A process-based approach to curriculum planning


I recently read Peter Knight’s (2001) presentation of a process-based approach to curriculum planning and development.  A critic of outcomes-based approaches to higher education, he argues that complex learning can “not easily [be] reducible to precise statements” that  “grow like mould and become unwieldy” (p.373); and that these approaches run the risk of reducing creativity, innovation, and flexibility; threaten faculty autonomy; and, represent a ‘reductionists’ approach to learning.  Although I certainly don’t agree with all of Knight’s critiques, and firmly believe that learning outcomes provide an extraordinary framework for structuring and aligning curricula, Knight provides some excellent arguments for focusing intentionally on the quality of learning encounters and environments.  In fact, I think some of Knight’s suggestions help to support a holistic approach to curriculum development, which focuses on outcomes, processes, and the creation of quality learning environments and communities.

Knight states, “…that planning starts by imagining how to draw together the processes, encounters or engagements that make for good learning” (p. 375).  Disciplinary subject matter and context need to be thoughtfully considered, and “…key messages and learning encounters need to be planned to suffuse the programme” (p.376).  We should clearly define and articulate the signature pedagogies and learning environments which inherently support and promote a deep approach to learning within each programme. This approach begins, “…by asking what good learning, teaching and assessment encounters in the subject area are…” (p. 376).  Knight also argues for processes which support student development and progression through the intentional scaffolding of learning experiences.    He clearly articulates the need for the creation of collaborative learning communities, “…it is fair to say that good curriculum would plan for learning to take place through communities of practice in which groupwork and peer evaluation are normal, interpersonal contact is common and networks of engagement are extensive” (p.377).  A further criterion of curriculum coherence is a ‘coherence of feedback’, where formative feedback is provided to students throughout the program, “about their achievements and how to improve upon them” (p. 378).

This article provides a few key recommendations for effective curriculum planning:

1)      It is imperative for each programme to clearly articulate key messages related to how it supports student learning and success.

2)      Courses within a programme should be intentionally planned and aligned to support progression in the complexity of student learning and development.

3)      Students must be provided with continuous opportunities to receive formative feedback on their learning achievements and opportunities for improvement.

4)      Quality educational experiences should emphasize the creation of learning communities and environments which support collaborative peer development.

I could not agree more with these recommendations and personally believe that an outcomes-based approach only helps to provide an effective framework for organizing and structuring this vision for excellence in curriculum planning and design.

Knight, P.T. 2001. Complexity and curriculum: a process approach to curriculum-making. Teaching in Higher Education 6(3):369-381.

An Outcomes-based Approach to Higher Education

An outcomes-based approach to education clearly specifies what students are expected to learn and arranges the curriculum such that these intended outcomes are achieved (Harden, 2007). Learning outcomes provide the base for an effectively aligned and integrated curriculum, where instructional activities and assessment strategies are explicitly linked to course-specific and degree-level learning outcomes, which are tied to institutional and provincially-defined graduate degree level expectations (DLEs).

Learning outcomes provide a powerful framework upon which to structure curricula. According to Harden et al., (1999; 2007a) learning outcomes:

  • help to provide clarity, integration and alignment within and between a sequence of courses;
  • promote a learner-centred approach to curriculum planning;
  • encourage a self-directed and autonomous approach to learning, as students can take responsibility for their studies, and are able to actively gauge their progress;
  • promote a collegial approach to curriculum planning, as instructors collaborate to identify gaps and redundancies,
  • ensure that decisions related to the curriculum and learning environment are streamlined;
  • foster a philosophy of continual monitoring, evaluation and improvement; and,
  • help to ensure accountability and assure quality of our education programs.

An aligned curriculum organizes structures and sequences courses around the intended learning outcomes. In order for this approach to succeed, learning outcomes must must be: 1) clearly articulated in a way that is contextualized within the discipline; 2) communicated broadly; 3) used to inform and influence decisions about the curriculum; and, 3) monitored regularly to ensure that they remain current and accurately reflect the intent of the degree program (Manogue and Brown, 2007; Harden, 2007).

