What is a baseline?
This is a starting point against which you can show that your project has delivered a tangible improvement.
It may imply a measurable improvement in time, cost, quality etc but qualitative evidence that the experience of certain stakeholders has improved can be equally valid. By developing a baseline you ensure that you understand the current state of play before you try to change it.
The baseline is a component of your evaluation plan and a precursor as it can play an important role in helping define the scope of your project.
A rough outline of relevant project activities might include the following steps:
- Outline your project definition
- Define the baseline
- Refine your project definition in the light of the outcomes of baselining
- Identify where you hope to make improvements
- Identify how you will measure improvement and what sources of evidence you will collect
- Design your evaluation plan
- Conduct the project and post-project evaluation
- Compare the end result with the baseline.
Step seven is by far the largest project element and will consume the most time and resources but baselining and evaluation are the activities that show the project was worth doing. They assume increasing importance in the current climate - baselining can help you tackle the right issues in the correct way, involving the right stakeholders.
Evaluation ensures you deliver the expected benefits and capture the essential learning for your next project.
Why capture a baseline?
The benefits of capturing a baseline include:
- Getting project scope right – it gives you an opportunity to refine the scope of your project. You will realise you can’t solve a particular problem without tackling one or more related issues
- Identifying project stakeholders – you can avoid finding a “skeleton in the closet” further down the line in the form of a stakeholder you should have consulted but missed
- Managing and communicating project scope – baselining helps you manage stakeholders’ project expectations. You may need to clarify that certain issues are out of scope to avoid disappointment.
- Challenging myths – baselining activity can reveal myths that need challenging before you can move forward. Often they relate to unspoken assumptions about what aspects of practice, processes and systems can and can’t be changed; "We’ve always done it that way" isn’t a reason nor a justification
- Showing evidence of improvement – you can’t show how far you have travelled unless you know where you started.
What should be included?
There are no hard and fast rules; you need to decide what is appropriate for your project. Here we suggest aspects of the current situation that you might want to look at. Remember that a baseline is just that – at this stage you are describing a current state not trying to solve problems immediately.
You need to beware of ‘paralysis by analysis’ - don’t get so bogged down describing the way you do things now that you run out of time to improve them. Equally however you need to be aware that involving other stakeholders is a big step towards getting ownership and buy in for the eventual solutions.
|Aspect of current practice||Key questions||Types of evidence|
|Strategy and policy|
What strategies and policies have a bearing on assessment and feedback?
|Core institutional documents|
What does the vocabulary indicate about how this is approached/perceived?
|Where does responsibility/authority sit within the organisation?||Membership of relevant committees|
How do we do it now?
How does reality match the formal process?
What workarounds do we need and how often?
How long does it take?
|Service level agreements (SLA’s)|
Who is involved?
What is the level of take-up where systems/innovations are optional?
Where are the bottlenecks?
|When is information difficult to obtain/not timely?|
|Infrastructure||What institutional infrastructure supports the activity:|
|- physical estate|
|- support services|
|- Is the infrastructure under/over-used?|
|Can the infrastructure meet demand at all times?|
|How well are elements of the infrastructure integrated?|
What is the level of stakeholder satisfaction?
|National Student Survey (NSS)|
Are the right stakeholders involved?
Does responsibility/authority sit in the right areas?
|Is there effective communication between all stakeholders?|
How should you present the baseline?
There are no hard and fast rules however here are a few things to consider:
- Who are the audiences for the report? You may find the report a useful way of engaging other stakeholders
- How do you want each set of stakeholders to respond to the report eg,
- note and approve
- understand the theoretical basis of your project
- actively engage with your project
- use as a lever for change
- take other specific action
- Do you require different report versions for different audiences?
- What type of presentation/media will best get your message across to each set of stakeholders eg,
- graphs and figures
- comparison with other benchmarks
- authentic user experiences such as audio/video interviews
- citation of academic research
What if my project isn’t the only thing that could impact over the life of the project?
This is probably the case in very many projects. In learning and teaching related areas it’s notoriously difficult to attribute any kind of simplistic cause and effect because there are so many different factors at play.
Many projects may involve scaling up innovations that have been trialled previously so the project teams already have a good idea where they expect to see their interventions having an impact.
It’s important that your baseline captures aspects that are directly related to your intervention. You should agree your evaluation plan stakeholders and capture evidence that is credible and relevant.
The more ambitious your project the more difficult it will be to find simple cause/effect relationships. If you are looking to effect institutional transformation then you may expect to see changes to institutional strategy, policy and structures.
You may even expect to see changes in institutional culture as evidenced by interactions between different stakeholders and by vocabularies.
How do I get started with baselining?
For FE and skills, our guide assessment for learning: a tool for benchmarking your practice in FE and skills is a hands-on tool to help colleges and providers self-assess their assessment practices.
For examples of how others have approached baselining see a range of resources and examples from previous projects.