I’ve been thinking about institutional change a lot lately. As I move into my new role as the Coordinator of General Education at Plymouth State University, I’ve been thinking about the ways in which policies, procedures, and seemingly small decisions support or inhibit reaching institutional goals.
I teach a Gen Ed class called Creating Games. The major work in the class is the development of a board game. The project starts with students developing game ideas that they pitch to their peers, trying to get their classmates interested so that their game is one of the five or six that are created during the semester. One of the most common ideas that students come up with is what I call The PSU Game. The details vary a little bit but the basic idea is always the same. The game is modeled on the Game of Life. The player starts as a first year student and they have to navigate through four years of college, making decisions about how to spend their time and other resources. The goal of the game is usually to be the first person to graduate.
I have seen about a dozen (maybe more) versions of The PSU Game developed over the years. They all suffer from the same problem: a mismatch between the goal of the game and the incentives given to players in deciding how to behave. Let me explain. Since the goal of the game is to graduate, there has to be some resource within the game that determines whether the player is ready to graduate or not. Typically, students will design the game so that the player earns credits (like in real life) and they need a certain number of credits in order to graduate. How do players earn credits? Typically, by doing well on tests or other assignments within the game. How do players do well? By studying or otherwise engaging in academic work. So the player moves around the board and lands on something that says something like: “It’s Thursday night. Your friends are going out to the bar. You have a test in the morning. What do you want to do? a) Go with your friends, or b) Stay in your room to study.” In game studies, we call this an obvious choice. The goal of the game is to collect credits and it’s pretty obvious that you collect credits by studying more. So there’s no real choice in the game if the player’s goal is to win (by graduating first). The player will choose studying every time.
When I talk to students about The PSU Game, I ask them whether they always choose to study when they encounter this situation in real life. Of course, they don’t. Why not? They all want to graduate in real life so why don’t they study all the time? Because in real life, we have competing, complex goals. We are trying to achieve multiple things in our lives and so sometimes, we make what appear to be counterproductive choices. For example, when students are faced with this choice in real life, they are indeed trying to graduate. But they are also trying to build a network of friends (among other things). In fact, some people might argue that this network of friends is nearly as important as graduating. After reflecting on this, students might try to make the choice in their game of whether to study or go out with friends less obvious by changing the conditions needed for graduation. Instead of just needing credits, the player might also need to accumulate some number of networking points. Now the player might sometimes choose to gain credits and sometimes choose to gain networking points because they need some of both to graduate. It’s a less obvious choice (although still not that interesting).
The point I’m trying to make here is that when we have a particular goal in mind, we have to set up an environment (with policies and procedures) which encourages people to engage in the behavior we’re trying to elicit. What does that have to do with institutional change?
I’ve written quite a bit in the past about what we at PSU are trying to do with our integrated cluster initiative. We want students to engage in meaningful work that makes a difference and that they are engaged by over the course of their educational journey. The first change that we’ve made is to our First Year Seminar (FYS). Each section of the FYS is focused on a particular wicked problem. We believe students will be more engaged with their education if they are taking courses that ask them to engage with the world outside the classroom on projects that are of interest to them. Since the FYS is focused on wicked problems, we want them to choose on a wicked problem to work on that they find interesting. This means that we want them to intentionally choose their particular section of the FYS based on topic. What we have found is that many (most?) students choose their FYS section based on factors other than topic. For example, many students choose their FYS because of the time that the section is offered. If we want to modify that behavior so that students focus more on the topic than the time, then we need to change our institutional procedures to make time less of a factor. We might decide that all FYS sections are offered at the same time. This will have consequences that we would then need to grapple with. For example, if all sections are offered at the same time, no faculty member could teach more than one section in a single semester. So maybe we revise our procedures so that all sections will be offered in one of two times. This will in turn have consequences. We’ll either live with the consequences or revise our procedures again. This is a clear example of our policies and procedures for how we schedule the FYS having an impact on the goal of getting students to choose their FYS based on interest in the topic.
We have recently made an institutional decision that also has a significant impact on our goal of getting students to choose their FYS based on interest. We decided that first year students will be housed according to the section of FYS they are in. All students in a particular section of the course will live together. The decision of who to live with is often one of the biggest in a student’s transition to college life. For many (most?) students, the decision of who to live with is significantly more important than choosing an FYS topic that interests them. So what seems like a relatively small institutional decision about how to house students has a significant impact on our goal of trying to get students to choose their FYS based on the topic.
Of course, this is a simplified version of the issues involved in changing a large institution like PSU. And there are a lot of unexamined assumptions in this particular simplified articulation of the issues. But I think it illustrates the idea that we have to be hyper-focused on our goals as we change our policies and procedures. We have to constantly ask ourselves about the consequences of the decisions we’re making and whether we are getting closer to our goals or not.