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Curriculum issues

The booklet entitled Curriculum design for the first year, which resulted from one of the practice focused projects for the First Year Enhancement Theme, emphasised the lack of agreement regarding a definition of 'curriculum'. Instead, the literature indicated (at least) four ways of conceptualising it: one, the structure and content of a unit or subject; two, the structure and content of a programme; three, a learning experience; and four, a dynamic interaction and collaboration between student and teacher.

The lack of definition did not hinder ideas from a variety of sources on what an 'ideal' first-year curriculum should look like. The authors reported four lists of suggestions:

  1. from the literature
  2. from staff involved in workshops accompanying the Theme
  3. from students in focus groups
  4. from case studies gathered together for the project

The way in which any curriculum, however defined, might be structured was another source of debate, but one with no apparent or single conclusion. Read more about curricular structure.

Nevertheless, a conceptual map, derived from the literature, of an 'ideal curriculum design process' was shown diagrammatically, with the recognition that in practice designing a curriculum was subject to a number of external and internal influences, some or all of which might well constrain action, no matter how well meaning.  

Find our more about the influences on the curriculum design process as well as a diagrammatic summary.

However, an increasing number of universities see the first-year curriculum strategically, as a whole learning experience, which encourages active, individualised and collaborative learning, including PBL. Such a curriculum also provides early formative feedback; often through assessment opportunities.  Read more about the need for early formative assessment and active learning approcahes.

It should facilitate student engagement with peers and staff and encourage the use of ICT as appropriate, as well as stretching students beyond learning in school or college. Find out more about how the key points might be addressed.

This curriculum should encompass 'hidden' elements such as employability, learning how to learn, working in teams etc. and this requires getting all the relevant stakeholders engaged, including employers. Read more about other key lessons and issues that the Employability Enhancement Theme uncovered. The key recommendations emphasise that while a 'whole university' approach is ideal, individuals or programme teams could make changes that would still have a beneficial impact.

Some institutions have relaxed the modular structure of their first-year curriculum in response to perceptions that semesterisation has resulted in the introduction of 'high stakes' summative assessment at too early a stage in an undergraduate's career. By reducing the summative assessment load, formative tasks have been introduced or re- introduced, thereby offering students more time to adjust to the different demands and realities of HE study patterns and academic requirements. Read more about how the academic structures will not solve all the problems relating to the improvement of formative assessment and how to ensure that summative assessment has a positive impact on learning.

Taken one stage beyond that is the 'democratization' of the curriculum and its assessment in the first year, including the possibility of involving students in decision-making about assessment policy and practice. So that, to some extent, students have a choice in the topic, method, criteria, weighting and timing of assessment as well as a say in the overall curriculum, assessment policy and practice. For more details good assement and feedback evidence, see Principle 7: Facilitate the development of self-assessment and reflection in learningPrinciple 8: Give choice in the topic, method, criteria, weighting or timing of assessments and Principle 9: Involve students in decision-making about assessment policy and practice.

At Napier University, a Professional Development Module in the School of Computing has been extensively re-worked to make it more attractive to students. Based on the Effective Learning Framework, it is designed to empower students and encourage personal ownership of their learning. An e-portfolio is an important element within the module, but there is also enhanced induction, the provision of additional electives, a technology-assisted tracking system and vertical peer learning.

The change has been judged as a success, not just in measurable terms of better academic results and a reduction in non-attendees, but also in enhanced engagement exemplified by a range of social activities, a new anime and manga student society and a new computer programming elective, all initiated by the first-year students within the first five weeks. For further information, key findings; how students respond to empowerment and the institutional challenges that the change has presented see Empowering the learner through enhanced engagement at Napier University.

Another approach is shown by Case study 6 in The First Year Experience: Personalisation booklet, which describes a course in Physics at the University of Edinburgh. The course team recognised the increasing heterogeneity of students embarking on the course and decided to create a technological medium to support individualised learning.

