Assessing the Outcomes of Civic Engagement: Why Bother?

by the MNCC Assessment Leadership Team

Assessment is like flossing. We all know it’s a good thing to do, but we don’t necessarily act on that knowledge unless there’s an external push—a looming dentist visit or a funder’s requirement. Civic engagement practitioners, like most people in higher education, assess the results of their work primarily in response to others’ demands. Our daily lives are full. Yet assessment helps us track progress towards our goals and understand what factors contribute to success. It allows us to tell powerful stories and identify where we might best invest our time and money. It keeps us accountable to our own values as well as our partners. It thus helps us do our jobs better, advancing our institutions’ civic missions and broader movements for positive change.

So how can we fully commit to actions that are healthy for us in the long run? One step is simply recognizing assessment’s benefits as a matter of compelling self-interest. Another critical step is focusing on our strengths—taking the asset-focused approach we so often advocate in community partnerships. We have access not only to all sorts of useful resources and sample instruments, but also to institutional researchers and others with relevant responsibilities, skills, and interests. IR people, in particular, are expected to document and disseminate progress toward the institution’s mission, strategic priorities, and accreditation standards. They are increasingly being asked to explain the institution’s relationship with and impact on the community, as well as the meaning of a degree to alumni years after graduation. Civic engagement practitioners represent a source of valuable connections and knowledge for them, just as they offer quantitative research capacity and a fresh perspective on key questions and outcomes.

Assessment of civic engagement is ideally collaborative, involving multiple stakeholders within an institution, its partner organizations, and sometimes other campuses. It’s cross-cultural work too, as we build relationships, mutual trust and respect, and a sense of common purpose across differences. Along the way, we’ll practice and develop our reflection skills. Only with reflection will collecting data and stories lead to wisdom and greater insight into what works and why. Really looking closely at outcomes for communities and for students is an act of courage. It means being facing the risk of negative or neutral findings—and being willing to change and grow. Courageous leadership is something we seek to cultivate in our students, and we’ll teach it best when we model it too.

The Minnesota Campus Compact Assessment Leadership Team is a small group of civic engagement practitioners, institutional researchers, and faculty assessment coordinators committed to supporting enhanced assessment of civic engagement’s outcomes, grounded in this constructive vision and spirit. Our goal is to produce, in the coming months and years, brief pieces that highlight particular assessment tools and what was learned through their development and application. We’re also researching other resources and considering what opportunities we might offer for collaborative planning and assessment.

Reprinted from “Outcomes,”our assessment brief which is published twice a year and available at www.mncampuscompact.org/assessment

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