Using the Assessment Cycle in Interfaith Programming
By creating ongoing cycles of assessment, educators can collect and analyze data systematically, and use that data to improve interfaith efforts on campus.
If institutions are interested in improving interfaith efforts, creating cycles of assessment on their campuses is an excellent place to start. By creating ongoing cycles of assessment, educators can collect and analyze data systematically, and use that data to improve interfaith efforts on campus. This resource provides a broad overview of the assessment cycle and provides examples of what each stage could look like in practice.
Explaining the Assessment Cycle
The assessment cycle outlined below is an adaptation of several prominent models.1 The assessment cycle is composed of five stages. Ideally, the cycle would begin with stage 1 (define learning outcomes/goals) and end with stage 5 (use data to inform change/refine programming). However, because the cycle is ongoing, it is possible to pick up the cycle at any point. This resource outlines the different stages of the assessment cycle and how this may manifest in interfaith initiatives.
Stage 1: Defining Learning Outcomes/Goals
The process of defining learning outcomes and goals is critical to creating effective cultures of interfaith assessment. Learning outcomes are statements of knowledge, understanding, and/or skills students are expected to gain by participating in the learning process.2 Goals include the aims and desired results of individual or collective action. Learning outcomes and goals are instructive and often help shape the critical questions that planned assessment can help answer.
Depending on the role or position of an individual on campus, interfaith learning outcomes or goals can look very different. For example, the first step for some individuals may include:
- Writing interfaith learning outcomes for a retreat, program, or course.
- Determining interfaith learning outcomes for your spiritual life or multicultural affairs office.
- Setting goals for improving the campus climate for certain religious or non-religious populations.
For new professionals and individuals who have never written learning outcomes before, Interfaith America has developed a resource to help create interfaith learning outcomes. We also have a bank of learning outcomes. We encourage you to not only review the learning outcomes posted there but also share some of the learning outcomes you write.
Stage 2: Align Learning Outcomes, Experiences, and Assessment Practices
After defining learning outcomes and goals, it is important to make sure there is alignment between your learning outcomes, the learning experiences within the department, and finally with the assessment practices (e.g. surveys, focus groups, interviews, etc.). Begin by mapping learning outcomes and goals on to current experiences and assessment practices. Two critical question help with this process: “how do these experiences (i.e. programs, events, etc.) help us meet our learning outcomes/goals?” and “how do our current assessment practices provide evidence to support our learning outcomes and goals?” In practice, the alignment process could look like:
- Evaluating programs based on what learning outcomes they meet.
- Examining current assessment practices in your department to ensure that they provide evidence for interfaith learning outcomes and goals.
- Selecting new assessment practices based on the learning outcomes and goals you want to assess (this may be obvious, but sometimes surveys or other assessment tools are chosen for their prestige rather than their utility).
- Creating new experiences or programs that are connected to or inspired by learning outcomes and goals.
Stage 3: Implementing Assessment Practices
After you have aligned assessment practices with learning outcomes and departmental goals, the next stage is putting assessment into action. This stage is straightforward, but requires planning. On many college campuses, surveys have become the default form of assessment because they can provide data about a potentially large group of students. Once the survey data is collected analysis can be completed fairly quickly. However, sometimes surveys are not the most precise or efficient way of gathering assessment data. Below are a few examples of other assessment practices:
- Reflection: These can be verbal or written assignments that invite students to think about and make meaning of their experiences within a particular program or role. Student reflections are a rich source of qualitative data that can answer questions about why students think, feel, or act in certain ways.
- Portfolios: These are a digital collection of a student’s best work (oral, written, artistic). They allow students to electronically provide data about their competencies, goals, and even experiences on campus.
- Rubrics: This tool converts observational data (either written or verbal) into data based on certain criteria. The Pluralism and Engagement Rubric provides a helpful example for measuring student interfaith growth.
- Embedded Assessment: This is literally integrating assessment practices into your program, such as requiring students write daily reflections on their interfaith service learning spring break trip.
- Focus Groups: This assessment practice brings together a small group of individuals (usually 5- 10) to ask them about their experiences and/or opinions. Focus groups are another way to collect qualitative data about student experiences.
- Needs Assessment: This is a simple form of assessment that asks what the needs of students are as it relates to campus offerings. Needs assessments are often done using surveys, but can be conducted in many ways.
- Tracking: This simple form of assessment tracks student use of services or programs (i.e. how many students use the interfaith room each week).
- Cost Effectiveness Assessment: This is a calculation that examines the cost of a program, event, function, etc. and measures it against the number of students or the specific outcomes the program meets.
All forms of assessment should be strategically planned ahead of time. You should have an idea of where you are going to recruit participants and what kind of information will you collect.
Stage 4: Analyzing / Making Meaning of the Data
After collecting data, the next step is to some time to analyze and make meaning of it. In order to get the most from your data, we encourage you to take the following three steps: spend time with the data, look at multiple sources of data, and bring other stakeholders into the process.
First, we encourage you to spend time with the data and reflect on it. If you have spent time collecting data, then it is important for you to invest time in thinking about the data that you’ve collected. Analyzing and making meaning of the data is the precursor to creating change and improving the interfaith experiences of students on campus.
Second, where appropriate compare your findings with other institutional data. This requires asking questions about other assessment and outcomes data on campus. Institutional researchers or assessment specialists within your division are good people to talk with in order to find other data collected from local or national instruments. Combining that data with other data you have collected creates a more nuanced picture and a possibly more compelling narrative of student learning on your campus.
Third, bring other stakeholders into the interpretation process. Each person brings a unique lens to the data and inviting more perspectives into the analysis helps you create a more nuanced and thorough understanding of the information. A diversity of stakeholders can also spur ingenuity and creativity for future planning of campus interfaith initiatives. By working with stakeholders you can inform them of the data you have collected and further engage them in the interfaith work you are doing.
Stage 5: Using Data to Inform Change/ Refining Programming
After analyzing the data, invest time in actually utilizing the data in your work. Doing so opens up the possibility for transformational change. This final step is often referred to as “closing the loop,” because the assessment cycle is left open without the data being applied to inform change. To help guide the process, below are some questions to think about. Based on collective analysis of the data:
- What parts of interfaith cooperation on campus need to change?
- Which parts of your interfaith programs work well?
- What other information do you now need to collect?
- What other stakeholders could benefit from sharing the information?
These questions will help provide action steps and serve as a launch point for the next round of assessment. This is also a moment to evaluate the effectiveness of the assessment goals and processes, and to consider making changes informed by your learnings this cycle.
Conclusion: Getting on the Assessment Cycle
Assessing interfaith efforts on campus can be a rewarding process; it also has the potential of helping sustain and improve the experiences and outcomes for students on your campus. We encourage interfaith educators to establish a continuous cycle of assessment. By doing so you are better able to provide continuous improvements to interfaith services and programs on your campus.
1 See Peggy L. Maki, “Developing an assessment plan to learn about student learning,” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 28, no. 1 (2002): 8-13. Also see Megan Oakleaf, “The information literacy instruction assessment cycle: A guide for increasing student learning and improving librarian instructional skills,” Journal of Documentation 65, no. 4 (2009): 539-560.
2 L. Dee Fink, Creating Significant Learning Experiences (San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2003).