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A curriculum is one of the many ways for knowledge to be organised, structured and made meaningful, for and by students. The overarching goals are to guide all students to build their capacities to learn independently, be able to use different ways of learning and cultivate diverse learning in accordance with their interests, needs, and abilities.
On one hand, the curriculum should be aligned with the university’s vision and mission. On the other, the curriculum should be responsive to the diverse needs of students, the larger society, and even the global community. Therefore, the lingering question for curriculum designers is how to shape a curriculum framework that positions and reflects learning as contextual, developmental and transformational.
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The following is a key list of fundamental principles for consideration when curriculum designers are shaping a curriculum framework in universities:
1. Establish an explicit and clear learning purpose
First, formulate the aims, targets, and objectives of the curriculum, which are often influenced by various ideologies and concepts. University education should always be comprehensive and balanced, so curriculum designers should carefully consider how to strike a dynamic balance between academic, vocational or professional, practical and experiential dimensions of learning, which at times may compete with one another. Curriculum designers may need to resolve tensions between polarised ways of thinking.
2. Select what is most worth learning
After setting the learning purpose, one needs to think about the actual content or learning elements when structuring the curriculum. This could include the fundamental concepts of the relevant discipline applied in different contexts, 21st century skills, and competencies that could be both generic and subject-specific, as well as positive values and attitudes. All these are influenced by broader and evolving economic, social, cultural, religious, political and environmental factors. There should be systematic organisers such as topics, themes, and issues to tie up these three interlocking elements and allow students to see their interdependence and interconnectedness.
3. Bring in prior knowledge and experience
While constructive learning is always advocated in university, given the diversity of students, the importance of unique educational backgrounds as well as socio-economic and cultural contexts should be taken into account. There should be more authentic, active, and collaborative opportunities for students to recall, retrieve, and reflect on their prior experiences, knowledge and resources to construct and co-construct their learning trajectory. This allows students to develop a stronger sense of motivation, responsibility for and ownership of their education.
4. Support a gradual and accumulative progression
When a curriculum is holistically planned and structured, one should maintain gradual and accumulative progression across various years of studying, especially in accordance with students’ cognitive and social-emotional developmental stages. This requires the adoption of a spiral learning design, in which key concepts are presented repeatedly throughout the curriculum, with deepening layers of complexity, or applied in different contexts. It requires developing learning from concrete to abstract or simple to complex matters, or even going back and forth. This helps improve students’ sense of efficacy, as they can start within their comfort zones with confidence and security, before pushing themselves on more intellectually demanding tasks.
5. Situate learning in the real world
While there is essential content that is fundamental and universal to a curriculum, one should consider the larger local, regional, national and global contexts that influence students’ learning. There should be timely and regular updates to ensure the curriculum is keeping abreast of the latest trends and changes. Students must be equipped with the skills necessary to develop their potential beyond university and sustain lifelong learning. This requires whole-person development to meet future challenges and opportunities in a fast-changing world.
6. Find balance between breadth and depth
Carefully consider how many subjects, topics, and issues can be taught during each year, period, or other duration. The aim is to widen students’ holistic knowledge base while still allowing them to undergo in-depth specialised disciplinary learning. Offer contextual breadth of subject matter as well as depth. So try to give students a view of broad discipline areas, as well as enabling them to specialise and focus when pursuing their major.
7. Support smooth educational transitions
Try to make the transitions from high school to university, and freshman to senior years, as smooth as possible. There should be more support for students facing such changes, especially in terms of the different learning modes and academic expectations, as well as rules and regulations.
8. Build a logical sequence of learning
After building a general picture of the entire curriculum, make efforts to ensure careful staging and sequencing of the different elements, with smooth transitions and clear scaffolding. This will help students build upon their learning in incremental steps. This sequence of learning should be considered between topics, modules and semesters.
9. Ensure coherence across courses and classes
A university education often involves taking multiple courses alongside special assignments and practical learning, so there is a need to coordinate these different elements so students can understand how they interlink. Ensure the overall learning experience has a coherent direction and allow for alignment and linkage between courses, modules and assignments. This creates a coherent educational experience in which students understand how things fit together. If this is not carefully planned, there is a risk of modules or teaching overlapping or even conflicting with one another, leaving students confused.
10. Offer flexibility and adaptation for diverse student needs
Since there is never a one-size-fits-all curriculum that caters to all students’ learning needs and expectations, there should always be options for them to exercise their autonomy and flexibility in making choices. Meanwhile, special assistance should be devoted to students who are gifted, less able, or have special learning needs. A curriculum should be developed with the belief that all students have the ability to learn, even though they have their own learning preferences and dispositions.
11. Learn from international trends and benchmarks with accreditation
When designing the curriculum for one university, it is worth referring to the standards, requirements and approaches of various international curricula around the world, especially for institutions with similar values and aims or very high-performing institutions. This ensures the ongoing development of the curriculum is in line with international trends and that the learning experiences for students will prepare them for the global dynamics in the decades to come.
All these principles are sometimes considered the ideal. In practice, curriculum designers have to work with various constraints and trade-offs. But with some give and take it is possible to create curricula that enable students to thrive.
Adrian Man-Ho Lam is a course tutor and guest lecturer in the Faculty of Education at the University of Hong Kong.
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