The National Academy for Academic Leadership
Leadership that Transforms Learning

Designing a college curriculum

The curriculum is the heart of a student's college experience. The curriculum is a college's or university's primary means of changing students in directions valued by the faculty. Curricula should be reviewed and, if necessary, revised on a regular basis, better to serve the changing needs of both students and society broadly. Today, however, we are being urged to reassess especially carefully the quality of our curricula.

Faculties are responding to this challenge by turning their attention to what are in many cases long neglected curricular matters. They are doing so as a practical means of both attracting and retaining more students, ensuring their success, and producing high quality, fair outcomes for everyone.

Some principles
A number of important principles emerge from the literature on curriculum. These principles apply both to college-wide and more restricted disciplinary curricula and to curricula at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

  1. A philosophy. A curriculum should be founded on a carefully thought-out philosophy of education and should be clearly connected to an institution's mission statement.

  1. Clear purposes and goals. A curricular mission statement and written curricular goals (intended student development outcomes or intended results) articulate curricular purpose – what graduates should know and be able to do and those attitudes and values a faculty believes are appropriate to well-educated men and women. These goals and their objectives are specified in considerable detail and in behavioral language that will permit assessment of their degree of achievement (the curriculum's actual outcomes).

  1. A theoretically sound process. Student activities are chosen that are capable of developing the desired outcomes, as indicated by empirical research. Curriculum has its desired effect primarily through instruction. Therefore, the choice of course experiences and the specific quality and efficacy of these experiences in producing the stated intended outcomes for all students is fundamental to the quality of any curriculum. Current empirically based education theory is essential to effective instruction and thus the improvement of curricular quality. For example, there is little evidence that using traditional lectures will develop in students the higher-order cognitive abilities a faculty may value. Nevertheless, lecturing is still, by far, the predominant method of instruction in most institutions today.

  1. A rational sequence. Educational activities are carefully ordered in a developmental sequence to form a coherent curriculum based on the stated intended outcomes of both the curriculum and its constituent courses.

  1. Continuous assessment and improvement of quality. Valid and reliable assessment is preplanned to monitor on a continuing basis the effectiveness of the curriculum in fostering student development and also the actual achievement of defined institutional and curricular outcome goals.In many or most institutions there can be said to exist two potentially quite different curricula: one, an array and sequence of courses offered by the institution and intended by the faculty to be taken and a second, the specific courses actually taken and sequence followed by each student. The intent, content, educational experience, and thus outcomes of the two may be – and, as judged from some of the current research, are – quite different from each other. Careful monitoring of actual student course-taking behavior through transcript analysis can reveal the degree to which students are experiencing the faculty's intended educational process and achieving their intended outcomes.

  1. High-quality academic advising. An effective curriculum – one that produces the results it claims in all of a college's diverse students – depends for its success upon a high-quality program of academic advising. Modern academic advising is developmental, starting with each student's values and goals, and helps all students design curricular and noncurricular experiences that can help them achieve their own goals and the institution's intended learning outcomes.

Defining curricular outcomes
Clearly defined intended curricular outcomes enable a faculty to understand, communicate about, and control – manage – learning through the curriculum more effectively. Today, clearly stated, written outcomes are essential to good curriculum design, implementation, and assessment.

Specifically, curricular outcome goals and objectives:

  1. Provide the solid foundation of intended outcomes.

  1. Provide specific direction for the continuous monitoring – assessment and evaluation – of the actual outcomes the curriculum produces.

  1. Reduce the potential for untoward teaching to the test – the corruption of the curriculum by instruction directed toward chosen assessment indicators; rather, both the instruction and the indicators are aimed at the outcomes previously defined by the faculty.

  1. Obviate the dumbing down of curricula in response to increased student diversity and underpreparedness by providing firm, clearly identified outcome standards and by requiring the educational process to change in response to altered student needs.

  1. Guard against grade inflation and the consequent reduction in student, and perhaps faculty, quality of effort and the devaluation of degrees.

  1. Enable a faculty to resist academic drift, where a college or program with one mission or curricular purpose gradually and unconsciously drifts away to some other purpose or purposes.

  1. Enable a faculty to deal more straightforwardly and rationally with conflict over curricular content, such as disputes related to departmental turf.

  1. Help everyone involved – faculty members, students, administrators, trustees, parents, legislators – understand the institution or program and the results it claims to produce.

  1. Increase the perception of institutional openness, candor, and integrity among all of the institution's customers and stakeholders.

Recommended reading: Context for thinking about curriculum

Diamond, Robert M. 1998. Designing and Assessing Courses and Curricula: A Practical Guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. [321 pp.]

This handbook applies theory to practical issues of curriculum and course design and assessment. Intended first for faculty members but also for department chairpeople and administrators concerned with curricula and courses, the book describes a design model that has been used in diverse institutions and that produces "visible results in the shortest possible time" (p. xvi). Topics include deciding whether and how to start the design process, the relationship between courses and curriculum, the design process; course design, including defining intended outcomes, developing a plan for assessing their achievement, and designing an instructional process; communication between instructors and students, including the use of syllabi; dealing with student diversity in terms of developing intended cross-campus instructional outcomes concerning diversity; and course and programmatic assessment, evaluation, and improvement. The book also discusses trends in improving the quality of education and "major lessons about course and curriculum design" the author has learned. The author suggests ways in which the scholarly work involved in modern curriculum and course design can be documented for purposes of recognition in the institution. Checklists, case studies, examples of materials from various institutions, and nine resource appendices support text.

Project on Redefining the Meaning and Purpose of the Baccalaureate Degree. 1985. Integrity in the College Curriculum: A Report to the Academic Community. Washington, D.C.: Association of American Colleges and Universities. [47 pp.]

These findings and recommendations of the Association of American Colleges (now Association of American Colleges and Universities) Project on Refining the Meaning and Purpose of the Baccalaureate Degree constitute a penetrating critique of the undergraduate curriculum. The report places responsibility for curriculum on the shoulders of the faculty. It describes "a minimum required curriculum" and "study in depth" and discusses accountability and "the profession of college teaching." Included is an annotated bibliography of related reports. The report is available from AAC&U: http://www.aacu-edu.org/

–– Lion F. Gardiner, Rutgers University, gardiner@andromeda.rutgers.edu