The online course material now comprises over 1,400 nodes or grains of information ('knowledge objects' such as pictures, text, examples, questions, applets etc), which are aggregated in small clumps to make 'learning objects', defined as a combination of information and some activity (such as interactive multiple choice questions, self tests, or tutorial-style questions). The online learning material allows the students to proceed at different paces, and includes on-page interactive elements that are designed to go into greater depth to aid understanding or greater breadth, to stimulate interest.

Not only have course members enthusiastically embraced the new style (and may in time be able to contribute to it), its existence has stimulated thoughts about the style and content of lectures, which are now far less didactic and far more focused on conceptual understanding.

An increasingly crowded curriculum is another issue of concern. A typical example of such overcrowding is the need, widely recognised, to develop the skills needed for academic writing; yet many staff feel that there is little enough time for content teaching, much less anything else. 

In the Transition to and during the first year document, students control and choice were discussed. This includes a detailed account of 'Project Q', an initiative set up by students at Cardiff University. The project ran in two phases: the first looked at recruitment, admission and induction and the second, the current undergraduate and postgraduate learning experiences.

Within the Curriculum design for the first year document a further five case studies were examined in detail, in addition to the one at Edinburgh University outlined above. These were:

  1. Jane Brown, Napier University, Edinburgh, Nursing
    Over the last six years, Jane Brown and colleagues have been adapting a core module for all first-year pre-registration nursing students. Key elements that are emphasised include: continuity of tutors; considerate timetabling; a comprehensive module handbook, including learning outcomes for each class that link explicitly to assessment; and a staged assessment process that involves early and regular formative feedback.


  2. Eurig Scandrett, Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, Environmental Justice
    The Higher Education Certificate (HE Cert) in Environmental Justice runs as a collaboration between Friends of the Earth Scotland and QMU to support communities tackling local environmental issues by building the capacity of key activists.
    The focus of the HE Cert is to provide students with an academically rigorous and practically useful course that uses a Freirean pedagogical approach (Freire, 1993). Students' own experiences of environmental problems are integrated throughout the course and used as the foundation for dialogue with other forms of knowledge. Therefore, students' experiences guide the design of the curriculum throughout the first year.


  3. Roger McDermott, Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, Computing and Mathematics
    Staff have adapted elements of the first year in a way that has changed how students perceive the subject of computer programming. They have introduced a new programming package called 'Alice' in a first-year introductory module to help students to engage in the subject and overcome 'troublesome knowledge' (Meyer and Land, 2003).

    The software has helped students to undertake programming through a storytelling approach rather than through the use of algorithms. Divergent assessment has also been adopted, which enables students to generate their own individual solutions to problems. This approach fulfils the formal assessment objectives, but it also gives the opportunity for self-expression and creativity.


  4. Carol Salt, University of Stirling, Biological and Environmental Sciences
    Four years ago, staff began redesigning the first-year programmes. Six modules form a common foundation to many of the programmes offered. Two new modules that have been introduced, dedicated to practical laboratory and field skills, use group working as one of their key approaches. In Environmental Sciences, the first and second-year modules have been restructured to emphasise current global environmental issues, which are explored in terms of the underlying science, social and economic aspects and potential solutions.

    Two modules in Biological Sciences have enhanced the relevance of the syllabus of fundamental scientific aspects of biology by introducing topical issues into lectures and assignments. In all six modules, the teaching of skills and subject-specific content is closely aligned to the learning outcomes. Assessment is continuous over each semester and is based on a mix of laboratory and field reports, essays, oral presentations and tests/exams.


  5. Jim Boyle, University of Strathclyde, Mechanical Engineering
    Staff have undertaken 14 years of continual redesign of the first-year mechanical engineering programme to ensure a more integrated and coherent programme. The curriculum emphasises group work, active and collaborative learning, problem-based learning and teaching by questioning (supported by electronic voting systems). The curriculum redesign has also involved physical redesign of some of the teaching spaces so that there are purpose-built teaching studios for mathematics and IT-related subjects. These spaces are ideal for combining access to electronic media and small and large-group work. Staff have reported much higher attendance at classes, and higher student retention rates.


