Amy Calapa, Assessment Institute Scholarship Recipient
As a professional in higher education, I have always been drawn to conversations related to continuous improvement, outcomes, and focusing on how data can help inform decisions and drive the story advisors tell about their work. Early in my career in student affairs, I saw the power that came from the work that a group of colleagues and I did to develop a residential life and student engagement curriculum. We spent almost an entire academic year engaging in deep and meaningful conversations about the purpose, focus, and outcome of our work in order to structure a meaningful assessment module. As I transitioned into the field of academic advising, I found myself spending little time on assessment activities. When I transitioned into senior leadership roles, I felt inspired to engage in more assessment work as I wanted to tell a more data-driven story about the work that our advising unit was completing and identify areas for further innovation. Since I only had informal experiences in assessment and evaluation, I knew I needed to seek out formal opportunities to grow my knowledge and skills in this area. This research led me to discover the annual NACADA Assessment Institute, which I felt was the perfect fit for helping me to learn more about academic advising assessment.
While applying for the 2021 NACADA Assessment Institute, I made the decision apply for the scholarship to support the cost of attendance. The application process for the scholarship was simple enough to complete, only requiring some reflection time on my behalf as I wrote a statement regarding what I was hoping to achieve through my attendance, and the time it took to request a few letters of recommendation and support from my leadership. I was glad I applied, as I was awarded one of the participant scholarships to attend the Institute, which covered the registration fee. As professional development funds can be limited, especially during challenging economic times, I appreciated the support from NACADA. The scholarship allowed me to attend the Institute without taking away from the limited funds shared by professionals in our office, and at the same time I was able to gain the confidence and knowledge I was seeking to initiate change in our advising unit.
My Assessment Institute experience was perhaps more unique than others as the 2021 NACADA Assessment Institute was held virtually through Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In some ways, I did feel the loss of not being able to travel to the conference location and interact with advising peers during the conference. I always feel that I benefit greatly from the casual interaction, networking, and one-on-one questions around a conference’s scheduled activities that contribute to my inspiration, motivation, and learning as a professional. On the other hand, the virtual nature of the conference allowed me to have some quiet work time throughout the day which allowed me to plan, prepare, and reflect between sessions. Without having to travel back and forth between locations, or walk to the next meeting room, I was able to take the time to quietly reflect on and expand my level of individual learning. This reflection and planning time helped me to leave the conference with a well-developed action plan. Part of this experience can also be contributed to how well organized the conference was through Zoom and the conference dashboard. The online dashboard made it easy to find conference materials and other session information, while the multiple Zoom breakouts made it easy to connect with other participants and the conference faculty.
Currently, my institution and specific advising department does not have an established culture or any long-standing practices related to the assessment of academic advising. I have begun to view this as a barrier to telling a meaningful story about the role, purpose of, and needs of academic advisors. So, I wanted to begin to understand how to make positive change towards a stronger assessment culture. At the start of the institute, my goal through participating was to enhance my understanding, and more importantly confidence, regarding how I might begin the process of creating an assessment plan for our advising department. Below is a summary of some of the learning moments I had during the institute.
Focusing on Progress Over Perfection
During day one of the Institute, one of the faculty members shared a quote that assessment is more about focusing on progress than focusing on being perfect through the process. During this initial presentation the Institute’s faculty shared more about how the process of assessment itself is a learning process and only through doing can we truly learn and improve our own practices. This idea really made a difference for me because I have been a victim of my own perfectionism in the past, and I know I am not alone in that feeling. This lesson empowered me to know that assessment is about starting somewhere, testing the waters by acting, and continuously reflecting on and refining the process as you move forward.
Identify Small Steps Along the Way
As I listened to faculty in the various presentations and breakout sessions, I began to feel justified in how overwhelmed I felt about the process. Adjusting an already established plan sounded complicated enough, let alone starting a new assessment plan from scratch. Yet, the faculty encouraged us to consider what small steps we could take along the way to lead to our desired outcome. For instance, it was recommended to pre-plan meetings out a semester or year in advance to make sure there was dedicated time to spend on assessment conversations. Or once a plan had been established to only identify two or three outcomes a year to measure and gather data on. These small steps helped to breakdown the process and provide me with early action steps that turned out to be wins along the way. When I began to implement my plan post-institute, having pre-planned meetings during the semester meant that my team was ready to dedicate the time and it allowed us to continue our conversations even during heavy advising periods.
A Refocus on Advising as Teaching
As part of the Institute, it was inspiring to be a part of conversations related to the importance of advising as teaching and the role academic advising should have on student learning in higher education institutions. This concept was not new to me, but I appreciated the conversations that occurred among Institute faculty and participants centered on this core value. As an advising practitioner for the last nine years, I have witnessed the pendulum swing back and forth between the two competing concepts of academic advising as teaching and as a customer service interaction. For me, the Institute served as a powerful moment to revisit the core values of academic advising and continue progressing the narrative that advising is a profession centered on student learning.
Creating an Assessment Culture
The last significant lesson that I gained from my experience at the Institute involved gaining practical advice on how to establish a culture of assessment that could support the progression of academic advising assessment within my department. I was reminded that the process was not, and could not be, just about me. So, as part of my plan I carefully considered advice provided through the Institute on identifying key stakeholders who I needed to connect with after the Institute ended and how to involve them in the process. I also was thoughtful about establishing opportunities for regular communication about the assessment plan with the staff to promote buy-in and a sense of shared ownership. I further considered how we might celebrate the small wins along the way to inspire further action. The focus the Institute provided on how to establish an assessment culture has been crucial to many of the action steps I have taken following the Institute. I am appreciative of these lessons as I know I will experience barriers as I move through this process.
It is now some months since the end of the Institute, and I am pleased to report that I am implementing what I have learned. I have focused on progress over perfection through taking small steps along the way. Collaboratively, our department has developed a mission and vision statement, and our assessment committee has been making steady progress throughout a challenging semester. We have worked hard to begin identifying learning outcomes and hope to continue seeing our work make a difference in how we tell a story about our advising services and practice. As I look forward, I plan to advocate for more of our team to attend a future Institute as I believe we can continue to benefit and gain from the learning experience and dedicated time to focus on advising assessment.
Undergraduate Programs Office
College of Business Administration
Kent State University
Cite this article using APA style as: Calapa, A. (2021, September). Starting the assessment journey at the NACADA Assessment Institute. Academic Advising Today, 44(3). [insert url here]