Could a focus on learning outcomes unwittingly sacrifice process for product?

A central tenet of the learning outcomes movement is that higher education institutions must articulate a specific set of skills, traits, and/or dispositions that all of its students will learn before graduation. Then, through legitimate means of measurement, institutions must assess and publicize the degree to which its students make gains on each of these outcomes. Although many institutions have yet to implement this concept fully (especially regarding the thorough assessment of institutional outcomes), this idea is more than just a suggestion. Each of the regional accrediting bodies now requires institutions to identify specific learning outcomes and demonstrate evidence of outcomes assessment as a standard of practice.

This approach to educational design seems at the very least reasonable. All students, regardless of major, need a certain set of skills and aptitudes (things like critical thinking, collaborative leadership, intercultural competence) to succeed in life as they take on additional professional responsibilities, embark (by choice or by circumstance) on a new career, or address a daunting civic or personal challenge. In light of the educational mission our institutions espouse, committing ourselves to a set of learning outcomes for all students seems like what we should have been doing all along.

Yet too often the outcomes that institutions select to represent the full scope of their educational mission, and the way that those institutions choose to assess gains on those outcomes, unwittingly limits their ability to fulfill the mission they espouse. For when institutions narrow their educational vision to a discrete set of skills and dispositions that can be presented, performed, or produced at the end of an undergraduate assembly line, they often do so at the expense of their own broader vision that would cultivate in students a self-sustaining approach to learning. What we measure dictates the focus of our efforts to improve. As such, it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which the educational structure that currently produces majors and minors in content areas is simply replaced by one that produces majors and minors in some newly chosen learning outcomes. Instead of redesigning the college learning experience to alter the lifetime trajectory of an individual, we allow the whole to be nothing more than the sum of the parts – because all we have done is swap one collection of parts for another. Although there may be value in establishing and implementing a threshold of competence for a bachelor’s degree (for which a major serves a legitimate purpose), limiting ourselves to this framework fails to account for the deeply-held belief that a college experience should approach learning as a process – one that is cumulative, iterative, multi-dimensional, and, most importantly, self-sustaining long beyond graduation.

The disconnect between our conception of a college education as a process and our tendency to track learning as a finite set of productions (outcomes) is particularly apparent in the way that we assess our students’ development as life-long learners. Typically, we measure this construct with a pre-test and a post-test that tracks learning gains between the years of 18 and 22 – hardly a lifetime (the fact that a few institutions gather data from alumni five and ten years after graduation doesn’t invalidate the larger point). Under these conditions, trying to claim empirically that (1) an individual has developed and maintained a perpetual interest in learning throughout their life, and that (2) this life-long approach is direct attributable to one’s undergraduate education, probably borders on the delusional. The complexity of life even under the most mundane of circumstances makes such a hypothesis deeply suspect. Yet we all know of students that experienced college as a process through which they found a direction that excited them and a momentum that carried them down a purposeful path that extended far beyond commencement.

I am by no means suggesting that institutions should abandon assessing learning gains on a given set of outcomes. On the contrary, we should expect no less of ourselves than substantial growth in all of our students as a result of our efforts. Designed appropriately, a well-organized sequence of outcomes assessment snapshots can provide information vital to tracking student learning over time and potentially increasing institutional effectiveness. However, because the very act of learning occurs (as the seminal developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky would describe it) in a state of perpetual social interaction, taking stock of the degree to which we foster a robust learning process is at least as important as taking snapshots of learning outcomes if we hope to gather information that helps us improve.

If you think that assessing learning outcomes effectively is difficult, then assessing the quality of the learning process ought to send chills down even the most skilled assessment coordinator’s spine. Defining and measuring the nature of process requires a very different conception of assessment – and for that matter a substantially more complex understanding of learning outcomes. Instead of merely measuring what is already in the rearview mirror (i.e., whatever has already been acquired), assessing the college experience as a process requires a look at the road ahead, emphasizing the connection between what has already occurred and what is yet to come. In other words, assessment of the learning that results from a given experience would include the degree to which a student is prepared or “primed” to make the most of a future learning experience (either one that is intentionally designed to follow immediately, or one that is likely to occur somewhere down the road). Ultimately, this approach would substantially improve our ability to determine the degree to which we are preparing students to approach life in a way that is thoughtful, pro-actively adaptable, and even nimble in the face of both unforeseen opportunity and sudden disappointment.

