"6 Stages of a Curricular Approach to Learning Beyond the Classroom" over an image of an ocean sunrise.

6 Stages of a Curricular Approach

For campuses working to develop their curricular approach, knowing if you are on the right track and moving things forward or have lost your way and are stuck can be challenging. As with most things, it is more complicated than this either/or binary option. There are at least 6 stages of a curricular approach.

I’ve worked with almost 100 campuses to understand, create, and launch their curricular approach to learning beyond the classroom. I support a cohort of about 15 schools each year as they continue to develop their curricular approach. Some of these schools are one year in and others are more than a decade into their journey. These conversations have evolved my thinking since we wrote The Curricular Approach to Student Affairs. What stage is your curricular approach in?

Stage 0: The Buffet Table Approach

This is the step before attempting to shift to a curricular approach. In this approach, the organization is largely reactive to student needs. The staff on campus offer a wide variety of speakers, student organizations, events, initiatives, student-led events, and so much more under the (unspoken) theory that students will seek opportunities that foster just the right level of challenge to elevate their knowing, doing, and being. At this stage, many feel overwhelmed. Students feel overwhelmed by too many options. Staff feel overwhelmed with the reactive nature, more, more, more mentality, and a feeling of constantly being too busy and living for the next break. Relief from this overwhelm is often what those shifting to a curricular approach are yearning for.

Stage 1: Programming Model with Learning Goals and Outcomes

At this stage, the campus has created learning goals and outcomes. However, these were written to affirm the programs and initiatives they had been doing. This is not a curricular approach, but it is often a step many, if not most, campuses go through on their way to a curricular approach. We see many attendees at the ACPA Institute on the Curricular Approach realize early in their experience at the Institute that this is where they are at.

Stage 2: Shared Learning Aims

At this stage, the learning aims were created with the students in mind, not to justify the existing programs. However, these learning aims do not shift any of the practices. They remain, like many mission, vision, and values statements, as espoused but not enacted.

Stage 3: Sporadic Educational Plans

At this stage, some functional areas in the organization are using the learning aims to guide strategies, sequence learning, and create facilitation guides. These educational plans are the pathway for how students will achieve the learning outlined in the learning aims. However, the educational plans are sporadic, only in a few functional areas, or only applied to particular student populations.

Stage 4: Pervasive Educational Plans

At this stage, educational plans are widespread and pervasive. They guide student learning in various functional areas. However, the educational plans have yet to be interconnected. It is essential to create solid educational plans before trying to align them. If you jump to alignment too soon before plans are well thought out, assessed, and improved, too many things can shift and change. Mapping too early can be like doing a jigsaw puzzle with jello – not a good time.

Stage 5: Aligned Implementation

At this stage, educational plans have been mapped out to identify collective gaps, redundancies, and opportunities for collaboration. This is where functional areas start to recognize the learning outcomes that are not sufficiently being addressed and redundant initiatives that can be eliminated. This mapping process can be as simple as post-it notes on a wall or as complex as a multi-colored and coded spreadsheet.

Stage 6: Continuous Improvement

At this stage, the educational plans are completed across the organization and have been aligned. The focus is now on adjusting the learning aims and the educational plans based on assessment to foster continuous improvement.

Progress Over Perfection

Do you notice the stage your curricular approach is at? Would your colleagues agree? If it isn’t where you would like it to be, resist the temptation to make where you are wrong, a failure, or a misstep. Don’t argue with reality. Recognizing where you are at is a critical step into moving where you want to go next. In future posts/newsletters, I’ll share some additional new thinking around the process and the product of a curricular approach, as well as some mindset shifts to help you advance the stages of your curricular approach.

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