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Setting Up Assessment Year to Year: Five Key Questions

This content was previously published by Campus Labs, now part of Anthology. Product and/or solution names may have changed.

The summer months provide an opportunity to reset, reflect and re-examine many of our institutional processes. As we strive to make annual assessment meaningful and manageable, we must evolve ongoing processes based on our unique students, curricula, resources and culture. Whether you assess an academic program, a student affairs area or institutional effectiveness, here are five key questions to consider when setting up assessment year to year.

1. What is your “why”?

Perhaps the most critical question to ask each year is why you assess in the first place. The answer may seem obvious initially but discussing it among a team is valuable for faculty and staff alike, whether they are new to the process or experienced veterans. Laying this foundation helps build a culture of assessment and mitigate challenges later.

2. Does your assessment cycle contain multiple phases?

If your annual assessment process comprises a one-time report that looks more like data dump than a thoughtful inquiry into student learning, it’s time to consider multiple phases to keep faculty and staff on track to meaningful changes. We know that an assessment cycle should culminate in closing the loop. We also know that this is a challenging part of the process and one that many of us are not doing. Think of the rhythms of your academic year and select a multi-phase framework (such as the Plan, Do, Check, Act cycle) to set reasonable expectations throughout and ensure there is a dedicated stage for improvements.

3. Is your assessment culture part of the academic calendar?

In addition to adopting a multi-phase cycle, aspects of assessment culture can be built into the academic calendar. Carving out enough time for assessment meetings and ongoing professional development, offering release time or fellowships and celebrating the work that has been completed all underscore the importance of assessment. Customize your calendar to fit your culture, while keeping in mind assessment is continuous and adaptable.

4. How many outcomes are you assessing?

Determining what to assess is an essential step. While an institution, program, or unit may have several outcomes, it is unusual to assess all of them each year. Instead, you may choose to follow the advice of Blaich and Wise [1] and focus on a small number of outcomes – or even just one. Why? Ambitious assessment plans in fall can become unwieldy in spring, as we face the task of extracting insights from data and proposing changes. A smaller number of outcomes focuses efforts and keeps the process manageable. Just make sure that the outcome(s) you select align to the mission of the program or area you are assessing.

5. How flexible is your assessment process?

Assessment should not be set in stone. Adopting a framework and utilizing reporting templates provide consistency, but the process must be flexible (Banta & Palomba) [2]. For example, a program may modify a measure, or opt to continue data collection beyond its assigned phase if results are surprising. Or, as we saw this past spring, an unexpected event may force us to rethink assessment entirely, including types of assessments conducted, technology used and reporting deadlines. Indeed, in a recent survey conducted by Campus Labs, 96% of respondents indicated that they had adjusted their assessment activities in the wake of COVID-19.

As you prepare for the next academic year, with new challenges and (hopefully) triumphs, keep these five questions in mind. Instead of hitting repeat on your process, examine what’s in place, what’s working and what needs adjustment, all in the spirit of continuous improvement.


[1] Blaich, C., & Wise, K. (2011). From gathering to using assessment results. National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment

[2] Banta, T. W., & Palomba, C. A. (2014). Assessment essentials: Planning, implementing, and improving assessment in higher education. John Wiley & Sons.


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