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Working at Assessment

By Debra K. Smith June 13, 2013

A number of years ago, a film about the former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt altered my approach to assessment administration. In the film, Mrs. Roosevelt was portrayed as a social reformer, supporting peace and equality. In her words: “It isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it.” From that moment on, I was committed to applying this same tenacity to my role as director of assessment. In a newly created assessment position at a college whose administration wholeheartedly embraced the new position, I knew that I must not only talk about assessment, I had to believe in it. And I had to convince the board, faculty, students, and other constituents to believe in it and in my new position. Thus began my journey—I had to work at building a sustainable assessment infrastructure focused on improving student learning!

As is evident in each issue of Assessment Update, tenacity in developing a sustainable culture of assessment is crucial to the work of assessment directors. I can relate to articles in Assessment Update that speak to the adoption of assessment procedures (Ennis 2010) and the climate of sustaining responsible student learning assessments (Martins 2010). I have worked for years to strengthen and develop such models. What was missing for me in developing an assessment culture as I became an assessment administrator was a model for the leadership approach to managing and leading assessment effectively. So, I began my research for a leadership framework.

I invited sixteen colleges to participate in a research project, and eleven accepted. Tenured, full-time faculty were in charge of assessment at three of the colleges; two colleges used assessment director positions that were part time in addition to other academic duties; the vice president for academic affairs was the administrator for assessment at two colleges; and four colleges had full-time staff as directors of assessment. Interviews with these assessment colleagues revealed that 100 percent felt a leadership model would be “useful” in their work of leading assessment at their college, with 81.8 percent responding that a leadership model would be “highly useful.” Three leadership frameworks were presented; 45.5 percent felt that adopting Kouzes and Posner’s model (2002) would fulfill “all of the role” of carrying out the responsibilities of assessment leader on their campus; 72.7 percent felt that adopting this model would fulfill all or “most of the role” of assessment leader. Based on these findings, Kouzes and Posner’s Leadership Challenge has served as my road map as an assessment administrator for talking about assessment, believing in assessment, and working at assessment for almost ten years.

Whether we, as directors of assessment, inherit an existing assessment model, are working to improve an existing model, or are leading our faculty and departments in designing our own assessment models, the five practices of exemplary leadership from Kouzes and Posner guide any assessment administrator through the steps of talking assessment, believing assessment, and working at assessment. The “Five Exemplary Practices of Leadership” are:

  1. Model the way.
  2. Inspire a shared vision.
  3. Challenge the process.
  4. Enable others to act.
  5. Encourage the heart.

In this article, I have characterized reflections and perceptions incorporating these approaches from the study as well as my own experiences and applications over the past ten years in leading assessment.

Model the Way

How do we begin talking assessment, believing assessment, and working at assessment through a leadership framework? Kouzes and Posner’s “Model the Way” provides two components to leadership that impart a foundational context: “Find Your Voice” and “Set the Example.” The authors tell us that working in a leadership role demands a visionary presence and voice. The capacity to talk assessment and believe in assessment establishes our position and vision as the leaders of assessment on our campuses. I have found no purpose for assessment better articulated than that espoused by Peter Ewell: Assessment has three purposes—demonstrating student academic achievement, improvement of academic programs, and institutional accountability (Ewell 2009, 2010). This has served me well as I have built my values around those three stated purposes of assessment.

Having found confidence in our own voice as assessment leaders, we can engage the institution in a discussion about assessment. Kouzes and Posner tell us that during this time of discussion, we are searching to find common ground on which to build consensus across our college. Of the three purposes of assessment mentioned, achievement of student learning has been a long-accepted goal, and in my consulting work, I have found it is accepted and valued by most institutions and their constituents. As one leader who participated in the study stated: “Most departments and programs want to know if students are learning what the institution says they are learning, so there is usually buy-in at some level on the value of assessing the achievement of student learning.” Finding enough common ground with regard to a model for continuous program improvement usually proves more challenging. The tools that Kouzes and Posner provide for leadership can help us lead our colleges in effectively working through this challenge.

To complete “Model the Way,” the final component is “Set the Example.” Here, as directors of assessment, we align our leadership actions with the common ground the institution has on assessment. Often a mission or value statement can provide common ground; sometimes a president or chief academic officer will have expressed thoughts that provide a foundation.

Eleanor Roosevelt presented a clear leadership resolve and approach of working alongside others throughout her many successful reform efforts. One research participant provided similar reflections: “My leadership approach has always been one of working alongside the faculty, particularly with regard to improving the student experience.” If programs are going through an assessment, how can you support them? What help, what resources can you provide? What recognition can you provide? Can you get the faculty release time to lead important assessment initiatives? These efforts set the example that you are aligning your actions with your stated values and that the institution is behind this vision.

