silhouette of Brian Bourke in front of screen displaying inquiry

This post represents an update of a previous post I shared on LinkedIn in November 2015. I’m revisiting this topic on assessment on This topic reflects my overall approach and perspective on curiosity. By engaging curiosity collectively in organizations, we can make organizational commitments to using inquiry for continuous improvement. 

Inquiry is Cyclical

Image of the assessment cycle with mission and goals at the centerWhen I teach or present about assessment, I often reference assessment being cyclical. In doing so, I reinforce that assessment practice should be iterative. If our assessment process is cyclical, and through the cyclical nature the process is iterative, then it stands to reason that assessment practice in student affairs can be construed as inquiry.

When I talk about assessment as a cycle rather than a linear series of actions, I talk about the importance of a feedback loop. We need to use results not only to spur discussions that lead to data-driven decision making, but also to learn about the assessment cycle, or process, itself. There are a number of visual depictions of the assessment cycle, and they tend to reflect what’s pictured here.

I include variations of this image in my courses, but they are typically consistent with goals/objectives at the top of the circle, progressing through identifying approaches/methods, and concluding with making changes/using results. What’s missing from this and many visual depictions of the assessment cycle is evaluation of assessment practices. Is the iterative nature of the assessment cycle inferred when visual depictions are produced? I don’t like making that assumption, so I offer some thoughts about how we can reframe our discussions and thinking about assessment in student affairs.

Curiosity, Not Semantics

When I originally wrote the post on LinkedIn in November 2015, I had just presented on the idea of thinking about assessment as inquiry at the 2015 Southern Association for College Student Affairs Annual Conference in Greenville, South Carolina. In that session, I shared some thoughts about how shifting our thinking about assessment practice toward inquiry isn’t simply semantics. Shifting our thinking toward inquiry is about spurring conversations that seek to connect student affairs educators through questions.  When we focus on asking questions, and seek answers to those questions, we’re integrating curiosity into our work.

In a pre-conference workshop on teaching assessment (with Lisa Endersby and Ann Gansemer-Topf) at the 2014 NASPA Annual Conference, one of our big points was that assessment begins with asking the right questions.  If we shift our thinking toward inquiry, the cycle moves from a series of tasks to a dialogic progression. I can’t help but think about the potential of engaging curiosity through dialog.

Inquiry as Curiosity

The questions we ask drive our conversations about the work we do. As Keeling and his colleagues noted in Assessment Reconsidered, we need to address “assessment for, rather than of, learning.” Assessment for learning situates learning at the center of an organization, instead of treating learning simply as a metric to be evaluated. Inquiry rests on the notion of deep learning. You know deep learning takes place when lessons are applied. In an organizational context, an example might be ending the act of doing things because they have always been done.

As we engage each other through an inquiry-based framework, the inquiry cycle becomes an iterative process that is non-linear.

We ask big questions, not as a pinnacle from which assessment efforts cascade, but throughout the cycle of inquiry.

Within an inquiry framework, we ask questions about evaluation methods.

We ask questions about analysis strategies, and discuss the reports we generate.

Next, we need to ask questions about what’s next. These questions should come about in the midst of our efforts, not as an addendum to the end of the assessment process.

Rethinking our practices toward inquiry can be one strategy to build a culture of inquiry (assessment) in student affairs. Involvement of and discussion with members of our communities (e.g. departments) is central to inquiry practice.

Adaptation, not Word Replacement

You might have noticed that I’ve used the words inquiry and assessment throughout this post. I did this intentionally, to reinforce that shifting our thinking to inquiry isn’t just semantics of word choice. It’s OK to call what we do assessment. It’s how we’ve framed the practice of gathering evidence for the purposes of learning.

Adopting an inquiry-based framework isn’t about doing a find-and-change for assessment to inquiry in our documents. The move is about shifting our thinking toward engaging each other in dialog around key questions throughout the assessment cycle. This allows us to adapt our practices as we learn answers to the questions.

My hope for talking about inquiry is to help student affairs (and other organizations in higher education) enact their curiosity. We must gathering information, critically examine it, and reflecting on what it means to us. How better to look at the work we do, so we can really understand our work and the students we serve? So, let’s get curious, and start answer some deeper questions about ourselves. Be sure to check out the I’m Curious Podcast, where I offer quick take-aways on things I’m curious about.