It is hard to argue with an outcomes-based approach to education.  Starting with a clear goal of what one wants to achieve seems extraordinarily logical, even when situated within the inherent complexities of higher education!  What is clear is that an outcomes-based approach requires a clear focus on continuous quality improvement.


Harden, R.M., Crosby, J.R., and Davis, M.H. 1999. AMEE Guide No. 14: Outcome-based education: Part 1 – An introduction to outcome-based education.  Medical Teacher 21(1): 7-15

Harden, R.M., Crosby, J.R., and Davis, M.H. 1999. AMEE Guide No. 14: Outcome-based education: Part 1 – An introduction to outcome-based education.  Medical Teacher 21(1): 7-15

Harden, R.M. 2002. Learning outcomes and instructional objectives: is there a difference? Medical Teacher 24(2):151-155.

Harden, R.M. 2007a.  Outcomes-based education: the future is today.  Medical Teacher 29:625-629.

Harden, R.M. 2007b. Outcome-based education – the ostrich, the peacock and the beaver. Medical Teacher 29: 666-671.

Manogue, M. and Brown, G. 2007.  Managing the curriculum – for a change.  European Journal of Dental Education 11: 75-86.


Three Strategies to Ensure Student Success and Engagement


Research suggests that effective teaching and learning environments: 1) facilitate a deep approach to learning where students are actively involved and seek further meaning and understanding through experience, application, practice and reflection; 2) provide organization and structure through clearly defined goals, learning objectives and standards for performance; 3) provide opportunities for students to receive frequent feedback; 4) provide authentic learning experiences that establish personal and real-world relevance; and, 5) provide opportunities for independence and choice (Entwistle and Tait, 1990; Trigwell and Prosser, 1991; deWinstanley and Bjork, 2002; Lizzio et al., 2002; Newmaster et al., 2006;  Weiman, 2007;  Kember and Hong, 2008; Revell and Wainwright, 2009).

The following 3 strategies translate these fundamental concepts into action:

1) Establish organization and structure

  • Establish and communicate clear learning objectives throughout the course
  • Establish and communicate clear standards for performance (e.g. rubrics and grading guidelines)
  • Give clear and useful explanations
  • Vary and structure learning activities (~20 min.) to focus attention
  • Focus each lesson/session on a few main concepts
  • Repeat and space key information within and between lectures/labs/seminar

2) Keep Learners Intrinsically Motivated

  • Establish personal and real-world relevance
  • Provide opportunities for independence and choice in learning content and process
  • Provide opportunities to receive frequent feedback and to scaffold learning

3) Involve the Learner

  • Provide opportunities for peer interaction and discussion
  • Provide opportunities for independent interpretation, elaboration and meta-cognition
  • Use activities that promote practice and problem-solving to facilitate synthesis, integration and application
  • Ask questions and demonstrate an interest in students’ opinion, and their challenges with the subject matter
  • Promote a sense of reciprocal learning and interaction by demonstrating a sense of enthusiasm, trust, approachability, honesty and humility


deWinstanley, P.A. and Bjork, R.A .2002.Successful lecturing: presenting information in ways that engage effective processing.  New Directions for Teaching and Learning 89:19-32.

Entwistle, N. and Tait, H. 1990.  Approaches to learning, evaluations of teaching, and preferences for contrasting academic environments.  Higher Education 19: 169-194.

Kember, D., Ho, A., and Hong, C. 2008. The importance of establishing relevance in motivating student learning. Active Learning in Higher Education 9(3): 249-263.

Lizzio, A., Wilson, K., and Simons R. 2002.  University students’ perceptions of the learning environment and academic outcomes: implications for theory and practice.  Studies in Higher Education 27(1):27-52.

Newmaster, S., Lacroix, C.A., and Rossenboon, C. 2006. Authentic learning as a mechanism for learner centredness. International Journal of Learning 13 (6): 103-112.