Of course, this idea runs counter to the way that we typically organize our students’ postsecondary educational experience. For if we are going to track the degree to which a given experience “primes” students for subsequent experiences – especially subsequent experiences that occur during college – then the educational experience can’t be so loosely constructed that the number of potential variations in the ordering of different students’ experiences virtually equals the number of students enrolled at our institution. This doesn’t mean that we return to the days in which every student took the same courses at the same time in the same order, but it does require an increased level of collective commitment to the intentional design of the student experience, a commitment to student-centered learning that will likely come at the expense of an individual instructor’s or administrator’s preference for which courses they teach or programs they lead and when they might be offered.

The other serious challenge is the act of operationalizing a concept of assessment that attempts to directly measure an individual’s preparation to make the most of a subsequent educational experience. But if we want to demonstrate the degree to which a college experience is more than just a collection of gains on disparate outcomes – whether these outcomes are somehow connected or entirely independent of each other – then we have to expand our approach to include process as well as product.  Only then can we actually demonstrate that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, that in fact the educational process is the glue that fuses those disparate parts into a greater – and qualitatively distinct – whole.

Make it a good day,


Athletes, Enrollment, and Retention

It’s becoming more and more clear that the way we have thought about retention in the past is just too simplistic. Too often we use terms like “levers” or “buttons” in suggesting that if we could only identify the right thing to change, then retention would improve. However, when we don’t take the time to fully match our metaphor to the complexity of our circumstances, we run the real risk of putting in a lot of effort for very little improvement. For example, if we like the idea of one or more “levers” that we think we can move to systematically impact our retention rate, our metaphor can’t assume that the levers under our control are independent from each other. As we all know, the educational endeavor in which we are involved is much too complex. For our metaphor to be accurate (and therefore useful in identifying a course of action that has the best chance of producing positive results), we have to understand that each lever over which we have control is welded to other levers. In essence, moving one lever will automatically re-position others that also affect the long-term health of the college.

One example of this complexity became more apparent recently as we were examining our retention data among athletes.  Over the years we’ve found that typical first-to-second year retention rates among students who self-report as athletes are higher than our college average, and four, five, and six year graduation rates of athletes don’t differ between athletes and non-athletes. However, in digging a little deeper we found that about 45% of the students who left during the 2012 school year (a subset of the all the students who leave sometime between their first and second fall terms) started that academic year as athletes, a much higher proportion than the overall percentage of students who identify as athletes at the end of the year (about 30%). Unlike prior retention analysis where we used student self-reports of athletic status, for this analysis we looked at all of the students who were listed on all sports team’s initial rosters – including all the students who quit their sport before the end of the season and therefore didn’t report themselves as athletes on the end-of-the-year survey.

At first, one might think that this is a problem for athletics to solve (stereotypes of the hard-nosed dictator/coach chasing off less capable athletes might come to mind). However, further exploration exposes the degree to which our levers are welded together. You’ll forgive me if I borrow from my decade of experience in college athletics here to make my point.

It is no secret that our investment in athletics is, at least in part, based on the reality that athletic opportunity is a potent enrollment draw.  Our coaches play a significant role in encouraging perspective students to come to Augustana, both by initiating recruiting relationships and by offering opportunities to those students who inquire. This is clearly evident in the size of many of our sports’ initial rosters; especially among men’s sports. However, in the same way that the student-faculty ratio matters in creating a high touch, personalized college experience, the athlete-coach ratio matters too.  Large rosters can make it more difficult for a coach to connect with each player. And especially among younger athletes who may have less opportunity to compete due to the presence of older, more skilled players, this can exacerbate feelings of uncertainty and self-doubt that sometimes produce a decision to leave the team – and even the college. In the end, the way that we are using one lever (athletics) to meet enrollment goals may be increasing the likelihood of attrition among a certain subset of students.

