Skip to main content

Too many (lists of) learning goals

In reflecting on course tags, I found myself realizing that we have way too many lists of learning outcomes and related things. Let’s see what I can find today.

Perhaps most importantly, the College mission statement gives a pretty nice list of goals [1].

The College aims to graduate individuals

  1. who can think clearly,
  1. who can speak and write persuasively and even eloquently,
  1. who can evaluate critically both their own and others’ ideas,
  1. who can acquire new knowledge, and
  1. who are prepared in life and work to use their knowledge and their abilities to serve the common good.

There’s also one other goal that appears at the beginning of the mission statement.

When Grinnell College framed its charter in the Iowa Territory of the United States in 1846, it set forth a mission

  1. to educate its students for the different professions and for the honorable discharge of the duties of life.

The College pursues that mission by providing an education in the liberal arts […].

I would think that those are the goals we would first address when making plans. But no, we tend to look at secondary documents. For example, the Innovation Fund Proposal process asks proposers to reflect on the six goals of the strategic plan.

What else is there? The Mission Web page also lists our core values [2]. Those aren’t quite goals for our students, but they are goals for the institution as a whole.

Our students have the nearly unique opportunity to design their own education, in consultation with their academic advisors. We provide them with some guidance in the College Catalog’s Elements of a Liberal Education [3].

  1. Nothing enhances the expression of knowledge better than engaging, clear, and accurate language.
  1. Study of a language other than one’s own opens the mind to new ways of thinking [6].
  1. An education in the natural sciences—biology, chemistry, physics, and psychology—introduces techniques of observation and experimentation, the relation of data to hypotheses, and the practice of scientific reasoning.
  1. Quantitative reasoning, with emphasis on mathematical models and methods above the secondary-school level, aids in the expression of hypotheses, processes, and theoretical relations [7].
  1. The study of human behavior and society leads students to investigate their own identities and to gain insight into social categories and relations.
  1. Students enlarge their understanding of the liberal arts through the study of creative expression.

That seems like a pretty good list. A bit more "take two from column A and two from column B’ than the Mission Statement, but good nonetheless. There’s also some more explanation of each, which helps.

And then we have the the College-Wide Learning Outcomes. I was reminded about those the other day when we were discussing how co-curricular experiences contribute to those outcomes [9].

  1. Students develop creative and critical thinking skills that allow them to analyze the work of others, formulate relevant questions, and respond to those questions in a substantive way using quantitative and qualitative evidence.
  1. Students develop a sense of social responsibility and fairness that guides them in their personal and professional lives.
  1. Students develop the ability to communicate clearly and persuasively in various modes for various purposes and audiences.
  1. Students develop the ability to continue learning independently and collaboratively.
  1. Students develop the ability to approach a question from multiple perspectives, representing a diversity of ideas and experiences.
  1. Students pursue a chosen field of study in depth and develop understanding of a core body of knowledge in that field as well as the ability to employ modes of inquiry appropriate to that field.

Why did we add these to the mission statement, since they seem to be little more than a restatement of the mission statement [10]? Because they provide additional detail to the mission statement, in a way that we might try to assess them. And why would we want to assess them? Two reasons. The North Central Association, our accrediting agency, expects us to. But, more importantly, we learn from assessment. Careful assessment helps us learn not only whether or not we are achieving our goals, but also what things we are doing that work well or less well.

Strangely enough, even though those are our lists of learning goals for assessment, we chose a different set of course tags that we plan to use for assessment [11].

  1. Artistic and Literary Interpretation. This course enables students to analyze and evaluate creative works through the interpretation of the work’s structure, context, content, and theme and the use of critical theory. The course can involve the analysis of works of literature, music, or the visual arts.
  1. Creative Expression. This course helps students to design, create, compose, or perform creative works and to study and engage in the creative process.
  1. Critical Reading. This course emphasizes students’ ability to analyze texts by helping them to summarize, describe, and interpret written documents. The course helps students to explain a text’s significance and contribution and to detail what the author argued, how he or she used evidence, and what the author’s biases and intentions were.
  1. Foreign Language. This course enables students to build their proficiency in a foreign language by improving their skills in reading, writing, or oral comprehension and expanding their knowledge of the language’s cultural and literary context.
  1. Quantitative Reasoning. This course provides students with the skills to study and interpret measurable quantities, typically appearing in the natural or social sciences. Such studies often require the interpretation of graphs or analysis of data sets and encourage fluency with fundamental quantitative tools.
  1. Research. This course enables students to explore how new knowledge is acquired in an academic discipline while building important research skills. These skills may include learning how to formulate a thesis or hypothesis, developing methodological and theoretical competencies, using evidence to support research findings, and communicating the results in an effective manner.
  1. Scientific Method and Analysis. This course enables students to understand the processes and methods of the sciences by introducing techniques of observation and experimentation, the relationship of data to hypotheses, and/or the practice of scientific reasoning.
  1. Societies, Cultures, and Identities. This course enables students to analyze societies, cultures, or identities within and across borders.
  1. Writing. This course teaches students how to express their ideas effectively in writing by developing their ability to construct strong, persuasive arguments; by teaching them to adapt their genre, tone, and style for the intended audience; and by helping them to convey their ideas with clarity, power, and grace.

