- Assessing for Learning: Building a Sustainable Commitment Across the Institution
In 1994, The Student Learning Imperative claimed "the enhancement of student learning and personal development [as] the primary goal of student affairs programs and services" (American College Personnel Association, 1994). A decade later, while student affairs articulated the imperative, academic affairs perhaps has more visibly actualized it, goaded if not fomented by the assessment imperative of accrediting bodies. By comparison, student affairs often seems to have relegated itself to "proxy measures" (Parshall & Spencer, 2000) such as involvement, retention, amount of faculty-student interaction, academic success (often measured in GPA), amount of alcohol use, and campus climate and various other [End Page 558] means rather than ends (Carver, 2000). While these attributes are unassailably important in students' abilities to reach their academic and personal goals, they are secondary to the central question: Did students learn what we intended them to learn?
Student affairs must urgently, clearly and sustainably define its learning objectives/outcomes and make student learning and its assessment a top priority if the profession is to remain viable. To do otherwise will relegate student affairs to the role of academic handmaiden, ever assisting, never leading, supporting the academic mission of the institution but on its backstage periphery. Declining federal and state support for higher education has led to the outsourcing if not elimination of many support functions. In a gathering storm of high stakes, if the profession does not move to the center in the articulation, intentional actualization and assessment of student learning outcomes, it will cease to exist. We must define, deliver, and assess student learning rather than the accoutrements of our handmaidenship.
Assessing for Learning offers student affairs professionals the opportunity to join their faculty colleagues center stage, anchoring their shared mission and actions within the central focus of the academy. While written primarily for a faculty audience, the book is peppered with references not only to student affairs services but also to its literature. In chapters 1 ("Developing a Collective Institutional Commitment") and 2 ("Beginning With Dialogue About Teaching and Learning"), Maki sets the conceptual stage within which student affairs must situate itself at any given institution. The section in chapter 2 on maps (also well-represented in Maki, 2004b) particularly may help student affairs professionals translate institutional and divisional mission statements into intended learning outcomes.
Of even greater pragmatic benefit to student affairs professionals will be the book's clear examples of learning outcomes (chapter 3). Though Maki's examples are from courses and curricula, student affairs professionals can use these examples (as well as those offered in Diamond, 1998; Huba & Freed, 2000) to craft learning objectives/learning outcomes as the knowledge and skills that student affairs professionals intend for students to learn instead of "what just happens along the way if the conditions are right." Rather than the learning objective of "using modern engineering tools for the desired solution" in one of Maki's examples (p. 65), the intentionally, sequentially, and planfully fomented areas of skill and knowledge articulated by student affairs professionals for students might include communicating effectively with people different from themselves, making good decisions, and building relationships (Spencer, 2000; see also Palomba & Banta, 1999) to name just several that lie "near and dear" to the heart of the student affairs profession. In the framework of faculty and student affairs collaboration on assessment, Kuh and Banta (2000) suggested that the use of both process indicators and outcomes indicators characterized successful collaborative assessment efforts. Kuh, Gonyea, and Rodriguez (2002) note that
Student development is both a process and a holistic set of desired outcomes. . . . As a process, student development is the unfolding of human potential toward increasingly complicated and refined levels of functioning. As a set of outcomes, [emphasis added] student development encompasses a host of desirable skills, knowledge, competencies, beliefs, and attitudes students are supposed to cultivate during college. These include (a) complex cognitive skills such as reflection and critical thinking, (b) an [End Page 559] ability to apply...