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Benchmarking Strategies For Any Campus

Making sense of assessment data and establishing institutional goals
University Business, June 2018

While gathering various types of assessment data can be vital to help college and university leaders identify areas for improvement and to influence strategic decision-making, it can be challenging to make sense of this data, and to act accordingly. Benchmarking can address this challenge by providing a better understanding of the data, identifying which results are outstanding or concerning, and helping higher ed leaders to establish goals for their institution.

This web seminar explored benchmarking and why campus leaders should use it, and highlighted some practical strategies for using benchmarking effectively at any campus. 


Sherry Woosley, Ph.D.
Director of Analytics and Research

Robert Aaron, Ph.D.
Executive Director Student Affairs Assessment and Planning
Northwestern University

Sherry Woosley: When you think about getting quantitative data, we often get some sort of a mean score. Fundamentally, benchmarking gives you context for that number, and it’s context that allows you to do some interesting things. A benchmark is the standard, the reference by which we can tell what the data means. We have four types of benchmarking:

1. Standards benchmarking is where you take a result and you compare it to the standard of performance. A standard of performance is your desired level—that’s your goal. It may be a minimum score, or an industry standard or a gold standard.

2. External benchmarking is common in higher ed. We compare to the institutional peer group often. You compare your results to other institutions. Often, those peer groups are defined as institutions that are like you. Maybe they’re similar in inputs, activities, size and selectivity. You pick a peer group that you would expect to have similar outcomes to you. The other thing I see a lot is to throw in one or two aspirational peers, the institutions you want to be like—you’re not expecting to hit their levels now, but that’s where you’re heading.

3. Internal benchmarking is comparisons within your institution, or within or between your departments or divisions. Maybe it’s comparing all the different science departments, or the different residence halls, to see if learning and satisfaction are spread out or if there are pockets of outstanding outcomes. You can also compare courses or sections. Or you can look at the learning outcomes of different kinds of leadership workshops, or you can do internal benchmarking around sub-groups of students. We do this a lot when we want to know, for example, more about our students with a military background and how they compare to the rest of our students.

4. Longitudinal benchmarking, sometimes called longitudinal analysis, is doing these types of comparisons through time. You can do year-over-year or even month-over-month to see what’s happening. You can do academic calendar comparisons, or maybe cohort comparisons. For example, how do our first-year students look different than our seniors, and what does that mean?

Robert Aaron: We’re working on a few things at Northwestern for which we are using benchmarking data.

With our internal Skyfactor resident assessment, we get things like satisfaction by residence hall, or engagement in learning by the different areas. We are in the process of renovating all of our residence halls over the next several years. We are using the data to be able to granularly dig into the different residence halls so that we can compare satisfaction overall within each. We can manipulate the data on our own above and beyond the reports that we get from Skyfactor in order to do some additional analyses and find the points where folks are more satisfied or more engaged with learning, and where the neighborhoods are that need some work.

This year we’re rolling out the new undergraduate residential experience, and next year will be the first time that second-year students are required to live on campus. We’re going to use Skyfactor to see the impact of the changes we’re making.

It’s also important to be very intentional about how often you are collecting data. You don’t necessarily have to collect it every year in order to track trends over time. You can collect it every two or three years if that’s more appropriate, depending on how quickly you’re rolling out changes at your institution.

Our external assessment is still in process. We just closed our administration of the Multi-Institutional Study of Leadership. We pulled a random sample of our students that will be part of the comparison between us and other institutions. Then we have the opportunity to create some of our own samples as well. We have a sample of “involved” students—resident advisors, student employees, student organization officers, members of fraternities and sororities. We also have a cohort of our women in leadership group and other leadership education programs that we have made sure to get into this mix.

Having a large overview of respondents is a very helpful indicator when comparing institution to institution. If we then need to get more granular, it’s important for us to have a rigorous assessment routine within the office so that we’re administering satisfaction surveys or other kinds of data collection internally so we can try to explain some of the trends that we may see when we’re comparing ourselves to others.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, please go to