Hmmm … that’s interesting. We don’t have anything obvious about social responsibility and fairness (#2 of the assessment goals), collaborative work (#4 of the assessment goals), communication (#3) that is other than writing, creative expression, or quantitative summaries [12]. We’ve added the Research tag, perhaps in anticipation of the Research Opportunities for All initiative. I don’t know whether Curriculum Committee consulted the various other lists, but I find the disconnect interesting.

I’m not done listing learning goals yet. Our Strategic Plan lists six broader goals that include both student learning and institutional goals.

  • Strategy 1: Enrollment. Attract, enrich, and graduate a diverse and talented student community. Create a student body that individually and collectively reaches a remarkable record of achievement and that maximizes the interactive learning opportunities for all Grinnell students.
  • Strategy 2: Teaching and Learning. Re-envision Grinnell’s commitment to a liberal education and its value in the twenty-first century. Create an innovative and evolving student centered, liberal arts curriculum (academic experience) that enables students to be successful in an ever-changing world and informs and enriches the lives of Grinnell graduates.
  • Strategy 3: The Grinnell Learning Place. Build learning spaces that encourage collaboration, creativity, and inquiry. Design, operate, and support all spaces on the campus to enhance the academic, social, and environmental success of the Grinnell College community.
  • Strategy 4: Post-Graduate Success. Instill an orientation to the future and intentionally connect the Grinnell educational experience to post-graduate endeavors. Create a curriculum and learning environment that enables and encourages students to pursue and succeed along multiple life paths and careers.
  • Strategy 5: Alumni Engagement. Foster life-long learning and contributions of alumni in the College’s intellectual life, service, and mentorship and advising. Design the Grinnell alumni community, the alumni-to-alumni relations, and the College-to-alumni relations by purposefully including alumni in all of the strategies.
  • Strategy 6: Human and Financial Resource Management. Transform administrative practices to maintain continuous, collaborative, and adaptive planning for the College. Create a fiscally sustainable business model that supports the College’s continuing enhancements and maintains stability through variations in revenue sources and expenditure patterns.

I particularly appreciate Strategy 4 because it hearkens back to the original mission of educating our students for the different professions and for the honorable discharge of the duties of life. It’s difficult to do so unless we’ve helped them think about the professions and the possible ways to discharge the duties of live.

So, there you have it. We have approximately two dozen learning goals for our students that are expresses in a variety of different ways. Do we agree on what we want our students to learn? I think so, with perhaps some minor variations. Why do some things appear and disappear, like computer science [15], post-graduation success, research, and even foreign languages [16]? I suppose that two issues are at work. First, different sets of people draft the different lists and each set of people has different biases and reflects different interests. Second, there does not seem to be one person who oversees it all to keep it uniform. To do so would probably be even worse than herding cats. That likely means it will end up under the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment.

I almost forgot! We also have learning goals for each major and concentration. I think we’ll leave those for another day.

[1] Formatting mine.

[2] I don’t quite now how they appeared in the current form. I’d like to see them rewritten. But I worry about rewriting them at a time in which need-blind admission of students with strong academic potential and meeting full demonstrated financial-aid need of admitted and continuing students are topics the Trustees have decided to revisit every three years.

[3] Warning! That URL may change [4]

[4] Folks [5] don’t seem to understand the value of permanent URLs. So the URLs in our Catalog change every year.

[5] E.g., the designers of the catalog software we use.

[6] I don’t normally allow my students to consider computer languages as foreign languages, since I tend to approach foreign languages as an entry to other cultures and literatures. But if the goal is a different way of thinking ….

[7] So that two other science division disciplines (CS and Stats) [8] are not left out, we add

A course in statistics can be helpful for all students, and particularly for those who might work in the social and behavioral sciences. Studies in computer science offer valuable exposure to principles of logic and problem-solving paradigms.

[8] The elements of the liberal arts still seem to be missing the library, which is in the Division of Science. I suppose that the library contributes to everything. At least they are clearly part of the new Research tag.

[9] Co-curricular experiences clearly contribute significantly to these outcomes.

[10] Along with students declare a major.

[11] As far as I can tell, the course tags do not appear anywhere obvious on the College Web site. You can read about them in a prior musing.

[12] I was going to suggest that the Writing section could be interpreted more generally. But it does specifically say express their ideas […] in writing [14].

[14] Emphasis mine.

[15] Or, as I’d prefer to think of it Computational Thinking.

[16] Or, as some would prefer, a global education.

Version 1.0 of 2017-09-10.