Please understand that I am not advocating that we change anything.  Instead, given the the number of sports we offer and the way that we current organize our athletics programs, I am simply pointing out an example in which a lever we use quite effectively to meet one goal (enrollment) might well be creating an obstacle that limits our ability to meet another goal (retention).  I suppose one could argue that we should consider offering an additional sport or two so that athletics could still recruit the same overall number of students while reducing the average roster size of the individual sports. However, that depends on whether the increased costs of an additional sport (salaries, facilities, operating funds) would be offset by a potential increase in retention of students who came to Augustana with the intention of playing a sport. Obviously this is a pretty sticky question without a clear answer.

Again, my point here is only to highlight a trade-off – one that might be entirely legitimate – where we meet one set of goals in a way that potentially increases the difficulty of meeting another set of goals. Optimizing our retention rate is about finding our sweet spot. It’s not just about moving individual levers. That is what makes it so incredibly challenging – especially when we are trying to squeeze the last drops of optimizing out of something that we already do comparatively pretty well.

Make it a good day.  And enjoy the holiday.


The Fallacy of Matching Majors with Careers

It seems that most of the talk in recent months about the ROI (return on investment) of a college degree from a given institution has been focused on the degree to which new graduates from that institution can get well-paying jobs related to their major.  For liberal arts colleges and those of us who believe in the importance of a well-rounded education, the whole idea of assuming an inherent connection between major choice and career seems problematic.  Not only are there plenty of majors that don’t have a natural correlate on the job market (e.g., philosophy majors come to mind), but we are also regularly bombarded with the claims that individuals in today’s world will hold multiple jobs in multiple professions over the course of their working careers. Thus it seems odd to suggest that a college’s effectiveness could be pinned to the proportion of graduates who have landed jobs in their field within six months of graduation.

One data point from our survey of recent graduates seems to highlight this conundrum. Nine months after a class of seniors graduates, we ask them to complete a survey that asks a variety of questions about their current status, the degree to which their Augustana experience helped prepare them for their present circumstance, and the degree to which they believe that they are on the right long-term path.

One of the questions we asked our 2012 graduates last spring (about nine months after they had received their BA degrees from Augustana) was:

“Have your long-term professional goals changed since you graduated from Augie?”

The distribution of responses was revealing.

Not at all


A little








In other words, fewer than 50% of the 2012 graduating class considered themselves on the exact same long-term path that they were on when they walked across the stage to collect their diplomas.  In addition, over a quarter of the respondents said that their long-term goals had changed “somewhat,” “substantially,” or “completely.”

I believe the result of this single question holds critical implications for our efforts to best prepare our students to succeed after college.  First of all, this finding supports what we already know to be true – many of our students are going to change their long-term goals during their first several years after graduation. This is what happens to young people during their first foray into the world of working adulthood. We would be foolish to tie ourselves too tightly to a data point that doesn’t allow for these natural developments in the life a young adult.

Second, rather than mere job or graduate school placement, we would be smart to begin thinking about our students’ post-graduate success in terms of direction and momentum. Our students need to develop a clear sense of direction in order to decide what the best “next step” is for them. In addition, our job is to help them know when to take that “next step,” whether it be getting into the right graduate school or finding the right job or taking advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that will better position them to move in the direction they have chosen for themselves. If we can do that, then no matter what happens to our students in the years after they graduate, they will be better able to succeed in the face of life’s inevitable challenges.

In concert with a sense of direction, our students need momentum.  This momentum should be self-perpetuating, cultivated by the right mix of motivations to handle setbacks and success. More importantly, it needs to be strong enough to thrive in the midst of a change in direction. This means that we develop their ability to be autonomous while holding themselves to high standards.  It means that they know how to be strategic in staying true to themselves and their goals no matter the distractions that might appear.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care about our students’ success in applying to graduate school or entry-level jobs in a given profession. On the contrary, we absolutely should care about statistics like these – especially if they support a student’s chosen direction and momentum.  But we should remember that a successful life isn’t etched in stone upon graduation from college.  And we should have the courage to track our students’ life trajectory in a way that doesn’t limit both us and them.

Make it a good day,




How does student learning happen?

Since it’s finals week, I’ll be quick.  However, I hope you’ll take some time to think about this little tidbit below as our strategic planning conversations address examine how we are going to make sure that every student develops the ability to integrate ideas to solve complex problems.

