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THE CLIFF NOTES OF
CURRICULUM DESIGN

by Troy Smith, Adjunct, Forensic Science

Have you ever had an idea for a possible course or class offering, but didn't know exactly how to package or present it to the  PGCC Curriculum Advisory Committee for comment and approval?  Do you have ideas for other classes within your technical specialty, or ideas for adult continuing education, or do you see an "educational niche" that needs to be filled?  Would you like to promote, advocate, and advertise your idea, but can't quite seem to figure out how?  Are you able to "quantify" how the course would be structured, taught, or evaluated?  Sit back, relax, and read through my suggestions for curriculum design, and I think you’ll find them applicable to almost any academic course proposal.

Recent focus groups, surveys, and questionnaires indicate that the process of curriculum design and the packaging and presentation of these ideas have been a concern of faculty members at PGCC.  There is a need for a consistent approach to curriculum design within any discipline, including credit classes and continuing adult education.  Although these concerns ranked very high on the list of needs of our group, little has been done to demonstrate this systematic approach to educational curriculum design.  I hope this short article will serve as a guideline of how to accomplish this task.

My discipline, forensic science, is still in its infancy, relatively speaking.  In this respect it's different from disciplines such as biology, chemistry, physics, and math, where hundreds of years of knowledge have contributed to the knowledge base and infrastructure, making the development of specific tasks, variation on some course themes, or unique and novel approaches goals that are easily accomplished.

Each and every faculty member has the knowledge, skills, and abilities to accomplish basic curriculum design.  It's just a matter of thinking clearly and creatively about your material, and, ironically, where you want to end up at the conclusion of your course, which makes this daunting task that much easier.  Thus, the first lesson in curriculum design begins with this idea. "Start with the end in mind."  As we progress, the challenge of curriculum development will become less intimidating.

In all the curriculum I develop, I utilize a "systems approach" in its skeletal framework, more formally known as the Instructional Systems Design (ISD) educational model development.  This method of developing educational curriculum was first used by the U.S. Air Force.  It was adopted because of the large numbers of men and women from many different educational, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds, who needed to be trained in a systematic and consistent way, on highly specialized and technical military equipment, methods, policies, programs, and procedures.

The ISD methodology forces you to begin with the end in mind by specifying what you expect your students to learn by the end of your course.  In other words, what are the educational objectives or expected outcomes?  Two kinds of educational outcomes are terminal and enabling.  Terminal outcomes specify exactly what your students should be able to do by the time they finish your course.  Enabling objectives are the means used to reach the terminal learning outcomes.  We utilize these learning outcomes in each week's lesson plan as "scaffolds" on which to build more information.

The development of educational outcomes is the most important dimension to your course or program initiative.  Not only do the outcomes  establish the "ground rules" by which your students will be evaluated, but they assist you with keeping the course on track.  They should always be written from the "ABCD" model; that is, who is the audience, what behavior would you like them to exhibit, under what conditions, and to what degree.  Here is an example:

At the end of today’s lecture, the Forensic Science 151 student (A) should be able to investigate a motor vehicle accident (B), under any circumstance or condition (C), to a level of 80% and/or the Instructor’s satisfaction (D).

There are no "wishy-washy weasel words," which could cause the student to misunderstand the direction.  Nor does it leave the instructor open to unfair student criticism, as both parties have a realistic expectation from each other as to what is expected and required, and specifically how it will be evaluated.  This leads to less stress for students and faculty alike.

Educational learning outcomes should always address several different learning domains including cognitive, affective, psycho-motor, and inter-personal dimensions.  Although the topic of learning domains is beyond the scope of this short article, it should be noted that they are helpful in stimulating all aspects of a student's desire for learning and understanding.  In addition, it gives the student who is weak in some areas an opportunity to excel in others.

After the creation of educational outcomes, there are five more steps in the application of this Instructional Systems Design educational model: Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation.  Each of these steps has its own elements as well.  The important issue is that you take a systematic approach to each portion of your curriculum design.

A good model to consider for course proposal is one I utilize for classes, either for the college, or as a private contractor.  Please remember it is but one model to consider, and with some creativity, you should be able to develop some variations of your own.  However as a minimum, my Course Curriculum Design Proposal includes these elements, with narrative explanations as required: Cover Title page, Table of Contents, Course Description, Course Rationale, Target Population, Budget Estimates, Course Prerequisites, Terminal & Enabling Learning Objectives, a Proposed Course Syllabus, Instructor's Pre-Class Checklist, Instructor’s Course Outline, Example Evaluation Mechanisms, and Student Manual/Handouts.  Through this process, you will provide your department chair, dean, and curriculum committee with a concrete proposal on which to make a decision.  It also demonstrates your academic professionalism, credibility as a professor, and most importantly, that you have thought through the process before submitting it for approval.

Finally, if your proposed course is not approved, there could be many reasons unrelated to the quality of your design.  Budget priorities, scheduling, administrative and academic direction (i.e., technical versus academic requirements), educational need, and hundreds of other possible reasons may lead to the non-approval of your course.  Your first priority should be to ask why your proposal was not approved, and then try to address these shortcomings when you submit your next course proposal.

In conclusion, curriculum design is far less imposing than most believe.  However, I concede that it’s much easier if you’ve had the background, skills, and training to manage the process.  Feel free to contact me at 301-322-0060 or by e-mail:  tsmithfi@netscape.net if you have questions, or need any assistance with future course development.  I hope you find this information helpful in your future endeavors in curriculum design.

 

The Instructional Area Newsletter, Volume 17, No. 3

Spring 2002