AIR: helping departments help students

What is the Assessment Improvement and Research Department 

The Assessment Improvement and Research Department, or AIR, is located in the Iowa Memorial Union. Staff, led by Associate Director for Assessment and Strategic Initiatives Teri Schnelle, recently transitioned into a new office which has made it easier for the team to communicate with each other.

AIR is focused on helping others to evaluate their departments and organizations and suggesting how they can best improve. Schnelle explains each of their three pillars. “The core idea is making good decisions based on evidence. For assessment it’s what are we trying to accomplish and how are we doing that. Then, with improvement, how do we better serve students - now that we know x, y, and z isn’t working, or is working, what can we do to make decisions and change programs to improve student life. Finally, research is what's the impact of every department spread across campus - how are we impacting and helping students to stay here, persist toward graduation, and learn skills as an outcome of all the services and programs we provide.”

"How are we impacting and helping students to stay here, persist toward graduation, and learn skills..."

Who are they serving

The AIR Department serves a wide range of people at the University of Iowa. “It’s all the departments in the division: the Iowa Memorial Union, the Office of Leadership, Service, and Civic Engagement, Marketing and Design, the Dean of Student Office, the Hawk Shop, Stuent Legal Services, University Housing and Dining, Student Health, Student Wellness, Student Disability Services, Rape Victims Advocacy Program, counseling services, Women’s Resource and Action Center, the Office of Sexual Misconduct and a variety of cultural centers. There’s a lot of different places outside of just the union,” Schnelle explains.

Each of these programs, in turn, serves the students of the University of Iowa and, while Schnelle's team is generally assisting the departments for the University, they’re also available to help students directly. Schnelle says, “If an organization comes to me specifically looking for help, I’ll help them do whatever they’re looking to do.”

The process

The AIR Department has a great process to guide them in doing their job. To start, Schnelle needs to know what her advisee is in need of. The first step Schnelle explains is, “It depends on what they’re looking for. Usually they come to me and say they want to do a survey, so I work with them by asking, “What are you trying to answer, what are your questions, what’s the purpose of the assessment you’re trying to conduct?” and figure out the “why”.”

Once the reason is determined, the next step is choosing a method which will help them best to get where they need to go. “Surveys, focus groups, interviews, document analysis and observations are all different ways we can potentially gather that information,” Schnelle says. After they gather what they need, the third step in the process is working to analyze the data.

From the data, Schnelle, or Schnelle's team members, and the group member they are working with will collaborate to create a report and write it together. Schnelle says, “From there, we then sit down to talk about what did you learn, what does this mean, what’s the data telling you about your decisions and, now that you know this, how can you change to make a better experience for the students.” 

Why it’s important

Because of how they serve the University, the AIR Department has the unique ability to touch every individual on campus. Schnelle believes the department has a responsibility to the students to aid them. “If we think broadly, it’s largely about this idea of we’re accountable. We’re accountable to students because they’re paying the tuition, they’re the ones making it possible for us to do what we do. We have to show them the money we’re spending has an impact on their experience.” While the students fund them, the AIR Department returns the favor by working to make the campus experiences the best they can be. 

"We have to show them the money we’re spending has an impact on their experience.”

Thoughts on the future

Schnelle is always looking for ways the AIR Department can grow. One of her ideas for this is a new member with a specific focus on data analysis. “The need is there, so i would love to have a person in the division who could do data analysis 24/7. Their job would be more complicated data analysis to free up myself and my colleagues to focus on decision making. Having somebody who could do that would be great… we could have a more targeted impact on the student experience,” Schnelle explains.

Aside from making an addition to the team, Schnelle hopes her department will be able to serve many more people in the future. “I like to say, my job is to put myself out of a job. I want to build the knowledge and the skills of all the staff I work with so they can do this without me. I want them to conduct, assess and to gather evidence. I want them to be able to do it themselves without relying on me. I helping them do it, but I’m also helping them to move along so someday they won’t need my help.”

Want to know more / get involved?

While the AIR Department is working on their own website, you can learn more at the Vice President for Student Life website.