Assessment: ‘Patience, persistence and listening’

Hillary Fuhrman and Sharon Stringer of Youngstown State University have been working to improve assessment standards for the university since 2008.

Hillary Fuhrman and Sharon Stringer

If Sharon Stringer has had a mantra over the past four years, it’s this: “Patience, persistence and listening.”

As director of the YSU Office of Assessment, Stringer has been one of the driving forces in the university’s efforts to improve the assessment of student learning outcomes across the campus.

“Better assessment helps us continually improve as a university, which helps student learning and teaching,” Stringer said. “And that, ultimately, leads to student success.”

The push to improve assessment dates back to 2008, when the Higher Learning Commission granted continuing accreditation for YSU but also recommended that the university build a stronger culture of assessment, including data-driven decision making and increased participation of faculty in assessment processes. The HLC also recommended improved assessment of the university’s general education requirements.

To address the concerns, YSU joined the HLC’s Academy for the Assessment of Student Learning, a four-year process aimed at improving campus assessment activities and engaging faculty, staff and students in assessment practices. Increased emphasis on assessment also was included in YSU’s 2020 Strategic Plan.

“We wanted to build awareness, develop a much richer assessment environment and create an atmosphere where assessment becomes a vital and ongoing part of the university’s operations,” said Hillary Fuhrman, assistant director of assessment, who was hired in 2009 to help in the Assessment Academy process.

Led by the 11-member YSU Academy Team and 14-member YSU Assessment Council, the process “started with very small steps” to gain the support of deans, associate deans, department heads, faculty, staff and students across campus, Stringer said.

Academic and non-academic units have participated actively in assessment activities. Each of the colleges created assessment committees. New general education requirements were approved and go into effect this fall semester. A new system was created to review student work in the general education program.

Last fall, YSU became the first university to complete an HLC Evidence Inventory visit, which included a comprehensive review of assessment practices across campus. Over the past three years, more than 40 faculty, advisors, administrators and students have participated in five roundtable sessions on assessment issues. More than a dozen workshops have been held to help refine assessment reports. Mini-grants have been provided to departments to help enhance and sustain assessment processes. Participation rates in assessment reporting have increased in both academic and non-academic programs, as have the quality of the reports.

All in all, Stringer said there has been “authentic and healthy change,” and she is optimistic that the HLC will agree when it reviews YSU’s efforts this coming fall. “They will look very carefully at everything we have done,” she said.

With approval, YSU will “graduate” from the Assessment Academy process and no longer be monitored by the HLC. But, Stringer cautioned, it is imperative that YSU sustains and builds on the improvements, noting that HLC will again study the university’s assessment practices during its next overall institutional accreditation review in 2018.

“We believe we have made tremendous strides, but we can always improve,” she said. “We must now be very careful to make sure that we continue to nurture the culture.”