I saw George Kuh give a talk on Saturday afternoon in which he showed the following cartoon.  Even though the whole audience found it funny, the point he was trying to make about the degree to which we often fail to ensure that students learn what we say we teach them was dead serious.

We claim that a liberal arts education teaches students how to integrate disparate ideas from a wide range of disciplines and contexts to solve complex 21st century problems.  At the same time, however, the experiences we require are specific to individual disciplines or topics while the truly integrative experiences remain optional add-ons . . . if they exist at all outside of the major.

So the question I’d ask you to think about is this:  How do we know that every student participates in a rigorously designed activity that explicitly develops the ability to integrate knowledge from multiple fields of study to solve substantive, complex problems? And how could we design a college experience where we could demonstrate that every student participated in such an activity?

Make it a good day.  And have a great fall break.


Week 10 + Halloween + Slicing Data = Disengaged Zombie Students!

I suspect that the confluence of Week 10 and Halloween brings out a little crazy in each of us.  So I thought I’d share a brief response that I prepared for a recent media request regarding the potential existence of one underserved student population on our campus.

From our senior survey data, we find that students who self-report as Zombies also report statistically significantly lower levels of engagement across a wide range of important student experiences. These differences include lower levels of participation in class discussion despite higher satisfaction with faculty feedback.

Zombie students also report lower levels of co-curricular influence on understanding how one relates to others. Further qualitative study suggests a broad lack of self-awareness.

In addition, Zombie students indicate that they have fewer serious conversations with students who differ by race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or social values.  Instead, Zombie students seem to congregate together and rarely reach out of their comfort zone.

Interestingly, our first-to-second year retention rate of student zombies is 100%, despite the high number of PUGS and CARE reports.  Yet our six year graduation rate is 0%. While some have expressed concern over this dismal data point, a few administrators who are closely involved in managing the graduation ceremony have suggested that the graduation ceremony is long enough already without having Zombie students shuffling aimlessly across the stage to get their diploma.

Interestingly, Zombie students report an increased level of one-on-one student/faculty interaction outside of class.  We find no evidence to suggest that this correlates in any way with the substantial drop in the number of part-time and adjunct faculty from last year (108) to this year (52).

Happy Halloween and have a wonderful Week 10.

Make it a good day,


Does our educational community lose something when seniors live off campus?

I’ve yet to find an Augustana senior who wishes they lived on campus.  In fact, the seniors I’ve talked to seem almost relieved to finally stretch their wings and move into the surrounding neighborhoods, even though they often say they had hoped to find a cheaper or nicer place nearby.  As far as I can tell, seniors have lived off campus at least since the 1970s, and this practice is so embedded into our culture that the very name of our junior students’ housing – Transitional Living Areas (TLAs) – announces our desire to prepare seniors to live on their own.

As our strategic planning discussions have coalesced around designing and implementing a purposefully integrated, comprehensive Augustana learning experience, I’ve been thinking about the real challenge of creating a plan that allows us to balance the individualized needs of each student with the core elements of a genuine community.  Although this might not appear all that difficult at first, efforts to achieve goals for individuals or certain subgroups of students can sometimes run at cross-purposes with maintaining a community culture optimal for student learning.  Several years ago we found an interesting example of such unintended consequences when we discovered that our efforts to encourage students to join multiple campus organizations (knowing that such behavior often enhances social integration and ultimately influences retention) was likely, albeit unintentionally, limiting the chances for conversations between students from substantially different backgrounds or demographic groups (thus undermining our efforts to increase students’ intercultural competence).

With all of this in mind, I was stuck by one data point from last year’s seniors about the impact of our fourth year residential status. The question asked our graduating seniors, “How often did you participate in on-campus events during your senior year?”  Responses ranged as follows:

  • less than when I lived on campus (200 – 39.9%)
  • about the same as when I lived on campus (279 – 55.7%)
  • more than when I lived on campus (22 – 4.4%)

So how does this relate to the aforementioned tension between encouraging individual development and fostering an ideal educational community?

