Conference Presentation Feedback, Part 3: “But we need numbers!”

(See this post for an introduction to this blog series.)

The second most-common idea I found in the minute paper responses can be summed up in the following quotation:

We are going through accreditation, and the committee wants more than anecdotal – how do you assess to get the “numbers”?

I also got asked virtually the same question in the Q & A following my presentation at Brick & Click, and it was all I could do not to just goggle at the person asking the question and say, “oh my, you’re doing it wrong.”1

Okay, I’m going to put this in bold and italics to emphasize it because it’s important: assessment can be either qualitative or quantitative.  If, on your campus, “assessment” is synonymous with “quantitative,” well, I’m very sorry that you’re stuck in that predicament. And unfortunately, your predicament may have a lot to do with the distrust of assessment, especially among faculty (especially among humanities faculty) that I described in the previous post.

But rest assured, assessment can be qualitative, and my sense is that the regional accrediting agencies all recognize this.2 Deb Gilchrist, who writes and teaches extensively on assessment, is fond of saying that what you’re assessing doesn’t have to be measurable, it just has to be judgable.  That’s an important distinction.

But knowing that doesn’t help you solve your problem; chances are, you can’t wave your magic instruction librarian’s wand and change your campus’s policies regarding quantitative assessment.  What can you do with that magic wand?  Here are some thoughts:

  1. Do whatever you need to do to get “the numbers,” but also do qualitative assessment when and where you are able to fit it in.  (Nothing says you can’t tack on a quick “what’s one thing you still have questions about” question on an otherwise Likert-filled evaluation form.3) Then, use the qualitative data to tell a compelling story anyway, and see who listens. (Bonus points if you can sneakily, but explicitly, say that the story you’re telling is informed by qualitative assessment data.)4
  2. Also, keep in mind that you don’t have to assess (qualitatively or quantitatively) every thing every time.  Gradually build up a collection of anecdotes, and over time, they become data.  (More on this later.)
  3. The primary thing to keep in mind, though, is that while this kind of assessment work can be submitted to accreditors, etc., it doesn’t have to be.  It’s just as helpful to you as a teacher if, like my own minute papers, it never leaves your office.


  1. Please note that I fully recognize that that would have been a spectacularly inappropriate response, not least because a) it’s rude and unprofessional, and b) it almost certainly wasn’t that poor librarian’s decision to require quantitative assessment data.
  2. I don’t actually have any evidence for this claim, but I can’t imagine that people like Linda Suskie and Deb Gilchrist could be blithely advising campuses on qualitative assessment methods that don’t meet the requirements of one or more regional accrediting agencies.  But, if you’re reading this and have knowledge of a regional accrediting agency that doesn’t accept qualitative assessment data, would you please let me know, either in the comments below or via email — catherine dot pellegrino at Google’s email service — so that I can update my statements above? Because I’d be pretty mortified to be making statements like that that are just flat-out wrong.
  3. Just, for heaven’s sake, don’t put it at the end of the form. Students will never bother filling it out if you do. To give yourself the best chance of actually getting responses, put it right smack at the beginning.
  4. Note: I am not a PR/marketing consultant and have never tried this maneuver.  But it seems like it should work.

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