In early 2016, the Academic Affairs office at Wichita State instituted a new syllabus that requires classes have measurable student learning outcomes that are aligned with course assessments. Although alignment is a fairly straightforward concept, it can be difficult to grasp at first. A more traditional approach to constructing a college-level course tends to begin with the content, incorporating the learners into the process once it reaches the classroom. An outcomes-based approach begins with the desired leaning and incorporates the content along the way.
Shifting to focus from the content to the learning can lead to many changes in a course. We work with professors who decide that tried-and-true assignments don’t add to the course or who realize students tend to do poorly on particular assignments simply because the curriculum in the course doesn’t actually prepare them for that assignment.
It can be tedious to align the content, course activities, and assessments to specific and measurable outcomes in a course, but alignment keeps the focus of any college course where it should be: on student learning.
When professors first learn about alignment, they tend to see the value of certain tools such as Bloom’s Taxonomy and the Quality Matters rubric. These tools will help you understand how to write stronger outcomes and how to align the outcomes within a course. In addition, I would suggest that anyone interested in outcomes-based course construction consider creating a Curriculum Map.
Curriculum mapping can be performed at both the course level and the program level, and many individually-accredited programs have one as part of their program plan.
There are many ways to create a curriculum map, but an easy and common method is simply to create a grid with the unit/module numbers on the left and the course outcomes arrayed across the top. Then, the professor indicates whether each outcome is “Introduced,” “Reinforced,” “Mastered,” or “Assessed” in each of the units. For example:
|Learning Units||Course Outcomes|
|Analyze news media for political bias.||Contrast conservative and liberal economic policy.||Summarize a driver’s rights during a traffic stop.||Distinguish between politics and government.|
|Unit 3||Reinforce||Master, Assess||Master, Assess||Introduce|
|Unit 4||Master||Reinforce, Master|
A curriculum map such as this allows the professor to ensure that concepts are addressed in a systematic way and that no important objectives get forgotten on the road to assessment.
Course-level curriculum maps can be very helpful, but it’s at the program level where this type of organization becomes particularly valuable. Because most courses are taught straight-through by a single professor, it can be easier to ensure that everything gets addressed, even without a systematic map to keep things ordered. But almost all programs are taught by multiple professors, have some elective content, and can include the same course taught by different professors. This level of complexity opens the door to curricular problems such as having students who are improperly prepared for a course, a professor needing to “re-teach” concepts that have not been reinforced recently, or missing critical learning opportunities completely.
A program-level curriculum map looks very similar to a course-level one. Here is an example that has been shared with us from the Rochester Institute of Technology:
|Courses and Experiences||Program Learning Outcomes|
|Apply the scientific method||Develop laboratory techniques||Diagram and explain major cellular processes||Awareness of careers and job opportunities in biological sciences|
|BIOL 303||Reinforce||Master, Assess||Reinforce|
|BIOL 404||Master, Assess||Master, Assess||Reinforce|
|Other: Exit interview||Assess|
You will notice that a program-level curriculum map assumes there are standardized program-level outcomes as well. Programs that have yet to adopt outcomes at this level can still benefit from curriculum mapping, although their final map will necessarily be more conceptual than the one provided here.
I am aware that all of this, from the outcomes through to the mapping, represents a different way of thinking about teaching and learning. And these processes can be tedious and even controversial to implement. But once you shift toward a learner-centered paradigm, you will find that tools such as these make your life, and your students’ lives, easier and more systematic. And with a map like this in your hand, you will always have a ready answer for the perennial student question, “why do I have to do this?”