First of all, when we talk about Augustana College, we almost uniformly talk about the educational and developmental benefits of a four-year residential experience.  I suspect that when we talk in these terms, we imagine that this distinguishing characteristic plays an influential role at both the level of the individual and the community.  At the individual level it presents itself in the form of leadership positions and the responsibility of being the senior class.  At the communal level it presents itself through those same channels but in terms of the influence of those leaders on younger students and the atmosphere and legacy that a senior class can create that can permeate an entire campus.  While this can play out in both directions through formal channels and during formally organized events, the broader impacts are likely more pervasive through informal rituals and signaling (to use a term familiar to social psychologists and anthropologists).

However, if our seniors are living off campus in their last year, it seems like this could, at the very least, limit the educational potential and influence of the fourth year students on the rest of the student community.  Based on the substantial proportion of seniors who indicated that they participated in fewer campus events than when they lived on campus, and taking into account our other data that clearly shows a high level of overall involvement among our students overall, I’d suggest that we might have set up a situation where we have maintained the educational opportunities that contribute to individual development among our seniors, but we may be missing out on some of the benefits to a residential educational community that our senior class might provide if they lived on campus.

There are lots of reasons to suggest that we should be cautious in drawing too many conclusions from this particular data point.  For many of our seniors, they may be busy with off-campus internships, graduate school applications, or other involvements that emerge as they begin to prepare for life after college.  They could also be hosting off-campus parties that have varied effects – both good and bad – on our campus community.  And given the long history of seniors living off campus, I’ll bet that there are a certain set of beliefs or mythologies about one’s senior year that are deeply embedded into the student culture.

Yet I’d ask that as we endeavor to create an integrated learning experience that is truly comprehensive and clearly distinctive in terms of preparing students for lives of financial independence, unintended discoveries, and a legacy of success, I hope we are willing to seriously consider all of the possible design elements that might make such an educational experience and environment possible.  And I hope that we are bravely able to keep a balance between the necessary elements of the culture we hope to foster with the developmental needs of our individual students.

Make it a good day,





In Search of the Mysterious Muddler

On several recent occasions I have heard it said that about 25% of our students aren’t involved in anything on campus.  I am always intrigued by the way that some assertions or beliefs evolve into facts on a college campus, and this number seemed ripe for investigating.   Researchers into human behavior have found this phenomenon repeatedly and suggest that, because we want to believe our own intuition to be true, we tend to perk up at data points or anecdotes that support our beliefs.  We’ve all fallen prey to this temptation at least once – at least I have.  So I thought it might be worth testing this claim just to see if it holds up under the glare of our actual survey data.

First – to be fair, this claim isn’t totally crazy.  I can think of a particular data point that clearly nods in the direction of the 25% uninvolved claim.  For a few years, we’ve tracked the proportion of seniors who don’t use their Augie Choice money, and – although the number is steadily declining – over the last few years an average of about 25% have foregone those funds.  Others have suggested that every year we have a group of somewhere between 600 and 800 students (henceforth called “the muddlers”) who aren’t involved in anything co-curricular; athletics, music groups, or student clubs and organizations.  More ominously, some have suggested that there is a sub-population of students who are only involved in Greek organizations and that these students help to create an environment that isn’t conducive with our efforts to make Augustana a rigorous learning experience. (All of that is a wordy euphemism for “these lazy bums party too much.”).

Although the question of what should count as true involvement is a legitimate one, the question of simple participation is an empirical question that we can test.  So we looked at two sets of data – our 2013 senior survey data and our 2013 freshmen survey data – to see what proportion of students report not being involved in anything co-curricular. No athletics, no music, and no student clubs or organizations.  Then we added the question of Greek membership just to see if the aforementioned contingent of deadbeats really does exist in numbers large enough to foment demonstrable mayhem. (another wordy euphemism for “be loud and break stuff.”).

Well, I’ve got bad news for the muddlers.  Your numbers aren’t looking so hot.  From the students who graduated last spring, only 17 out of 495 said that they didn’t participate in anything (athletics, music, student groups, or Greeks).  When we took the Greek question out of the equation we only gained 5 students, ultimately finding that only about 5% (23/495) of our graduating seniors said that they didn’t participate in athletics, music, or some student group.

But what about the freshmen?  After all, the seniors are the ones who have stayed for four years.  If involvement is the magic ingredient for retention that some think it is, then we should expect this proportion to be quite a bit bigger in the freshman class.