Revell, A. and Wainwright, E. 2009.  What makes lectures ‘unmissable’? Insights into teaching excellence and active learning.  Journal of Geography in Higher Education 33(2): 209-233.

Trigwell, K. And Prosser, M. 1991.  Improving the quality of student learning: the influence of learning context and student approaches to learning on learning outcomes.  Higher Education 22:251-266.

Wieman, C. 2007. Why not try a scientific approach to science education? Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning 39(5): 9-15.

A novel alternative to essay writing in a large introductory course

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/samhames/5250383314/sizes/m/in/photostream/

 “Large class sizes, the increasing diversity of the student corpus, and mounting cost-efficiency imperatives have become commonplace.  In this context, a major challenge for academic faculty is how curriculum, teaching and assessment can be enhanced so that graduates will become more effective communicators and meet the needs of contemporary knowledge economies” (p. 89).

Moni et al. (2007) present an innovative writing and peer review process aimed at first-year students in a human biology course at a research-intensive university, which represents an alternative to more traditional essay-type assignments.  The students were required to write a 700-750 word personal response to one of a selected number of topics from The Science Show, broadcasted by the Australia Broadcasting Commission.  The text was to present a scaffolded- level of cognitive development from providing a context and purpose in the Introduction (remembering, understanding), to a personal analysis of the topic in the body of the report, to a judgement section where the students were required to communicate their personal interest in, and usefulness of the topic both in the context of self and to society.   In addition, they were required to present future research areas based on the discussion presented in the audio file.  The students were asked to peer review a pre-selected portion of exceptional assignments – a clever technique for having students exposed to high-quality work.

This paper presents an interesting assignment for a first-year class.  A detailed marking rubric is outlined.   The students felt that the assignment challenged them to think about current issues and to effectively present scientific evidence in their writing.  An exemplary submission and peer review is provided in the paper.   The process of peer-reviewing exemplary work is intriguing, and may be beneficial in a first-year course where students often struggle finding “the right answer.”


Moni, R.W., Moni, K.B., Lluka, L.J., and Poronnik, P. 2007.  The personal response:  a novel writing assignment to engage first year students in large human biology classes.  Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education 35(2): 89-96.

Is there a relationship between students’ approaches to learning and their perceptions of learning environments?

Hazel et al. 2002 present a compelling exploration of meaningful/deep (in comparison to rote/surface) learning in terms of the relationship between students’ approaches to learning and their perceptions of the learning environment, within the context of biology.  Data was collected from 272 students from similar first year biology subjects at 2 Australian Universities.  The Presage-Process-Product model was used to guide the research: Presage (Student Characteristics, Course Design/Teaching Methods), Process (Students’ Perceptions of Context/Learning Environment, Students’ Approaches to Learning),  Product (Quantity and Quality of Students’ Learning Outcomes).  They used a pre/post test based upon open-ended questions and a concept mapping exercise to assess key concepts in photosynthesis.   Perceptions of the learning environment were evaluated via a questionnaire designed to evaluate deep/surface learning strategies, “good teaching”, clear goals, workload, assessment and independence.   A hierarchical cluster analysis was used to examine the data. Comprehensive details regarding these methods are provided.

