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Curriculum: What & Why

Curriculum is an organized plan for student learning.

When programs engage in a renewal or innovation process for their curriculum, it is prudent to begin by understanding what curriculum is and what we are explicitly and implicitly providing to our students through the curriculum we provide.

Curriculum includes the courses students are required to take, the courses that students can elect to take, the values and skills prioritized through the program, but also the courses and opportunities that are not available to students. These elements can be understood as the explicit curriculum, implicit or hidden curriculum, and null curriculum (for more see here). These elements work together to shape student learning.

Students' learning can be enhanced by being aware and thoughtful about these elements, otherwise the students' experience of learning can be off centre with the types of teaching and engagement professors believe they are providing.

Learning theorist Ralph Tyler identified four questions that are useful for developing (and assessing) curriculum:

1. What educational purposes should the school seek to attain?
2. What educational experiences can be provided that are likely to attain these purposes?
3. How can these educational experiences be effectively organized?
4. How can we determine whether these purposes are being attained? (for more see here)

These questions point to the importance of identifying the point/purpose of the learning, what helps meet that point/purpose, how these elements work best, and whether those elements are working as they should to ensure the purpose is being met.

This is not a one time activity, but a constant cycle of exploring the purpose, what and how, and if or whether this is happening in an educational program.

By thinking of curriculum as a process, rather than solely a product, curriculum should be approached not by which courses will be offered (the "What"), but rather identifying what the Purpose is and how the courses, experiences, and program organization best represent the plan for students' learning (the "What" and "How"). There also needs to be a mechanism, and willingness, to assess whether students are achieving the purpose of the program through their individual courses as well as through the program as a whole.

Courses and experiences should be organized to explicitly demonstrate the program's purpose.

Learning Outcomes can be a useful tool for defining your curriculum because they can explicitly articulate what students should be learning through, and by the cumulation of, their program. This allows you to see how the courses meet these outcomes and what changes, if any, can come from better aligning the program requirement to Outcomes.

The Office of the Vice Provost Academic can support you with developing learning outcomes as well as the different elements of curriculum renewal and innovation in your program.

Readings on Curriculum

Catherine Bovill and Cherie Woolmer. (2019). How conceptualisations of curriculum in higher education influence student-staff co-creation in and of the curriculum. Higher Education (78)3, 407-422. DOI: 10.1007/s10734-018-0349-8.

Kelsey Harvey. (2021). The body in group exercise for older persons: implications of the explicit, implicit and null curricula. Sport, Education and Society, DOI: 10.1080/13573322.2021.1979954

H. Richard Milner IV. (2017, Nov 1). Confronting Inequity / Reimagining the Null Curriculum.

José Víctor Orón Semper & Maribel Blasco. (2018) Revealing the Hidden Curriculum in Higher Education. Studies in Philosophy and Education (37), 481-498. DOI: 10.1007/s11217-018-9608-5

Ralph W. Tyler, (2013). Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction. University of Chicago Press. 

Kay Sambell, Sally Brown, and Phil Race. (2019). Assessment as a locus for engagement: priorities and practicalities. Italian Journal Of Educational Research. 45-62.

Karen Warren, Denise Mitten, Chiara D’Amore, and Erin Lotz. (2019) The Gendered Hidden Curriculum of Adventure Education. Journal of Experiential Education (42)2, 140-54. DOI: 10.1177/1053825918813398.