Alas, though our muddler group appears a little bigger in the first year, it sure doesn’t approach the 25% narrative.  After eliminating freshmen who participated in athletics, music, a student group, and a Greek organization, we were left with only 15 out of 263 first year students who responded to our survey.  When we left out Greek membership, we only gained 4 students, increasing the number to 19 out of 263 (7%).  Now it’s fair to suggest that there is a limitation to this data in that we got responses from only about 45% of the freshman class.  However, even after calculating the confidence intervals (the “+/-”) in order to generalize with 95% confidence to the entire freshman class, we still end up with range in proportion of students not involved in anything co-curricular somewhere between 4 and 9 percent.

There are two other possible considerations regarding the muddler mystery.  One possibility is that there are indeed more than we know because the non-participant would also be more likely to not fill out the freshman survey.  On the other hand – as some of our faculty have observed, it’s possible that our muddlers are also the students who study more seriously; just the kind of students faculty often dream of teaching.

My reason for writing this post is NOT to suggest that we don’t have some students who need to be more involved in something outside of their classes.  We certainly have those students, and if it is almost 10% of our freshman class (as the upper bound of the confidence interval suggests), then we clearly have work to do.  Rather, it seems to me that this is another reason to think more carefully about the nature of involvement’s impact on students.  Because it appears that the students who depart after the first year are not merely uninvolved recluses (again, the limitations of the sample requires that I suggest caution in jumping to too certain a conclusion).  It seems to me that this evidence is another reason to think about involvement as a means to other outcomes that are central to our educational mission instead of an end in and of itself.

Make it a good day,




Sometimes assessing might be the wrong thing to do

Because of the break-neck pace of our work lives, we tend to look for pre-determined processes to address problems instead of considering whether or not there is another approach that might increase the chances of a successful long-term solution.  This makes sense since pre-determined processes often feel like they help to solve complicated problems by giving us a vetted action plan.  But if we begin defaulting to this option too easily, we can sometimes create more work for ourselves just because we absentmindedly opted for “doing it the way we’re supposed to do it.”  So I thought it might be worthwhile to share an observation about our efforts to improve our educational effectiveness that could help us be more efficient in the process.

We have found tremendous value in gathering evidence to inform our decisions instead of relying on anecdotes, intuition, or speculation.  Moreover, the success of our own experiences seems to have fostered a truly positive sea-change both in terms of the frequency of requests for data that might inform an upcoming discussion or decision as well as the desire to ask new questions that might help us understand more deeply the nature of our educational endeavors.  So why would I suggest that sometimes “assessing might be the wrong thing to do?”

First, let’s revisit two different conceptions of “assessment.”  One perceives “assessment” as primarily about measuring.  It’s an act that happens over a finite period of time and produces a finding that essentially becomes the end of the act of measuring.  Another conception considers assessment as a process composed of various stages: asking a question, gathering data, designing an intervention, and evaluating the effectiveness of that intervention.  Imagine the difference between the two to mirror the difference between a dot (a point in time) and a single loop within a coil (a perpetually evolving process).  So in my mind, “measurement” is a singular act that might involve numbers or theoretical frameworks. “Assessment” is the miniature process that includes asking a question, engaging in measurement of some kind, and evaluating the effectiveness of a given intervention.  “Continuous improvement” is an organizational value that results in the perpetual application of assessment.  The focus of this post is to suggest that we might help ourselves by expanding the potential points at which we could apply a process of assessment.

Too often, after discovering the possibility that student learning resulting from a given experience might not be what we had hoped, we decide that we should measure the student learning in question.  I think we expect to generate a more robust set of data that confirms or at least complicates the information we think we already know. Usually, after several months of gathering data (and if all goes well with that process) our hunch turns out to be so.

I’d like to suggest a step prior to measuring student learning that might get us on track to improvement more quickly.  Instead of applying another means of measurement to evaluate the resultant learning, we should start by applying what we know about effective educational design to assess whether or not the experience in question is actually designed to produce the intended learning.  Because if the experience is not designed and delivered effectively, then the likelihood of it falling short of its expectations are pretty high.  And if there is one truth about educating that we already know, it’s that if we don’t teach our students something, they won’t learn it.

Assessing the design of a program or experiences takes a lot less time than gathering learning outcome data.  And it will get you to the fun part of redesigning the program or experience in question much sooner.

