Many career professionals are drawn to our field because we enjoy listening to clients’ stories. We help clients overcome struggles that are accompanied by feelings of confusion, depression and stress. We guide clients to obtain new-found confidence and career successes.
But how well do career services professionals tell our own stories – the stories of the value and impact of our career services? What differences do the career services that we offer make in clients’ lives? How do we know? How can we clearly demonstrate this impact to key stakeholders to garner support for our work?
Embracing program assessment provides opportunities to gather compelling evidence to tell our story of the value of career services. We can highlight the importance of our work to multiple audiences, as well as strategize ways to continuously improve the programs, services and resources we offer.
What is program assessment?
I like to think of program assessment as “a continuous process of gathering and interpreting evidence to tell a story about the effectiveness of career interventions for the dual purposes of continuous improvement and celebrating successes.” Fortunately, for career professionals, storytelling is a very natural part of our daily work. Let’s break this idea down.
Program assessment is a continuous process because it is integrated into every stage of designing, delivering, reflecting upon, and improving our career services and programs (also referred to as “career interventions”). From the moment you first think about outcomes you desire for your career intervention, to when you design your data collection strategies, to when you analyze and interpret your findings, to when you apply what you learned to future career interventions – this is all a part of the assessment process.
The program assessment process includes gathering and interpreting evidence. Many types of evidence exist (e.g. participation numbers, expressions of satisfaction, learning outcomes) and can be measured in many ways (e.g. surveys, focus groups, portfolios, work samples). It is most important that data are collected and analyzed in a planned, structured and systematic way. This helps us persuade target audiences that our data stories are high-quality and trustworthy.
Ultimately, programs assessments tell a story with evidence interpreted and applied within a specific context. These stories may be about people, programs, services or resources. The goal of assessment stories is ultimately to motivate or move stakeholder audiences toward some action.
That action is connected to the dual purposes of continuous improvement and celebrating successes. Program assessment stories often both demonstrate successes to be celebrated (the value or worth of career interventions), as well as highlight areas for improvement (ways that career interventions can be strengthened).
What might program assessment look like?
There are a variety of types of program assessment stories – each addressing different types of questions and narratives. Here are some examples:
Needs assessment. Needs assessment is about both identifying gaps (between where we are now and where we want to be) and taking action that leads to improvement. It requires recognizing and prioritizing gaps, strategically allocating resources to reduce gaps, and working continuously to improve practices, programs and services.
Participation. Participation assessments examine who is using career interventions, often describing users within demographic categories (e.g. age, gender, race, ethnicity) that are prioritized by the career office and institution. Interpretation of participation data helps career services professionals determine both who is being served by interventions and, just as importantly, who is not being served.
Satisfaction. Satisfaction assessments explore clients’ perceptions of the quality of career interventions through the lens of engagement, comfort, and enjoyment of content and delivery. If clients are engaged in and satisfied with a program, they are likely to talk about the experience in a favourable way (encouraging others to participate) and to return for additional experiences.
Outcomes. Outcomes assessments measure the results of participation in career interventions. The purpose of outcomes assessments is to determine to what degree clients are achieving desired goals and developmental milestones, as well as to what extent career interventions contribute to those achievements. There are a variety of outcomes that may be assessed, such as: learning outcomes (evidence of how clients have changed over time), performance outcomes (e.g. persistence, retention), and destination outcomes (e.g. secured employment).
How do I get started?
For those getting started with assessment, I encourage starting small and undertaking a practical assessment project that can be integrated into daily work and interactions with clients. Aim to tell one evidence-based story that is meaningful to your local audiences (and to you!). That is what assessment is about – telling powerful stories that will move those around you to action.
Start by picking just one of the assessment types introduced above. Which story type is more exciting to you: one of needs, participation, satisfaction or learning outcomes?
By selecting just one story to start with, you can keep expectations for assessment projects realistic and manageable. When one project is complete, you can then apply the skills and knowledge gained to the next assessment project.
Think of assessing career interventions in terms of building a house. Each project you do – each story you tell – is a single brick. Focus on laying one brick at a time, no matter how small, and building up a strong foundation. That foundation becomes a rich body of evidence to inform your actions and advocacy.
A final note: Looking for resources on how to carry out assessment projects or on the use of specific evaluation strategies and tools (e.g. surveys, rubrics, focus groups)? Visit the University of Illinois’ “Assessment Tools and Strategies” webpage to access our list of “Favorite How-to Assessment Resources” and review example assessment projects and resources.