  6. Niamh Moore, University College, Dublin, Geography
    Staff identified some key elements and themes they wanted to change in the first-year Introduction to Human Geography module. They moved to a thematically-based module with continuous assessment and adopted an active learning approach that includes small-group work, interactive discussion online and enquiry-based learning within quite large class sizes. Students became central partners in the module preparation. Three undergraduates were employed for six weeks to research and develop content for the virtual learning environment (VLE).


  7. Peter Felten, Elon University, North Carolina, United States
    This case study outlines work in a number of subject areas, including education, biology and philosophy. In one education course in classroom management, undergraduates and staff collaborated to redesign the course. In a first-year Introduction to Biology course, student feedback is collected and a small group of students who have completed the course work with staff to interpret the student feedback data and make changes to the course.

    A small group of students who have completed a first-year introduction to Philosophy course are invited to undertake a research course, as part of which they redesign the Introduction to Philosophy ethics course. These examples of involving students in first-year module redesign are prompting ideas of involving students in programme redesign.

Other case examples were offered in the booklet The nature and purpose of the first year: sharing and reflecting on international experiences and initiatives. One was an institutional initiative at the University of Melbourne and the other a system-wide change in Hong Kong, which is about to shift from a three-year to a four-year structure for most undergraduate programmes.

Much of the above chimes with the data that was obtained for the Student expectations, experiences and reflections on the first year practice focused project, part of the First Year experience Enhancement Theme. These included some interesting comments on teaching and learning and the makeup of the curriculum.  More recently for the G21C Theme, from the School of Education at the University of Strathclyde Whose Course is it anyway? Giving the first year students a voice in curriculum design.

In the Overview document that accompanies the Research-Teaching Theme there is an discussion of what one writer describes as the 'teaching-research nexus' (Kerri-Lee Krause, 2006) and the way it can help to foster a sense of belonging to a community. Certainly the idea of students as 'scholars' supports the notion of developing distinctive graduate attributes, though, as the overview points out, that leaves the sector with the challenge of how such attributes might be assessed, especially in the context of work- based learning.

The development of a wider sense of scholarship within a degree programme is central to an initiative undertaken at the University of Abertay Dundee. At a conceptual level this work built upon the Graduates for the 21st Century Theme by considering the development of graduate attributes within a more global context with respect to citizenship, as well as within the Scottish higher education context in terms of the widening of participation.

One major focus was to consider this work as the continuation of the Scottish notion of the 'democratic intellect' in which knowledge is openly shared and rooted in society. At a pedagogic level the aim was to use the first year as a platform for considering PDP in relation to personal-societal connections. The two modules referred to below are exemplars of this kind of approach.

The Thinking Module - a module offered across a range of programmes designed to encourage debate and reflection on politico-moral issues that connect with personal and societal viewpoints in relation to students' programmes of study.

Individual in Society - a module that is offered to social and behavioural science students, encouraging them to consider themselves as embedded within social and communicative practices. This involves active learning techniques such as role play as well as reflective writing (e.g. with respect to the self-presentation through various social networking media such as Facebook).

For the Glasgow School of Art (GSA), the G21C Enhancement Theme was an opportunity to build upon and reinforce the Research-Teaching linkages which that Theme had prompted. GSA had already created a cross-school project for first year students designed to engage them with the institution, each other and the city of Glasgow. It was essentially formative. In 2010 the project became credit bearing, with outputs (typically artefacts) being displayed publicly and available on the VLE. Over time this repository will represent an active engagement in enquiry based (or research- like) learning, for both staff and students. The academic staff involved will draw on the experience to produce research of their own, which will inform their subsequent teaching.