So if you are examining a learning experience because you don’t think it’s working as it should, start by tearing apart its design.  If the design is problematic, then skip the measuring part . . . fix it, implement the changes, and then test the outcomes.

Make it a good day,




Planning, Doing, Being

Unless you’ve been holding your breath at the bottom of the slough for the past six months, you know that we are smack in the middle of developing a new strategic plan for Augustana College.  This weekend our Board of Trustees hold their annual fall meetings during which President Bahls and Dean Lawrence will provide an update to the board, answer questions, address criticisms and concerns, and work with board members to refine the strategic directions that will be prioritized in the final plan.  If you haven’t done so already, I’d highly recommend that you take some time to look at the current state of this process here.

After living in the inner sanctum of this process for the last six months, I’ve been struck by how difficult it is to effectively link the abstract aspirations of vision, mission, and strategic direction with the concrete actions, specific tactics, and measurable moments that we think will prove whether or not we have accomplished our plans.  If we lean too hard to one side, we could end up with little more than strategery – a word I use in all seriousness here because it manages to capture what happens when vision gets disconnected from any actual means of demonstrating its achievement on the ground (click here to see the origins of this word – we are in your debt, Will Ferrell.)  And if we lean too far to the other side, we can fall into the trap of simply adding a host of new programs, policies, activities, and experiences under the flawed belief that busy is always better.  If we’re honest with ourselves, I suspect we’d have to admit that we’ve driven over both of these potholes in recent years as we’ve genuinely tried to make Augustana better – in the present and for the future.

In the face of these difficulties, I understand the temptation to be silly about it and throw the strategic planning baby out with the tactical bathwater.  But that would be – in a word – stupid.  A primary reason why higher education is in such trouble these days is because so many institutions believed that they didn’t really have to plan ahead (or that anything might change over time) because they thought there would always be lots of students who would pay whatever the institution charged to sit at the feet of masters and learn whatever was taught.

Frankly, I really like a lot of what is going to be proposed and discussed this weekend. However, we are always faced with the challenge of following through.  How are we going to walk this thing out to its fullest completion, and will we really have chosen the right metrics to demonstrate the degree to which we have achieved the goal we set out to accomplish?

All of these thoughts were bouncing around in my head as I watched two TED Talks by Derek Sivers over the weekend.  Although both of them are only about three minutes long, they made me think a lot about how we might go from the laudable abstractions of mission, vision, and strategic directions to the simple, sustainable, and concrete evidence that will demonstrate to everyone whether we have reached the goals we set for ourselves.

The first TED Talk focuses on a key element of success for individuals who set goals for themselves.  The crux of his point is that those who talk too much about what they intend to accomplish can sometimes fool themselves into thinking that they have already accomplished it.  I’ve often heard a nearby college’s strategic plan described as, “Fake it ’til you make it.”  Yet there are a myriad of colleges and universities that became more selective simply by declaring themselves to be more selective.  In the end, the quality of the education they provided didn’t change a bit.  In terms of making our strategic plan something worth the kilobytes it’s saved on, we might be careful to talk more about the things we need to do or be today in order to achieve our long-term goals, and talk less about publicizing the institution we will become and the prestige we will acquire as if we were already well on our way to getting there.

The second TED Talk teases out a critical and oft overlooked moment in the origins of a social movement.  Sivers shows a video of an impromptu dance party on a hillside.  The point he makes seems to be particularly applicable to our work once the strategic plan is finalized.  Essentially, he emphasizes the leadership effect of the first follower – the individual who finds something great and has the guts to jump up and join in.

I’m sure there are several other potentially important take-aways from these clips.  I wanted to share them with you in the hopes that something from them might help us move from planning to doing to being.

Make it a good day,



Can We Talk About This?