This paper is extraordinarily interesting and well-researched. Three clusters of students were identified: an understanding group, a reproduction group, and an incoherent group (which demonstrated the poorest understanding).  The reproduction group perceived the environment as more supportive of a surface-learning approach, and adopted a surface approach to learning.  The understanding group found that the learning environment was more supportive of a deep approach and hence adopted a deep learning approach.  It was noted that less than one third of the students demonstrated the deep/understanding learning pattern.  The results for the incoherent group were mixed, although they perceived that the learning environment was supportive of deep learning, they adopted more of a surface approach to learning and demonstrated significantly less prior-understanding (although all groups demonstrated a relatively low understanding in the pre-tests).  Perhaps most interesting, the reproduction groups’ understanding of photosynthesis decreased in the post-test, while the understanding group demonstrated an enhanced understanding of the topic, and higher achievement scores in comparison to the two other clusters.  The incoherent group demonstrated the lowest level of achievement and understanding.  The key findings suggest that perceptions of the learning environment and students’ approaches to learning can have a significant effect on their level of understanding of course concepts. The key questions that remains is, “…knowing that students do respond so differently to the same context, and that these differences are associated with differences in the quality of their learning, what can be done?  Our approach is to focus on students’ awareness of the requirements of their course when they start, and on differences between staff expectations and students’ conception of learning of their subject and of key concepts in their subjects.”  This study is well-researched and presented and highlights the importance of developing students’ awareness of both the process and content of subject-matter learning.  The pre/post methodology also provides an interesting research model.


Hazel, E., Prosser, M. and Trigwell, K. 2002.  Variation in learning orchestration in university biology courses.  International Journal of Science Education 24(7): 737-751.

Poetry in Motion

I attended an explorative session at the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (2011) Conference in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The session highlighted a Community-Based Art exibit at the University of Saskatchewan.


Here is my personal poetic journey:




Passion & Compassion,

Sympathy, Inspiration,

Collaboration &


Innovation, Tradition,

Diversity & Culture,


Questioning & Insight.

These are the words which guide my practice.


Short burst of creativity inspired by STLHE2011!

Day One -Collaborative Notes from the Course ReDesign Institute (CrDi) – Interesting thoughts on teaching and learning

What does learner-centredness mean to you?  How would you describe a learner-centred course?

– inclusive design – understanding how different learners learn differently
– active learning
– mindful of other courses the student might be taking in their course of study, being mindful of flow
– aligned and relevant (personal and real-world relevance)
– there has to be responsibility placed on the student for their learning.  They are not just a sponge
– active learning. deep learning.
– creating environments for learning
– One where there is a great deal of chaos. Learner centredness, seems to come in two flavours.

Instructor acts as a facilitator.  Instructor as LEARNER.
One is the ‘webquest’ style of learner centred design. This involves significant front end design work on the part of the facilitator or the instructional designer. Specific outcomes are desired and constrained ‘choices’ offered to the student. The student becomes the centre of those choices, but within a pre-defined rubric

Open education, on the other hand, doesn’t do this. It allows the student to… ack. really have to go… http://wikieducator.org/User:Davecormier/Books/Educational_Technology_and_the_Adult_Learner i mean this stuff. It goes to a meeting and comes back later and finishes its thought.

Fink’s 5 Principles of Course Design: http://honolulu.hawaii.edu/intranet/committees/FacDevCom/guidebk/teachtip/finks5.htm

  • Challenges students to HIGHER LEVEL LEARNING.
  • Gives FREQUENT and IMMEDIATE FEEDBACK to students on the quality of their learning.

Constructive Alignment:
http://www.springerlink.com/index/l2q3820h2436l607.pdf Biggs, 1996

The benefits of Learning Objectives  (Simon and Taylor, 2009)

  • Improve Communication with students and other faculty
  • Provide Structure and Organization – streamline course, improve assessment
  • Enhance Student Learning – structure learning. focus attention

Natasha’s summary:

Source doc:

THE CARL WIEMAN SCIENCE EDUCATION INITIATIVE – Achieving the most effective, evidence-based science education  (effective science education, backed by evidence)


Learning Objectives – Do they really work?

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One of the core foundations of creating or revising a course is to establish a set of learning objectives which clearly define what a student should know or be able to do by the end of a course. So, where is the evidence that this approach actually works?  Simon and Taylor (2009) set out to explore the impact that learning objectives (or course-specific learning goals) had on student learning  in three classes where the instructor had integrated objectives intentionally throughout their course.  Nearly all students agreed that learning objectives were very valuable and helped them approach their learning more effectively.  Specifically, they were seen to guide and direct students in “knowing what they need to know” (p.55).   Students valued the organization and structure established by these objectives, “which allowed them to organize the information more effectively and be more expertlike ”  (p.55).  They appreciated that instructors where explicit and direct in the topics, skills and concepts that were of most importance.  Students in this study stated that these objectives helped to focus and guide their attention in lecture. As one of the most common struggles I hear from instructors is maintaining student attention during the lecture, setting clearly defined learning objective seems like a relatively simple strategy to implement to address this concern!

