Kelli Rainey, Ed.D.
One of my mentors, a guru in the field of higher education assessment, often mentioned the phrase “assessing the elephant” in our conversations. Each time I heard the phrase, the mental image I painted in my mind became increasingly obscure. Was he saying that assessment was too big to tackle? Or the process of assessment too slow-moving? Or that assessment is the one thing in the room that everyone sees, but no one wants to talk about it?
Finally, I asked one day, “What does that mean? Assessing the elephant?” He chuckled and then explained that the phrase referred to a parable about six blind men trying to acquaint themselves with an elephant. One man’s approach is to feel the tail and conclude that the elephant is like a rope. Another man’s approach leads to thinking that the squirming trunk of the animal is like a snake. Each man suggests something different based on what part of the elephant they encounter.
In philosophy courses, this parable has become a prime example of moral relativism and religious tolerance. However, my mentor saw this story in a slightly different light when linked to assessment. If we think of assessment as a set of processes designed to improve, demonstrate, and examine student learning and development, “assessing the elephant” employs the idea that multiple perspectives as a whole help us understand the complexity of student learning and success.
This became an ‘aha’ moment, and the phrase stuck with me while serving as an institutional effectiveness professional at my former institution. In my role, like many responsible for IE functions, I provided leadership and support for planning, assessment, and improvement efforts in fulfillment of the institution’s mission and strategic priorities. As my office began preparing to submit an interim report to our regional accrediting body, we discovered that the current process of documenting the assessment of student learning, student success, and administrative effectiveness was erratic and limited. Moreover, faculty and staff could not continuously engage and interact with their reported data. As a result, communication within and between departments was inconsistent, unclear, and nonexistent.
Before we could progress further, these critical IE issues had to be addressed at that moment. In doing so the institution understood that it needed to strengthen its strategies around continuous improvement. I immediately reacted with the thought of complete standardization, where every program and every unit followed a uniform template for their annual assessment reporting. That would be a quick and easy solution, right? Not really.
To gather a better understanding of the critical issues at hand, I held conversations with program coordinators and unit managers. I discovered that assessments of student learning and development were occurring in all shapes and forms. Such was also true for the documentation of assessment. And a group of faculty members further explained their concerns. “Biology captures and analyzes assessment data differently than English, performing arts, business or any other academic program on campus,” one faculty member stated. “Why box us into a template that limits our collective understanding of student learning?”
And there was the aha moment – the “assessing the elephant” phrase I heard time and time again. To gain a clear picture of the institution’s performance and to allow data to inform decisions, I needed to centralize our IE efforts. But this was less about starting a new process or creating a uniform reporting template. I needed to capitalize on the multiple perspectives and bring together the ongoing assessment processes to help understand and improve upon the complexity of student learning and success.
However, building a culture of continuous improvement across an institution is a complex task, where even the most centralized institutions face with differing needs and levels of engagement among academic affairs, administrative and student affairs units. Some academic units have unique reporting requirements for their disciplinary accrediting bodies, while others struggle to see the value in the effort required to fulfill institutional reporting needs.
To generate a commitment to assessment amongst faculty and staff, I needed to respect the time commitments, value systems, and priorities of the academic programs as well as administrative and support units. Approaches to assessment that work for one area may not work for another. Assessment must be meaningfully integrated into IE processes and not an additional burden on the faculty or staff for encouraging broad participation. To do so, I acknowledged the decentralized assessment that existed and anchored it to a centralized management process.
Thus, the institution invested in a Institutional and Learning Effectiveness Solution to aid in our centralized management process – creating a comprehensive, systematic, and consistent approach to outcomes assessment, strategic planning and accreditation. The collaborative tool helped to organize all relevant data, track progress toward goals and learning outcomes, and produce detailed reports – all using proven technology. Every division, department, faculty and staff member could access the online platform to present data that represents learning and development in their discipline or support unit. The campus community was then able to see the connections between unit learning outcomes, divisional goals, and the institution’s mission. Moreover, stakeholders could better understand how the strategic priorities of the institution were being achieved comprehensively in its academic programs, student support services and administrative functions.
Nevertheless, as IE professionals, we know that an expanded data ecosystem doesn’t in and of itself solve the problem of centralized reporting. In a perfect implementation of assessment management technology, human needs are met with functionality that is flexible and relevant to all constituents, while at the same time structured and presentable for institutional stakeholders. To reduce the effort, elevate the experience, and unlock the potential of our institutional assessment data, we should empower our campuses with powerful tools that help to manage assessment workflows, monitor data collection, and generate clean reports without forcing a one size fits all reporting structure on the entire institution. And if we are truly “assessing the elephant,” we are stimulating a culture of continuous improvement that is creating openings for authentic data collection, highlighting opportunities for improvement, and demonstrating how results are used on campus.