UPDATE: Sometimes I screw up.  This is one of those times.  When I looked at this data and read the report, I misunderstood the meaning of the “attitudes toward integration of religion and spirituality in higher education” scores.  So below I stated, “On average, Augustana students believe that religion and spirituality should be a comparably less integral part of college life than students at other CRSCS participant institutions.” In actuality, our students reported the opposite.  It turns out the the questions in this scale are framed in the negative and thus the scores need to be reversed in order to understand them properly.  One could argue that the report isn’t quite clear on how to interpret this scale . . . but I still missed it.  The rest of this blog post stands and I think is still worth the pixels on the screen.  My apologies.  Mark


At one time or another, I’ll bet you’ve heard the old advice about discussing religion or politics. As I remember it, it boils down to one word: don’t.  These days you only need to turn to CNN, MSNBC, or FOX News to see what can happen when folks go down that road.  Interestingly, these flailing pundits demonstrate perfectly why we should care so much about developing our students’ ability to effectively and civilly converse about personal beliefs, especially when talking to someone with whom they don’t agree.  Because no one can make where they live a better place if they can’t interact across all manner of difference to solve complicated problems and live better together.

The commitment to developing this attribute in our students is one of the core motivations of those who participate in the Interfaith Understanding student group, the Honest Conversation series, and Salon (among others).  Bringing disparate people together for the specific purpose of discussing conflicting personal beliefs can have a powerful impact on learning important skills like perspective-taking, suspending judgment, and reflecting instead of reacting.  Of course, it can also be uncomfortable, destabilizing, and just plain hard.  But that is exactly what good educating is – precisely because learning so often comes through stretching students beyond what is safe and familiar.

Last year Augustana participated in a national survey to better understand the impact of our efforts to foster a community where these conversations can happen.  The survey – the Campus Religious and Spirituality Climate Survey (CRSCS) assess three dimensions of a campus environment that might influence a religious and spiritual climate of tolerance, interaction, and impact.

  1. The structural worldview diversity: Perceptions of the proportional representation of various religious and non-religious groups on campus.
  2. The psychological climate: Perceptions and attitudes between and among different worldview groups.
  3. The behavioral climate: Formal and informal interactions among students of different worldviews.

We surveyed sophomores and juniors in March and April of 2013.  Although our response rate wasn’t as high as we would have liked (124 useable responses), we got enough data to make some inferences about our students’ experiences in this area and how those experiences might set up our next efforts to strengthen this aspect of student learning.

The crux of the results suggest:

  • On average, Augustana students perceive their campus community to be comparably more homogenous than students at other CRSCS participant institutions.
  • On average, Augustana students are comparably more accepting and express more appreciative views of students from alternate faith or belief systems (e.g., Muslim or agnostic students) than students at other CRSCS participant institutions.
  • On average, our students perceive there to be less conflict or separation between students from differing faith systems and worldviews on this campus than students at other CRSCS participant institutions.
  • On average, Augustana students have had challenging or stimulating experiences with students from different worldviews more often and believe that their college experience has altered their religious or spiritual worldview more substantially than students at other CRSCS participant institutions.
  • On average, Augustana students believe that religion and spirituality should be a comparably less integral part of college life than students at other CRSCS participant institutions.

Overall, Augustana students’ appear to be more interfaith literate and appreciative of other worldviews and belief systems than students at the other participant institutions during 2012-13.  This seems to be reflected in both the degree to which students appear to be accepting of other faith or worldview groups and the degree to which they perceive the climate to be less divided.  Moreover, Augustana students seem to perceive a greater benefit from their interactions across faith and worldview differences than students at other participating institutions.  Taken together, these findings suggest that we are making progress toward 1) creating an environment conducive to a positive college experience for students of all faiths or worldviews and 2) achieving the college-wide learning outcomes regarding intercultural competence.

Interestingly, despite the students’ own comparably more positive experiences and educational growth as a result of interfaith encounters, they seem reticent to believe that their college experience should include more integration of religious and spiritual issues.  Even in the context of attending a private, church-affiliated liberal arts college, Augustana students seem to be more likely to think that the religious and spiritual worldview sphere should be relegated to a private domain and not brought into the classroom or the public sphere.

The combination of these findings suggests to me that the groundwork may be in place for us to more explicitly take ownership of interfaith literacy as a critical element of intercultural competence and make it more a part of the mainstream learning experience.  This groundwork seems to be in place not because the data suggests that students are asking for a heightened emphasis on interfaith literacy, but because we have data to show students that their experiences have impacted their own growth.  In my mind, this might be one way of shifting their own engagement in this conversation – by showing them that they have already benefitted from the thing that they think they shouldn’t do.

Make it a good day,