The course instructors felt that clearly defined learning objectives, improved communication in terms of what was covered/most important in the course, not only with students taking the course, but with other instructors.  This unanticipated outcome was seen as highly valuable when aligning a structured sequence of courses in the curriculum.  The instructors also felt that the objectives improved their assessment practices and helped them in preparing exam questions.   Specifically, they helped to ensure that there was alignment between their objectives with their assessment measures. Noted one instructor, “Your exam writes itself…I can check to see if each question addresses a learning goal and if it doesn’t I will throw it out” (p.56).

There is no question that learning objectives help to provide organization and structure to course design and implementation.  From this study, we can also conclude 3 primary benefits of course learning objectives:

1) they help to guide and enhance student learning

2) they improve communication between students and other instructors

3) they improve assessment practices.

Simon, B. and Taylor, J. (2009) What is the value of course-specific learning goals? Journal of College Science Teaching. Nov/Dec: 53-57.

Facilitating Discussions

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“It is one thing to recognize the benefit of engaging students in discussion yet quite another to master the skills necessary to effectively facilitate discussion” (Dallimore et al., 2004, pg. 104).

The learning environment is in constant flux; what works one class may not constitute success in the next. To promote effective discussion, we must strive to adapt to the ever-changing classroom environment.  Dallimore et al. (2004) suggest students are encouraged to actively participate in classroom discussions when: participation is graded; the learners’ ideas and experiences are incorporated into the discussion; the facilitation is active; effective questions are asked; the classroom environment is supportive; and the instructor provides both positive and constructive feedback.

In reference to their role in classroom discussions, Sautter (2007, pg. 124) states, “The most important role of the instructor  is one of shaping student behavior so that the students learn how to continuously improve in developing critical thought processes and well-constructed arguments.” Based on the recommendations provided by Davis (1993); Dallimore et al. (2004); McKeachie and Svinicki (2006);  Brookfield (2006); and,  Sautter (2007) an effective facilitator:

  • sets shared-expectations for democratic and quality participation and encourages input from all learners during discussions;
  • states a clear goal which outlines the purpose for each discussion;
  • purposefully avoids the temptation to respond to every comment, and encourages the learners to develop confidence in both their own ideas and their ability to respond to each other;
  • provides balanced feedback, by positively acknowledging insightful questions and points of discussion and identifying possible areas for improvement;
  • involves the learner in evaluating the discussion, “How did it go?” “What are some areas for improvement in terms of quality, contribution, participation and facilitation?”
  • varies the complexity of the questions asked to encourage different levels of thinking and that are, “…phrased somewhat broadly to challenge the students to take an active role in identifying concepts relevant to the discussion” (Sautter, 2007, pg. 124);
  • openly acknowledges that differences of opinion enrich discussion, diffuses excessive tension, and suggests points of clarification when needed;
  • is prepared to use a variety of methods of delivery (e.g. open discussion, brainstorming, small focus groups, pairing); and,
  • takes notes of key points and allows time for a collaborative summary such that everyone has time to assess and synthesize the information presented and discussed.

The goal of any good classroom discussion is to increase learning and self-confidence.  To an instructor devoted to the expectation of an inspiring and engaging discussion, silence can be both intimidating and threatening. However, an effective discussion requires time for personal thought. Many authors emphasize the importance of providing time for students to think individually and to record some thoughts after posing a question for discussion (e.g. Davis, 1993; Brookfield, 1995; McKeachie and Svinicki, 2006).  This time can be enormously valuable in developing learners’ confidence and clarity in their knowledge, thoughts and ideas.  In smaller seminar settings, it may be appropriate to pose questions for discussion prior to class via email so that the learners come prepared for conversation. The “think-pair-share” technique, where students record some thoughts, pair up with another student to discuss their thoughts, and then share their collaborative ideas with the rest of the class may also work well.