Inspire a Shared Vision

Kouzes and Posner’s next concept is “Inspire a Shared Vision.” Leadership commitments in this area focus on envisioning the future and enlisting others. Much like Eleanor Roosevelt and her colleagues shared their vision to educate women on political issues and candidates, we as directors of assessment can inspire a shared vision by enlisting the help of others at our institution. One college administrator gave specific examples of how to inspire a shared campus vision of assessment, stating “If assessment is new to many faculty and staff, attend the Higher Learning Commission conference together, attend the assessment track at the annual meeting of the Association for Institutional Research, read and discuss together the impact of articles in Assessment Update and Change.” Another effective method is to establish an assessment committee and work together to develop and espouse a common vision across the institution. This builds confidence and provides a mechanism for sharing best practices. As assessment leaders on our campuses, we can explore the assessment aspirations of our campus, build on the good things going on, and find best practices from each program to share. By working with leaders of various programs, directors of assessment can develop and strengthen the institution’s knowledge and practice of assessment.

Challenge the Process

The first two Kouzes and Posner components help institutions collaboratively lay the foundation for a culture of assessment. As the leaders of assessment, we now have the responsibility to “Challenge the Process.” Through this work, we search for opportunities by seeking innovative ways to change, grow, and improve the assessment process and model. Much like Eleanor Roosevelt’s tenacity in encouraging her husband to return to politics after being stricken with polio, Kouzes and Posner invite us to experiment and take risks by constantly generating small wins and learning from mistakes. One faculty member in the study articulated her practice of becoming involved in assessment by joining a state organization that gathers to discuss assessment issues. In my state, we were without this resource, so we started our own organization for assessment officers! There are other opportunities as well, such as being involved as a consultant/ evaluator for a regional, national, or programmatic accreditation organization. This involvement provides the opportunity to meet colleagues across the country and experience firsthand how other institutions operationalize their assessment programs. Learning about what works and what does not enables us to improve our own assessment model and calculate the best possible risk to take when planning improvements to that model.

Enable Others to Act

As assessment leaders, we orchestrate assessment activities through collaboration. Kouzes and Posner’s “Enable Others to Act” includes components that help us lead assessment through listening, fostering collaboration, building trust, and strengthening others. By engaging with each individual on the team in these processes, we are creating relationships and identifying particular strengths of members as well as what gaps, if any, need to be addressed. Through this analytical process we can also identify which members of our team can serve as team leaders for various college-wide initiatives. Some faculty and deans have a greater understanding of assessment, particularly if they are involved in programs requiring accreditation, such as teacher education or nursing. As one director of assessment in the study said, “These faculty can make great leaders for serving on assessment committees.” Training faculty and deans about assessment and giving them ownership in planning and preparing reports for visits and reviews is another way to develop people within the institution. If there are knowledge gaps, a consultant or colleague from another institution often can provide guidance that will enable a particular department or program to head in the right direction.

Encourage the Heart

The two major components of Kouzes and Posner’s “Encourage the Heart” component include recognizing contributions by showing appreciation and celebrating values and victories by creating a spirit of community. As work on assessment progresses through departments and programs at our institutions, leaders will emerge. Recognize their efforts! And when work on assessment reaches a particular milestone, celebrate that too! I have found that recognition can be a simple thank-you note to faculty, a box of chocolates for the department, or lunch for a committee’s accomplishments. Last, celebrate the victories as a community. Focusing on the work of the team keeps collaboration as the core value. Hearing that “we did this together” builds confidence for all team members and leads to higher levels of performance. I have found that celebrations do not always have to be internal. As one participant in the study commented, “Generally, a community is eager to share in an institution’s success as well.” Additionally, encouraging the team to present or publish their accomplishments can benefit all of us in assessment.

The application of Kouzes and Posner’s components to our role as assessment leaders provides new insights for leading assessment across our institutions. Key elements of the “Five Exemplary Practices of Leadership” provide an effective road map for transforming how we approach and lead our next assessment project. In our role as assessment leaders, we have the much-needed resources to begin with confidence our leadership role in talking assessment, believing in assessment, and working at assessment. May Eleanor Roosevelt’s leadership example of talking peace, believing in peace, and working at peace be a reminder to all of us that our tenacity and approach as leaders can make a significant difference. Her accomplishments culminated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. This important work affirmed life, liberty, and equality internationally for all people regardless of race, creed, or color.


Ennis, D. J. 2010. “Contra Assessment Culture,” Assessment Update 22(1–2): 15–16.

Ewell, P. T. (2009). Assessment, accountability, and improvement: Revisiting the tension. Champaign, IL: National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment. Retrieved from http://www.learning

Ewell, P. T. (2010). “Assessing Student Learning Outcomes: A Brief ‘360’ Review.” Presented at the WICHE Commission Meeting, Boulder, CO, November 8, 2010.

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. 2002. The Leadership Challenge, 3rd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Martins, D. S. 2010. “Changing the Climate.” Assessment Update 22(6): 3–5.

Debra K. Smith is chief academic officer at Brown Mackie College—Salina, Kansas City and Oklahoma City.

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