Linda Suskie

  A Common Sense Approach to Assessment in Higher Education


Why are we doing curriculum maps?

Posted on February 23, 2019 at 5:55 AM

Curriculum maps have become trendy in the last few years. They’ve built into some commercial assessment management systems. But to some faculty they’re simply one more pointless chore to be completed. Why bother creating a curriculum map?

First, what is a curriculum map? It’s a simple chart identifying the key learning goals addressed in each of the curriculum’s key elements or learning activities. A curriculum map for an academic program identifies the program learning goals addressed in each program requirement. A curriculum map for a course identifies the course learning goals addressed in each learning experience and assessment.

So why are we creating curriculum maps? They’re handy tools for analyzing how well a curriculum meets many of the traits of effective curricula discussed in Chapter 5 of my book Assessing Student Learning: A Common Sense Guide:

Is the curriculum designed to ensure that every student has enough opportunity to achieve each of its key learning goals? A program curriculum map will let you know if a program learning goal is addressed only in elective courses or only in one course.

Is the curriculum appropriately coherent? Is it designed so students strengthen their achievement of program learning goals as they progress through the program? Or is attention to program learning goals scattershot and disconnected?

Does the curriculum give students ample and diverse opportunities to achieve its learning goals? Many learning goals are best achieved when students experience them in diverse settings, such as courses with a variety of foci.

Does the curriculum have appropriate, progressive rigor? Do higher-numbered courses address program learning goals on a more advanced level than introductory courses? While excessive prerequisites may be a barrier to completion, do upper-level courses have appropriate prerequisites to ensure that students in them tackle program learning goals at an appropriately advanced level?

Does the curriculum conclude with a capstone experience? Not only is this an excellent opportunity for students to integrate and synthesize their learning, but it’s an opportunity for students to demonstrate their achievement of program learning goals as they approach graduation. A program curriculum map will tell you if you have a true capstone in which students synthesize their achievement of multiple program learning goals.

Is the curriculum sufficiently focused and simple? You should be able to view the curriculum map on one piece of paper or computer screen. If you can’t do this, your curriculum is probably too complicated and therefore might be a barrier to student success.

Is the curriculum responsive to the needs of students, employers, and society? Look at how many program learning goals are address in the program’s internship, field experience, or service learning requirement. If a number of learning goals aren’t addressed there, the learning goals may not be focusing sufficiently on what students most need to learn for post-graduation success.

(Oh, and, yes, curriculum maps can also be used to identify the best places to assess the curriculum’s learning goals—typically in courses or other requirements that students typically complete right before graduating. But I don’t think that should be the main purpose of a curriculum map, because you can figure that out without going to the trouble of creating a curriculum map.)

Program curriculum maps with the following traits can best help answer these questions.

Elective courses have no place in a curriculum map. Remember one of the purposes is to ensure that the curriculum is designed to ensure that every student has enough opportunity to achieve every learning goal. Electives don’t help with this analysis.

List program requirements, not program courses. If students can choose from any of four courses to fulfill a particular requirement, for example, group those four courses together and mark only the program learning outcomes that all four courses address.

Codes can help identify if the curriculum has appropriate, progressive rigor. Some assessment management systems require codes indicating whether a learning goal is introduced, developed further, or demonstrated in each course, rather than simply whether it’s addressed in the course.

Check off a course only if students are graded on their progress toward achieving the learning goal. Cast a suspicious eye at courses for which every program learning goal is checked off. How can those courses meaningfully address all those goals?

Categories: Curriculum & teaching

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Reply Royce Robertson
12:58 PM on February 25, 2019 
Linda, thank you for providing some key points re: curriculum maps. I have been a curriculum map devotee beginning back in the 90's with the work of Heidi Hayes Jacobs. I've always taken curriculum mapping seriously, insofar that I believe there should be curriculum maps and assessment maps. "Cmaps" describe what is taught where and how often. "Amaps" do the same for the critical assessments used in a course, program, etc (what is assessed where and how often). By layering the two, programs can identify gaps, overlaps, repetitions, etc. re: what I call reconciling. IMHO, we need to reconcile what is taught and how it is assessed. For example, some topics are overtaught and underassessed, or undertaught and overassessed. Reconciling offers a blueprint for balancing the two. In the long run, solid Amaps and Cmaps not only clarify what is taught and assessed, they can help IHEs navigate program development. Robust, objective Cmaps can help determine the viability of adding new programs based on what curriculum already exists. This adds a degree of maturity to the curriculum development process (reduces delays and waste). I hope this makes sense. Thanks for stimulating good thought.
Reply Jane Marie Souza
12:26 PM on February 25, 2019 
Linda, leave it to you to so succinctly capture the importance of this basic tool. You have so clearly identified key elements in curriculum maps and given sound rationale for making the effort. I have seen these advantages played out so many times. One point I would add is that the very process of working out a program curriculum map can serve to laser-focus a department's attention on the program as a whole. Sometimes we get so caught up in our own goals at the course level that we risk losing sight of the gestalt.
Thanks for another great post.
Reply Linda Suskie
9:19 AM on February 25, 2019 
Thank you, Joseph! I'm finding that a lot of people are creating curriculum maps only because they've been told they need to have one, without understanding why or how to use them.
Reply Joseph D Levy
11:41 PM on February 23, 2019 
Awesome post, Linda - I've been meaning to write a blog (or two!) about benefits and byproducts of curriculum maps. Thanks for highlighting the connection and utility for assessment.