Recently, I attended an excellent NASPA webinar entitled Powerful Data: The benefits of Direct Assessment in Student Affairs. Presenters Nathan Lindsay, Aimee Hourigan, and Jenn Smist did a great job of providing concrete examples that take some of the intimidation factor out of direct assessment.
Direct assessment is based on analysis of student behavior or artifacts (tests, papers, etc.) that demonstrate students' skills and abilities. Indirect assessment is based on reported perceptions of students' skills and abilities. So, for example, a Pulse survey that asks students to rate their ability to communicate effectively is an indirect assessment, and an evaluator's score of a student's presentation is a direct assessment.
But, only faculty can do direct assessment, right? Wrong! Admittedly it is easier to do direct assessment when you can require students to do something in order to pass a class, but it isn't impossible to do outside of the classroom. Let's start with the low-hanging fruit - those Student Affairs programs in which students are already required to meet certain requirements in order to participate. For example, resident assistants, peer educators, student employees, and student organization leaders all have to meet certain requirements in order to hold their positions. Direct assessment can be incorporated into these requirements. For example, peer educators need to have certain knowledge in order to do what they do effectively. A simple knowledge-based quiz administered before their training and after their training can provide direct evidence of knowledge gained. Further, you can go the extra mile and give them the quiz 3 months down the line to provide direct evidence of knowledge retention over time.
If you want to do direct assessment of an educational program or some other activity where you want to minimize student "work" in order to maximize student participation, you have some other options. For example, students are frequently asked to provide feedback about events via a short survey. It is possible to insert one or two questions (closed- or open-ended questions) that ask students to demonstrate what they learned or how a program affected their perspective. I believe it was Aimee who talked about this and when I inquired, she indicated that in her experience students were willing to complete these questions as long as they could be answered quickly and concisely.
Okay, but what if I want to assess higher-level skills, such as leadership ability among student organization leaders? Well, first you need to define the critical components of leadership ability. That's no small job, but you have some options. You might develop a rubric that could be used to do a 360-degree evaluation of a student leader. Members of the student organization, the organization's adviser, and other key people who interact with the leader might be asked to provide feedback using the rubric. Another option would be to require your student leaders to participate in reflective writing - probably not possible for every club president at Penn State, but perhaps with a few key leaders or with a group of RAs or peer educators you could make this work. For students that maintain an online portfolio, reflective writing about their experiences and learning can provide artifacts.
These are just a few ideas to get you thinking. What I took away from this session is that the key to direct assessment in Student Affairs is to focus in very tightly on critical or essential knowledge. This will help keep the task manageable.