I hear a lot of staff and graduate students talk about “proving” the worth of a program or “proving” student learning took place or having to “prove” that student affairs has value on a college campus. I appreciate the effort and sentiment behind the word, but I also caution folks about making claims they cannot always support. Word choice is important.
Student affairs assessment can be messy. Working with people, mostly college students who are still developing and growing, is messy (literally and figuratively!). Students do not arrive on campus as a clean slate—they bring their own experiences, cultures, beliefs, skills, and motivations. They have various experiences while they are here, so no two students have the exact same college experience. Even within the Division of Student Affairs, students may have similar opportunities, but not the same outcomes. Students may or may not do the following: live on campus, be treated by Student Health Services, join and/or lead a student organization, face discipline for making poor choices, attend a program, work out at the Rec Center….The possibilities and combinations are endless.
What does that have to do with proving things through assessment? We have to be careful about attributing student learning/success to any one intervention or program. Yes, in general, students who live on campus their first year are more academically successful. But, does that mean that every student who lives on campus will be academically successful? Unfortunately, no. In a sense, a few students will disprove the idea that residence life causes academic success.
Another example would be asking students to rate themselves on communication skills after attending a two-hour program. How sure are you that any increase in their scores can be attributed solely to attending the program? What were their communication skills before they attended the program? And, for something like communication skills, were students given any opportunity to practice or demonstrate those skills to be observed and rated by someone who has expertise in that area? So, does attending a communication skills program prove that students improved? Not necessarily. If that topic is important to us, should we keep offering it? Probably. Can the assessment of the program tell us about improvements we can make? Yes.
If you don’t use the word “prove,” what should you use? I like “provide evidence of” or “supports” or “indicates.” While they are not as forceful, they provide a foundation and a demonstration of something in a narrow context. Words are important to communicate correctly to a variety of audiences.
P. S. In my opinion, we need to stop worrying about proving our worth in higher education. Accept that we have value, and take opportunities to share assessment results that show that.
If you need any assessment assistance, please contact Student Life Studies at (979) 862-5624 or firstname.lastname@example.org.