The word "Authentic" was selected as the 2023 word of the year by the Merriam-Webster dictionary; it was one of the most reviewed words in the dictionary's 500,000 entries. It is interesting to note that authenticity is a valued characteristic, particularly now in the age of Artificial Intelligence and rising importance of skills-infused learning through post-secondary education and career-rich experiences. With previous years assuming the responsibility of lifting many of us out of our pandemic-driven challenges, this year could certainly push us out of our comfort zones. And for higher education, this is hardly a business as usual request. So what’s in store for assessment innovators this year, and how can you stay one step ahead?
Four Assessment Trends in Higher Education
There are four trends in higher education assessment that are currently impacting how leaders are using insights to empower collaboration and plan their future directions.
1. Moving from compliance to improvement
Easy to say but not easy to do. Compliance minded assessment is giving your best work to your accreditation body when you could be collecting and reviewing your data for institutional betterment. Conducting assessment that matters, that provides data that is meaningful and digestible and enables you and your team of institutional stakeholders to take action, not because an external reviewer says so, but because it will help you improve your educational quality and student learning is worth doing.
Assessment that matters includes collecting and acting on evidence of educational processes and outcomes, eliciting and using student perspectives in your improvement planning and documenting and communicating change. And it is not only an important function of an institutional member’s work, but necessary. It means stepping out of your comfort zone and stepping into a culture of improvement, where you have to look in the mirror and see the change that needs to be made and make it.
This kind of assessment is the kind that separates your institution from others and what makes you an authentic assessment practitioner, department chair, dean, instructor, unit leader - you get the picture. It is not just a trend, but rather a way of life in higher education.
2. Valuing more types of evidence
Right on the heels of #1 is varying the types of evidence you collect. In July 2023, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) launched its newly revised accreditation standards which explicitly call for more concrete evidence of periodic planning, assessment and use of data for improvement.
The updates reflect the Commission’s commitment to data-informed decision making—calling for its member institutions to collect, reflect and use data including disaggregated data to ensure they are meeting the needs of their students as outlined in their mission statement. This includes inclusive, equity-minded data disaggregation, qualitative and quantitative evidence of using data to drive decision making, with examples of how data supports change, identifying how stakeholders are accessing data for use in revising curriculum or instructional, long-range planning, and resource allocation linked to student achievement to provide some context.
2023 ushered in this transformation of data collection to data actions. But now it is clear that just saying you are going to act versus providing concrete documentation of actually doing so are two very different pieces of evidence. Some examples include evidence of:
- Integrated technology platforms for producing and sharing data among stakeholders
- Workflows that enable stakeholders, including students, to contribute to improvement processes
- Allocating time and budget to building an accessible infrastructure to put data into action.
- Aligning resource requests to strategic plan objectives with supporting evidence answering what, why and how initiatives are being measured
3. Assessing your strategic plan
Strategic plans in higher ed are meant to be used, not displayed. They are not marketing campaigns but rather objectives that represent and humanize the mission of your institution. Integrated planning is where representatives of your institution are invited and accept a seat at the table, actively contributing to overall planning, assessing and providing opportunities to celebrate your hidden gems which are often uncovered in the process.
Assessing your strategic plan means you have a process for capturing resource requests linked to objectives of the plan- shifting from gut-based decision making to data-driven decision making. It also means that there is clearly identifiable alignment between strategic planning objectives and administrative/academic unit objectives with measures and data to demonstrate how your strategic plan is a living, breathing component of your very existence as an institution of higher learning. Some of the key findings of this kind of assessment are:
- Data-Backed Discussions: Program and unit directors are able to offer data-supported insights effectively, which aid in institutional direction, decision-making and current and new initiatives.
- Actionable Reports: Program directors are able to effectively facilitate discussions using the reports to guide next steps and actions.
- Areas for Improvement: The identification of what additional information, data visualizations or processes could further enhance the value of these meetings and the needs of the organization to grow and improve.
There are some exemplar institutions out there that are actively assessing their strategic plan to ensure that the goals are works in progress, not bullets on the website. Leaders at the University of Southern Mississippi, Ball State University in Muncie, IN and Georgian Court in Lakewood, NJ have their assessments in place and are collecting and using data to improve, have conversations and continue to move forward.
4. Connecting curricular and co-curricular assessment
Likely already included in your current or future iteration of your strategic plan is an action that looks to make visible lifetime learning and the value of higher education for your learners. In that vein, students need to explicitly see the intentional connections between curricular and co-curricular experiences. This enables students to see the value of their contributions to their own learning and how these experiences provide lifelong learning opportunities and skills-enablement.
In looking at the work of the Grand Challenges in Assessment, framing learning through learning outcomes of these experiences not only provides assessment of student learning, but provides visibility into the skill or competency behind the learning. This unlocks understanding and practical application of skills in different experiences across a student’s learning journey— on/off campus jobs, athletics, clubs and organizations, internships, study away and study abroad and more. Using a learning framework, such as professional competencies like those licensure programs and career recognized frameworks such as National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) Competencies, are a great place to connect curricular, co-curricular and extra curricular activities to a framework that can be assessed.
Don’t Wait to Put These Trends Into Practice
One way to tackle these challenges that are trending in higher education is to continue to lean into them instead of putting them on the back burner for another day. This day is here and there are plenty of opportunities to adapt the good practices our peers are actively engaged in at your institution. Get out there and meet them at conferences, online meetings, community interest groups. Facilitate conversations at your institution at the department and unit levels, partner with your center of teaching excellence and career centers, ask questions of your leadership and IT staff and collaborate with one another to ensure that these trends are active at your institution.
To get started you may find our Five Components of an Institutional Assessment Plan a helpful resource to kick start one or more of these initiatives.