Student Services and Assessment

The word “assessment” is often used in the context of students’ academics: measuring the learning that takes place in formal coursework. Let me suggest, though, that there are ways that administrators and staff who work in student services can both engage in their own assessment and help the academic side of the house with learning outcomes assessment.

(I’m speaking on this topic at the AALS Annual Meeting on Saturday, January 4, at 2:45 pm in Washington 1, if you’re interested in hearing more. My slides are attached here.)

Law schools employ many type of professionals besides faculty. A given law school may also have a dean of students’ office, career services office, externship program, registrar’s office, pro bono or public interest office, library, information technology office, writing center, and others. All of these offices interact with and support students in some fashion, whether by helping them get a job, providing legal research assistance, or facilitating pro bono opportunities.

These interactions not only have defined outcomes but also contribute to student learning. A career counselor, externship advisor, or librarian may directly or indirectly contribute to student learning, a concept called the “hidden curriculum,” which I have blogged about before. For example, a career counselor may educate a student about the legal profession, an externship advisor may inform students about norms in the workplace, and a librarian may help a student learn about legal research. (Support staff can also play a critical role in a student’s development. For example, a clinic secretary may pull a student aside to talk about the many typos he or she saw in the student’s document or help a student with figuring out how to file a document in the clerk’s office.)

Student services’ offices are, therefore, goldmines for finding evidence of student learning outside the class—what the academic literature on assessment calls “artifacts.” For example, I am currently working on revising our Externship Program’s exit evaluation forms, which are completed by site supervisors, to align with our J.D. learning outcomes. Once completed, we will have data on how externship supervisors believe our students are demonstrating substantive and procedural knowledge, legal analysis, problem solving, writing, and all of our other learning outcomes.

Student affairs professionals can also engage in their own assessment. Outcomes can be either learning-oriented or programmatic. As an example of the former, one can use pre- and post-tests to measure the extent to which students’ knowledge improved after a mandatory diversity and inclusion training. The same is true of leadership development programs and other extracurricular instruction. But outcomes can also be programmatic in nature: examining the programs and services themselves to see if they are achieving the goals one wants them to. What are the employment rates of graduates? Are students satisfied with the career services office? Has usage of the writing center increased? What is the experience of evening students with student services? These are all questions that do not directly relate to learning but that are meaningful in and of themselves because they help us measure whether our offices are achieving the goals that have been set out for them.

Building a culture of assessment within an organization is important, as I wrote about in my article on the subject. Like faculty, student services professionals should embrace a common-sense, student-focused approach to assessing outcomes. Outcomes should be specific and measurable, assessed one or two at a time, and yield information that will help with continuous improvement. The goal is not report writing but betterment of the student experience.