Curriculum Maps and the Optimal Path

September 18, 2023 Trudy Milburn

After reading an article about how pharmacy programs were using curriculum maps, I really started thinking about the legends that programs and institutions included in curriculum maps. At one point, someone posted to the ASSESS listserv the following four categories:

I = introduced
R = reinforced
D = demonstrated
M = mastered

I wrote these on the white board in my office and began to consider how the first two are based on what the instructor does and the last two refer to what the student does. This got me thinking about the overall purpose for curriculum maps in academic programs, as well as across institutions.

One of the main benefits of jointly creating and viewing a curriculum map is to see how my course, as an instructor, helps students to gain the outcomes, skills and competencies that my program has identified. The map can be based on only the required courses. But when you plot all of the possible courses that a student might take, you can begin to see some overlap: several faculty members introduce (I) or reinforce (R) similar outcomes.

Fig. 1: English Program Curriculum Map

Fig. 1: English Program Curriculum Map

A curriculum map can also act as a visual representation illustrating where students will demonstrate or master the skills and competencies they gain from their courses, or activities within those courses. In fact, it is often the case that students demonstrate more than one outcome per course but at different levels. Those of us using rubrics in our courses can begin to see the similarity between the levels on a rubric and the levels of student achievement in the curriculum.

Figure 2

Fig. 2 Sample Writing Rubric

The next step to take might be described as “closing the loop.” That is, going back to your curriculum map after a year or a cycle of conducting assessment and reviewing what actually occurred to see what changes you need to make, if any. There are two possible levels of analysis within this process.

First, you can see whether students’ expected level of mastery did or did not occur within the targeted courses. If so, the gap between the map and the evidence from the rubric evaluation can be the impetus for a broader conversation between the plans and the findings. This may lead to a second map exercise.

Figure 3

Fig. 3: Student Proficiencies Plotted

Second, by plotting a cohort of students and the typical paths through the curriculum, you can see if there are any trends in those who master outcomes in target courses. If one has the freedom of a “non-lock-step” curriculum, one can inquire, did students who took a certain sequence of courses achieve at different rates than those who took a different sequence?

This looks like the mathematics concept of creating an “optimal path.” In an era of limited resources, finding optimal paths for student success is a big deal. Curriculum maps just may be the under-used tool to help accomplish this goal.

Trudy Milburn translates campus-wide assessment needs into digital solutions and provides tailored demonstrations and trainings to institutions of higher education in the U.S. and abroad. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts and has been a tenured professor at Baruch College/CUNY and California State University Channel Islands. Her forthcoming edited book, Communicating User Experience: Applying Local Strategies Research to Digital Media Design, was published by Lexington Books. You can learn more about her by viewing her ePortfolio.

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