Notes from a Comments Watcher March 2012

Friday, Mar. 2, 2012 9:23 am

We move closer to the end of our strategic planning, endeavoring to meet our June deadline for producing the text of a plan. The many ideas generated will need to be implemented, and as we go forward we will need to know what succeeds. What succeeds for the College and what succeeds for the individual student/graduate are two facets of the same question, but they are not identical.  The calibration of institutional success in realizing the strategic plan will demand data, because our questions, to borrow a phrase from an old philosopher, will be infected with quantity. Our assessment of outputs (how many internships were completed, how many scholarly projects succeeded, how many students graduated) will be for the institution’s sake. The individual student, however, may not be interested in outputs but in outcomes of a program.  How will a student benefit from any given program?   The answer will be challenging to discern because Grinnell values individual success.  The existential success of a student’s journey, dependent on a unique combination of choices made and opportunities grasped, will resist aggregation.  Perhaps each graduate should be equipped with a device like an airplane’s flight recorder.  Flight recorders can reveal and explain the history of a plane’s flight, even though the events were not predictable.  Or perhaps every student should leave Grinnell accompanied by a biographer.  The individual outcomes for graduates will be of interest to the College, which will undoubtedly aggregate them into impacts, that is, general changes seen in the world and in our own College as a result of our programs. The strategic plan’s impact will be influenced by the total of its distinct offerings of innovative and ambitious teaching and learning.  The common challenge for examining outcomes and impacts will be to establish a convincing case that the Grinnell experience was an influence on a graduate’s successful life.  How can we know that the programs we support and the people who taught, trained, advised, mentored, and befriended a student touched the trajectory of the graduate’s life?  Where on an alum do we look to find the inscriptions of the people he or she met along the way?  The ongoing interest in assessment, in formative measurement and feedback, is not just a byproduct of strategic planning; it is one of the goals.  It is becoming clear that planning and assessment can no longer happen in discrete episodes.  Rather, they are seen as a permanent feature of the journey forward.  One recent draft of strategic planning put it this way: “Develop a culture of planning.”  It seems appropriate that an institution where students are invited to lead a life of the mind is becoming a mindful institution. Feedback on the success of strategic planning will help us navigate toward our institutional goals. – David Lopatto