Rum Cake or Syracuse University: Assessment is the backbone of Reflection and Momentum for Continuous Improvement

Each winter break for at least 10 years, I have started the holidays by baking rum cakes for presents for family and friends. I have a recipe, and when I first started baking these cakes I followed it very closely. Family and friends love the cakes; then as I became more comfortable baking the cakes, I added some different things like blends of pecans and walnuts instead of just walnuts. Some of the cakes became more popular than others, but sometimes I couldn’t remember what I had done to the cakes that made it better or worse because I was not intentional about recording what I did and what the feedback was. However, I did know overall that people still liked eating my cakes regardless of the changes; so, to some extent I felt like it was mission accomplished. One of my friends said I should sell the cakes and asked which version was the most popular and why, and I couldn’t definitively answer that question; I just said they are all good. I couldn’t answer because I essentially wasn’t doing a formal assessment of my baking.

Well, to some extent, Syracuse University was in the same boat as my baking. Students, staff, faculty, researchers, funders, sponsors, employers and others love our students, scholarship, innovation, athletics and even the carrot cake from catering. The University has a long track record of making improvements aimed at improving student learning, campus life, business affairs and more, but if someone asked us to systematically show how these improvements have worked and which ones haven’t, it would have been difficult – UNTIL NOW!

The University now has developed a systematic approach to assessing itself against strategic objectives set at each program and unit level. We assess academic programs, co-curricular programs and functional areas. Even Chancellor Syverud is reporting back to the Board of Trustees how we are making progress on key goals that will help us live our mission and work toward realizing our vision.

The Middle States accreditation process is particularly interested in how we are assessing everything from parking services to doctoral education. What are our goals, how do we know if we are achieving them, and how are we making continuous improvements to do so? Each standard has assessment criteria embedded into it, and there is one standard dedicated just to it. So, it is critical that we have all hands on deck to demonstrate our assessing operation and program at Syracuse and using that data to get better.

The great thing about the three phases of assessment that the Office of Institutional Effectiveness & Assessment has developed under the leadership of Gerald “Jerry” Edmonds, assistant provost, is that we can easily see how we have defined our objectives and outcomes, how we measure them with data, what we found in the data, what we learned, and how we’re going to use this information to make improvements.

This week, my faculty colleagues, our academic coordinator and I in the Department of Public Relations met to discuss the assessment findings from the 2015-16 MS Program in Public Relations. (Yes, we are a bit delayed in our meeting –the meeting should be in August –because of a massive external review of our BS and MS public relations programs in the fall of 2016, but better now than never). At this meeting, we found areas where we could celebrate because we were meeting the mark and areas we could improve.

Although “PR Week” magazine named us the top Public Relations program in 2016 and as a finalist for 2017, we know we can’t rest on our laurels. The assessment data we collected using multiple direct and indirect measures enable us to pinpoint where we need to make improvements.

In fact, our 2016 external review team from the Public Relations Society of America for the Certificate in Public Relations Education (CEPR) wrote, “Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications houses an exemplary undergraduate public relations program…. The Public Relations Department assesses the curriculum annually and uses findings—along with input from practitioners—to update course offerings and content. Faculty members are clearly aware that the public relations industry is constantly evolving. They are committed to keeping Newhouse’s public relations curriculum up with those changes.”

If we can do it, you can too. If you need help, we have a team ready.

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  • Call: 315-443-4119
  • Drop-in: Every Monday between 10 a.m.–2 p.m. at 400 Ostrom Ave.

Together using assessment data, we will not only meet Middle States requirements, but we can become better and produce stronger students and scholarship.

By Rochelle Ford,