Instructors are often faced with the challenge of engaging students in the process of learning as well as the content of their learning, “…good education is always more process than product” (Palmer, 1998, pg. 94).  An inclusive and democratic discussion can inspire critical thinking, shared learning, and a deep appreciation and understanding of the course subject matter.

“At the heart of discussion is the open and unpredictable creation of meanings through collaborative inquiry” (Brookfield, 2006, pg. 129).

Brookfield, S.D. 2006. The Skillful Teacher. Jossey-Bass, San Fransisco, CA.

Dallimore, E.J., Hertenstein, J.H., and Platt, M.B. 2004. Classroom participation and discussion effectiveness: student-generated strategies. Communication Education 53(1): 103-115.

Davis, B.G. (1993) Tools for Teaching. Jossey-Bass Inc., US.

McKeachie, W.J. and Svinicki, M. (2006) McKeachie’s Teaching Tips. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York.

Palmer, P.J. 1998. The Courage to Teach. Jossey-Bass. San Fransisco, CA.

Sautter, P. 2007. Designing discussion activities to achieve desired learning outcomes: choices using mode of delivery and structure. Journal of Marketing Education 29(2): 122-131.

Setting the Stage for Effective Discussions

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“A good discussion in one that leaves issues open for further inquiry and in which as many questions are raised as are answered” (Brookfield, 2006, pg. 119).

There is little doubt of the benefits associated with classroom discussion.  In fact, discussion is one of the most touted and applied teaching strategies in higher education (Dallimore et al., 2004).   Effective discussions can:

  • increase the learner’s understanding of the subject matter;
  • promote the development of effective communication, active listening, and presentation skills;
  • encourage a deep appreciation for diverse points of view;  and,
  • enhance each learner’s confidence in their ability to embrace both the subject matter and the learning process.

Discussion Norms

What are the characteristics of an effective discussion, and how can we ensure that these are present within this learning environment?

One of the most productive strategies for encouraging effective group discussion in any classroom setting is to establish group norms.   Brookfield (2006,  pg.124) recommends using a “Critical Incident Approach” where students are asked to establish these norms based on their personal reflections of the characteristics associated with their best and worst past discussion experiences.  The groups are then asked for a list of things that they could do to ensure that the positive characteristics exist, and the negative characteristics are avoided, thus forming a starting point to a set of common ground rules for future class discussions.

Shared Expectations

“Students should feel that you are genuinely interested in what they have to contribute” (McKeachie and Svinicki, 2006, pg. 24).

It is important to set the stage early by ensuring that everyone participates in the first class discussion.  McKeachie and Svinicki (2006, pg.24) encourage instructors to not only carefully review the course objectives with the students at the start of the semester, but to involve them in the process of evaluating these objectives based on their shared expectations, by asking the following questions:

  • What have you heard about this course?
  • What do you hope to learn from this course?
  • What are your expectations for this course?
  • What are your expectations of me as an instructor?
  • What are your expectations of yourself as a learner?

At this time, learners may be most comfortable contributing in small groups (3-5 people) prior to convening in an open class discussion (this strategy also helps encourage some level of participation from everyone in larger classes). The instructor then summarizes and lists common responses.  By having been asked for their contribution, learners become actively engaged in the importance of the syllabus and the purposeful organization and structure of the course.


Brookfield, S.D. 2006. The Skillful Teacher. Jossey-Bass, San Fransisco, CA.

Dallimore, E.J., Hertenstein, J.H., and Platt, M.B. 2004. Classroom participation and discussion effectiveness: student-generated strategies. Communication Education 53(1): 103-115.

McKeachie, W.J. and Svinicki, M. (2006) McKeachie’s Teaching Tips. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York.