Curricular Approach: A Paradigm Shift that Is Revolutionary and Obvious

Over the past 12 years I have attended the ACPA Institute on the Curricular Approach (formerly ACPA Residential Curriculum Institute).  Not only do I get to connect with some of my favorite professional colleagues, but I also get to engage in deep high level thinking about how to make the most out of the college student experience.

I went to the first Residential Curriculum Institute (in 2007) as cynical as they come. I basically went so that at the end I could tell the organizers why it was either a bad idea or not all that different. This tells you something about me doesn’t it? Instead I left the institute completely energized by the paradigm shift that I had made in how I think about student learning and student affairs work. I described it at the time as both revolutionary and obvious. It was revolutionary because it completely shifted how I thought about how we should engage students and student affairs work. It was obvious because once I had made that paradigm shift I couldn’t imagine why we would do it any other way. I’ve since been involved with developing and hosting the institute and work with campuses to make their own shift to a learning outcomes approach.

A curricular approach shifts from a programming approach to an approach guided by learning outcomes that tries to bring the intentionality, purposefulness, and developmental sequencing that academic departments put into how they design their courses and how they design a major. With all of the pressure on higher education to do more with less, why would we let the opportunity to foster learning beyond the classroom pass us by?

More schools are letting go of a simple and oftentimes random programming approach and shifting to an intentional curricular approach. However, I do see some schools who claim a curricular approach when really all they have done is create a new programming model guided by learning outcomes.  In response to this, a group of us who have lead these institutes developed the 10 Essential Elements  of a Curricular Approach in 2009. They have since evolved in their precise wording through the input of lots of good folks but their essence has remained.

  1. The curricular approach is directly connected to institutional mission and context.
  2. Learning goals and outcomes are derived from the educational priority.
  3. The aims and strategies are rooted in scholarship.
  4. Learning outcomes drive the development of educational strategies.
  5. The curricular approach utilizes a variety of educational strategies to facilitate student learning.
  6. Student leaders and student staff members play key roles in implementing student learning experiences but are not expected to be educational experts.
  7. The curricular approach developmentally sequences learning.
  8. Campus partners are identified and integrated into plans.
  9. A curricular approach is developed through a review process.
  10. A curricular approach includes a cycle of assessment to improve student learning.

I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to facilitate or co-facilitate more the development and design of these curricular approaches with more than 40 campuses now. It’s incredible to see how these very different institutions and organizations use this systemic approach to create completely different student learning goals and outcomes and develop their own strategies to reach their students across the student experience.

For those interested in learning more, follow the institute events, comments, and provide feedback on Twitter year round via #ACPAICA.

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