#SAcdn StoriesAssessmentAssessment & YouCarleton University—Student Learning

Assessing Student Learning: Purpose, Development, and Student Conduct

Welcome to the inaugural #SAcdn Stories, an on-going initiative that highlights Student Affairs practices, thoughts, and learning from institutions across Canada. Follow along this week as Carleton University introduces its Residence Life Services Team and the work they’re doing in student learning across community development, moments of reflection, and student conduct. Together, we’ll continue to build our national Student Affairs community, learning from one another’s successes, failures, experiments, musings, practices, and experience.


Student Affairs is becoming a vast field, often encompassing everything from residence life to career development, to student engagement and many things in between. As our programs continue to grow, we as professionals need to become fluent in language that can discuss and demonstrate the value and effectiveness of our programs, particularly in the context of student learning and the contribution it has on achieving our greater institutional mission (Henning & Roberts, 2016). As you learned from my colleagues, student learning can come in many forms: community belonging and individual purpose, engagement and development opportunities, and even student conduct. While learning can look very different within any of these contexts, the common thread is that the professionals facilitating these learning experiences consider themselves educators, encouraging our students to learn through experiential opportunities that inspire creativity, experimentation, reflection, sharing, and being their authentic selves.

Truthfully, we should all see ourselves as educators, but that is not a term to be taken lightly. With the role comes a responsibility to continuously monitor how successfully we are offering programs and activities that enhance our students’ learning and overall campus experience (Henning & Roberts, 2016). Perhaps most importantly, being an educator outside of the classroom also means that assessment is everyone’s responsibility—student affairs professionals must all be involved in the process, as it is a key aspect of creating an integrated and collaborative learning experience for our students (Suskie, 2009).

Bloom's Taxonomy; a chart of circles within circles.

I can appreciate that it may sound daunting to think that assessment is everyone’s responsibility, but it should be a focus of continuous development and experience as a student affairs professional, regardless if you started in the field yesterday or 30 years ago. From my experience, when introducing others to assessment for the first time, a common initial response tends to be that it seems difficult and, for lack of a better word, boring. We need to move away from thinking that surveys are the only ways to demonstrate student learning, or to have our students write elaborate reflections as our primary method of collecting data. As educators, we need to broaden our scope, better understand assessment, and find unique ways to build it into a learning environment; creating a culture of assessment. When thinking about ways to demonstrate how students have gained a sense of belonging through an experience, developed leadership skills, or had an “‘Ah-ha!”’ moment in a student conduct process, educators need to establish strong learning outcomes and find creative ways to integrate direct learning assessment strategies. This is where the magic happens, and we can see how vital our roles as educators are to learning outside of the classroom.

Learning Through Conversation

I can share from my own experience that truly understanding a student’s purpose or sense of belonging can be difficult, but it is such a rewarding opportunity to see how higher education and our programs have contributed to their development as an individual. It often reminds me of my first day at university—my parents dropped me off and it took everything in me to not sob because I was overwhelmed, a little scared, and still not sure if I made the right choice. Later that day, I received a message from a friend that said, “What do you call an alligator wearing a vest? … an Investigator! Go explore and learn about your new home so you can tell me all about it!” Those common conversations with her throughout my first month as a university student actually changed the way I thought about my own sense of belonging because as I shared all the details of my new world, I became excited about the people and content in my classes, proud to wear my gold and blue, and a sense of purpose that reminded me I was meant to be there.  

Through intentional conversations and by asking questions driven by measurable learning outcomes, we are able to learn so much more about a student and their experience, as well as see the progress and growth that has occurred over time. Creating opportunities to have these types of intentional and meaningful conversations with students around career and personal goals, purpose, and what they love about their institution, demonstrates their self-awareness and identity development from the first day to the last of their learning experience. As Laura mentioned, sometimes all it takes is one person and a meaningful conversation to make a student feel as though they are a part of something bigger; a part of a community.

To capture these moments and assess the opportunities our students are taking to explore who they are and who they want to become, educators can use a formal rubric developed to measure the learning and progress from these conversations. This tool allows us to see if our students are growing over time, and if their sense of belonging in their residence-, campus-, and geographic communities increases as their experience matures. Additionally, by asking students why they feel that sense of belonging or why they chose our specific institution, it helps us as educators to have a better understanding of what is drawing our students to their program and make relevant adjustments accordingly. It also allows our student and professional staff to be investigators to understand who our students are as people and build meaningful, genuine relationships with them. By implementing rubrics to measure these conversations, we have the pleasure of seeing our students’ soul-filled journeys evolve during their time with us.

Creatively Measuring Student Development using CATs

I have two loves in my life: my cat and program assessment. Conveniently, Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) combine both and offer a fun, creative way to measure what our students are learning and the skills they are developing from our programs. These techniques are often my solution to educators who find assessment to be overwhelming and daunting, because CATs are as fun and easy as you make them. They are incredibly transferable to many learning contexts, but in particular, we have found success using them in staff trainings, student development opportunities, and professional learning experiences.

