Initial Publication Date: April 1, 2016

Institutional Change is Like Research

The process of change is often like research; where we end up is rarely where we started to head. Along the way we find that things do not work the way we thought they might, new ideas are brought forth, and resources available to support change are insufficient to do what was anticipated. The process of change is rarely linear and is nearly always messy. In addition to internal pressures, the external environment (whether funding, student interests and needs, etc.) is constantly in flux. Like a living organism, our institutions need to adapt to respond to changes in the ecosystem environment, and such changes are typically incremental rather than precipitous. It is important to periodically take stock and decide how to adjust the direction and path forward. We also need to create a campus culture of encouraging reflection and thoughtful change, if for no other reason than to model for our students that they need to acquire the tools and develop the ability to address problems that we do not yet have the imagination to articulate. Failure needs to be accepted. It is common in Silicon Valley to talk about the strengths of "failing fast," where innovative ideas are tried and quickly evaluated as a way to get to exciting breakthroughs.

Grinnell College
After implementing major curricular reform that consisted of a two-year sequence of four introductory to intermediate level courses, we were immediately frustrated that students were not bringing ideas and skills from one course to the other. Our then-new curriculum was particularly terrible for students who faced challenges that got them off-sequence such that it would be difficult to complete the major. We were also interested in developing an interdisciplinary major, and having four core introductory sequences in one discipline was a significant obstacle. We were stuck. Then we were tasked to put together our departmental assessment plan requiring us to articulate what we wanted our biology major students to get out of the major. In three hours we agreed that what we wanted our students to learn mimicked the process of work presented in a scientific article: develop a question of interest and a hypothesis to address the question (introduction); design an experiment to gather data to address the hypothesis (methods); execute the experiment; analyze the data (results); understand and the relate the experiment to previous research (discussion); and communicate the research project effectively. After disagreeing for years about what a biology major should know, we agreed on this in one morning meeting, and by the afternoon we had the outline of our new core introductory course that serves biology majors, biochemistry majors, pre-health students, and even students for whom this is the only college biology course they will take. The most reluctant member of our department was actually the chair who had to do a tremendous amount of work for us to implement our plans. Now we have a course that serves as a national model, it serves our students well by a variety of measures, we like teaching it, and it has funneled into contributions to some of our research programs.
Bryn Mawr College
At Bryn Mawr College, previous attempts to modify the curriculum have sometimes proceeded slowly due to staffing issues. Our move toward smaller theme-based courses with smaller class sizes in our introductory biology sequence, for example, was initially vulnerable because it required more faculty resources.

One take-home message from this is that you might not get the change you want to make right the first time. But you can learn from it and move on.