How to... design mix 'n' match courses

December 8, 2000

Ronald Barnett, Kelly Coate and Gareth Parry make sense of study programmes.

Curriculum planning is a complicated, yet necessary part of improving degree quality.

The undergraduate curriculum is not a fashionable topic, and the teaching debate has paid it scant regard. Striving for pedagogical excellence seems almost more important than course design. However, the demands of the Quality Assurance Agency and the move to subject benchmarking are likely to lead to a focus on curriculum matters. Aspiring members of the Institute for Learning and Teaching may likewise find themselves thinking through how they have designed their courses as they prepare their portfolios.

The question is: how informed will the departmental discussions and faculty reflections on the curriculum be? The modern curriculum is a complicated matter, a complexity that is rarely understood entirely.

It was, in part, this lack of discussion and understanding of modern curricula that motivated our two-year research project at the Institute of Education, University of London. A range of academics from five different subject areas and six higher education institutions were interviewed, and curriculum materials were analysed.

One of the aims of the research was to make sense of contemporary change in undergraduate curriculums. In discussions with academics, it was apparent that there are several reasons for a course to change. These include:

  • The requirements of industry and professional associations
  • Institutional influences such as learning and teaching strategies
  • Response to debates over employability and key or transferable skills
  • New technologies
  • The internationalisation of higher education (the effects of the global higher education market)
  • Changes in the ways in which knowledge is produced
  • Disciplinary or subject developments
  • The diversity of students and their needs.

But in reacting to changes, there is a danger of losing sight of the bigger picture. To enable academics to think about the whole curriculum, we have developed a model for understanding and communicating its components. In this model, modern curriculums can be understood as built around three "domains": knowledge, action and self.

The knowledge domain includes discipline-specific competences. These include the skills of reasoning within the discipline. A history course may require students to demonstrate knowledge of the life and times of Henry VIII, but also to demonstrate the capability for forming judgements about his reign.

The action domain includes competences acquired through "doing". For example, an oral presentation on Renaissance art might be required to demonstrate ability to communicate in public.

The self domain develops educational identities: a history student may learn to perceive herself as a "critical thinker", or to be "self-reliant" in pursuing historical issues.

However, it is also apparent that there are profound differences between disciplines that are not often examined. In particular, while each of these three domains is present in every curriculum, the weight of each domain, and its relationship with the others, varies across disciplines.

Contrast electronic engineering with a history degree. Engineering will devote much time to teaching skills that students are actually required to perform, while history is largely content-based but may include some group work or a student presentation. The action domain is a larger component in engineering than in history. What is also significant is that the action domain in engineering is often held separate from the knowledge and self domains. Transferable skills come to be present in their own right. As one engineering lecturer told us about his students: "Our products at the end of the degree are more immediately applicable than (those of) someone who has a more academic background."

In contrast, in history, knowledge of the subject is important and the self domain is a more substantial component: history students learn to perceive themselves not just as critical thinkers but also citizens capable of contributing to society in general.

The newer professional subjects require a high level of integration and balance across the three domains. Students of business studies and nursing may spend a large amount of time engaged in "doing", but what makes these subjects stand out is that the self domain is also a substantial and integrated component of the curriculum.

In nursing studies, students may be asked to keep journals or reflective diaries in their endeavour to become "reflective practitioners". Business studies students may undertake projects in which they perform their future roles as managers. What this suggests is that any grand plan for the curriculum should pay attention to the pattern of a subject's components.

The test of whether course components have been added without thought about the bigger picture is to ask such questions as: what type of student identity is being developed, and how does this relate to the discipline? To what degree should a student's capability to act be integrated with his or her disciplinary knowledge?

Those responsible for improving the quality of teaching should embrace the concept of curriculum as such, and promote debate, consideration and development of curriculums. Perhaps the ideas proposed here can stimulate such debates.

Ronald Barnett is dean of professional development and Kelly Coate is a research officer, Institute of Education, University of London. Gareth Parry is a reader in education in the school of educational studies at the University of Surrey.

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