When thinking about student engagement as a series of learning experiences, each workshop, session, or experiential opportunity can easily be assessed using a classroom assessment technique, regardless of an educator’s experience or training in pedagogy, assessment, or formal education (Angelo & Cross, 1993). The value of this strategy is that CATs are creative, quick, and concise. The techniques provide us with a lot of information about what our students have gained because of a learning experience, and where there might be gaps between what we hope our students will learn and the knowledge and skills they actually acquired. Not unlike our furry friends, there are hundreds of CATs in different shapes and sizes. Depending on the context of the learning environment and the concepts the educator is looking to assess, there are a variety of options to acquire relevant data in a fun, creative manner.

For example, the One Minute Paper is one of the easiest CATs to implement and integrate into any learning experience. The educator simply provides 5 minutes at an appropriate part of the program to ask students two questions: “What is the most important thing you learned from this experience/session/workshop?” and “What is the most important question that still remains unanswered?” Ta-da! Almost instantly we are able to compare the answers to our learning outcomes and identify if students learned the appropriate concepts, material, and objectives.

Whether it is a peer educator leading a student workshop or a student affairs professional conducting a training session, CATs help us all be better educators and identify what our students are learning. Perhaps even more importantly, CATs allow us to correct any concepts students may still be unclear about in the next session, via email, through a social media stream, or passive program. This closes the loop and is mutually beneficial — students feel as though doing the technique was worth their time, while the educator can ensure that the students have learned the material that was missing. On a larger programmatic level, the data is easily analyzed and we are able to see if our co-curricular programs are fostering formal learning opportunities. Similar to how a faculty member may measure a student’s learning as they progress through a course, these techniques allow us to see how a student’s leadership skills, campus orientation, career goals, or community service experiences have enhanced their overall student learning experience throughout the year. It also allows us to measure which of the student competencies Laurie and Natalie referred to are successfully being met. If you’re looking to infuse meaningful and manageable assessment into your engagement programs, these techniques are purrfect.

Sara and her cat, looking up at the camera, assessment ready.

(Concept) Mapping Out Student Conduct Assessment

Having prior experience meeting with students about their conduct and the impact it can have on other members of the community, I have seen first-hand how influential student conduct is to student learning, whether our students realize it or not. As Jordon shared, although not generally thought of as such, conduct may provide the most effective forum for learning to occur, whether it be immediately after an incident, in a conduct meeting while recounting the event, or during an outcome that encourages our students to reflect on their learning experiences. Trying to capture the learning on all of these levels can be difficult, and to do so well, requires assessment and evaluation in a number of different ways.

As our conduct curriculum develops, so too does our ability and enthusiasm to capture what students are learning from their experience but also their satisfaction with the conduct process. Students who engage in our conduct program have an opportunity prior to and after each meeting to identify who they met with, discuss if they felt their voice was heard through the process, explain how much input they had in identifying an appropriate outcome for the situation, and articulate what they learned as a result of the entire process. Conduct administrators at any level can capture this data in a variety of ways, including social media and technological platforms, classroom assessment techniques, rubrics, and pre/post surveys. These methods provide impactful assessment and evaluation results, allowing us to improve our program and enhance the “Ah-ha!” moments in our meetings.

Concept map: an idea in the middle with many sub ideas scattered around the page, arrows linking similar thoughts; its all so colourful, popping right off the page! This ain't your grandpappy's assessment...

A concept map in action!

Perhaps my favourite assessment strategy we are implementing into our conduct curriculum is concept mapping. While there is plenty of opportunity to have students involved in the conduct process for negative behaviour to demonstrate their learning through this technique, we are currently focusing on those who positively contribute to our community. Focusing on the Conduct 360 model Jordon spoke of, we are encouraging the students we meet with to recognize their positive contributions to the community by mapping out how they have and will continue to act for the benefit of their community. By using a concept map technique, students are able to make relevant connections between their positive behaviour, the ways others in the community are positively impacted by their leadership, and additional ways to be involved in residence, on campus, and in the greater community. Not only does this activity allow educators to measure student learning and achievable outcomes, more importantly in our case, it provides a creative and visual representation of our educational priority: cultivating engaged leaders in their current and future communities.

At the end of the day, assessment provides us as educators with such an incredible ability to demonstrate that learning does happen outside of the classroom. As our programs continue to grow, our need to prove fiscal responsibility increases, and we continue to remind our colleagues that student affairs professionals are (and should be thought of as) educators, the need for assessment becomes more apparent. Finding creative and fun ways to infuse assessment into everything we do—conversations about community belonging, student engagement opportunities, or student conduct programs—allows us to highlight the value of our work and celebrate the worthwhile time and effort we put into creating intentional learning experiences outside of the classroom. Ultimately, assessment reminds us that we are educators and we all play a role in making student learning a messy, sparkly, intentional, and meaningful experience.

Cited Works

  • Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.
  • Henning, G.W., & Roberts, D. (2016). Student affairs assessment: Theory to practice. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.
  • Suskie, L. (2009). Assessing student learning: A common sense guide (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Sara Wills, Program Assessment Specialist (Acting)Sara Wills, Program Assessment Specialist (Acting)

(Previous Coordinator; Training, Assessment, Recruitment & Retention)

Sara is a lifelong learner always craving to know more. She is a creative and curious higher education professional with an HBA (History) from Lakehead University and a MEd from Memorial University of Newfoundland.  She is often known for being a research enthusiast, aspiring career coach, assessment nerd, NFL fan, and cat lady. Sara is a lover of all things purple and sparkly. Follow her on Twitter: @saramwills