in place to ease barriers or limitations for faculty or staff to engage in the work.

That said, it can also take time shifting the culture and approach from both sides here.

Just remember: not everyone wants to go to a tutor, people may think they know plenty about exercise, and some people just want to eat what they want to eat. Hopefully, you can bill yourself as a reliable and worthwhile consultant even for those who don’t want to learn more about assessment.

If you’re struggling here, simply focus on collaborative and authentic engagement in assessment work. If faculty and staff are authentically engaged, they’ll be driving questions about their students and involved in the work.

If you’re doing your part, you’ll be offering feedback and support to work through the assessment cycle and make data-informed improvements across campus.

Making the shift to operating as a consultant can make the best of typical assessment staff roles. You are in a position to influence change with your leadership rather than your authority, so positioning yourself as a consultant can assert yourself as a thought leader whose perspective should be seriously considered.

Hopefully, making this kind of shift could encourage faculty and staff to come to you as a resource, seeking your feedback on assessment-related efforts. Aside from your role, this also keeps your constituents as subject matter experts of their disciplines and enjoins them as agents in the assessment process.

All the best in your consultative collaboration! Want to let us know how it’s going? You can reach us on Twitter @themoderncampus and @JoeBooksLevy.

Joe Levy

About the author: Joe Levy (he/him) is the Executive Director of Assessment and Accreditation at National Louis University. Joe is passionate about data-informed decision making, accountability and promoting a student-centered approach inside and outside of the classroom. Learn how we can help get your students involved.