Essential questions to inspire engagement during curriculum review

I am currently planning for an upcoming session at the University of Guelph’s annual Teaching and Learning Innovations Conference (TLI). Described by Associate Vice-President Academic, Dr. Serge Desmarais, as our annual “group hug”, this conference provides the academic community with an incredible opportunity to celebrate our collective commitment to teaching and learning.   This year’s conference will focus on celebrating the University of Guelph’s progress related to implementing and assessing learning outcomes.

This year’s theme had me reflecting on the many opportunities and successes I have witnessed in supporting the dozens of curriculum review initiatives across various departments over the last few years. The educational development unit provides consultative expertise and facilitative leadership to many departments on campus as they work to continually enhance the programs that they offer. Our curriculum development practice is fundamentally guided by the following principles, which recommend that successful curriculum review processes should be:

  • Instructor-driven;
  • Evidence-based;
  • Student-centred;
  • Continuous;
  • Collaborative; and
  • Solution-focused.

Like Banta and Blaich (2011), I have come to learn that although data is important, successful curriculum initiatives are less about collecting the perfect data set, and more about the department’s ability to use the data to inform meaningful, collaborative discussion and a clear action plan for moving forward. In short, data does not directly inform decision, rather data informs discussion, which then leads to meaningful and collaborative decision-making.  After attending this year’s Educational Developer’s Caucus Conference at the University of Calgary, a statement from Joan McArthur-Blair’s Appreciative Inquiry workshop continues to resonate and ground my daily curriculum development approaches:

Don’t do anything about me, without me.

Through my curriculum development experiences, I have also come to learn that it is really easy to get wrapped up in deficit thinking when it comes to curriculum review. That is, to focus on, and to become all-consumed by what isn’t working in the program. I have come to a fundamental realization that it is much more productive to take a solution-focused view, and to place emphasis on what is working, building on and leveraging the program’s many strengths and successes.

As a curriculum developer one of the most important areas of expertise that I can bring is not only my knowledge of best practices in curriculum design, but also an ability to ask effective, forward-thinking questions that inspire meaningful dialogue, collaboration and action.   It is not surprising, that my curriculum development practice has been deeply grounded in the principles and practice of Appreciative Inquiry (Cockell & McArthur-Blair, 2012).

Through my own process of self-reflection, my upcoming conference session will focus on some of the essential questions that we have used to help guide curriculum committees through a cycle of program review. I have presented some of these questions below.

Developing a curriculum review and assessment plan

  • What questions would like to answer during this curriculum review process?
  • What data will best help you answer those questions?
  • Whom will you involve?
  • What resources will be required?
  • What are your timelines?
  • What assessment methods are most appropriate?

Developing a Program Purpose

  • Why should students choose this program?
  • How will it be of benefit to them?
  • What is the purpose of the program?
  • What unique areas of focus or strengths does the program offer?
  • What learning experiences are core to the program?
  • Imagine three years from now, that the Globe and Mail has written an article about this program being the best in North America. What does the article highlight? What are students, faculty, alumni and employers highlighting about the program?

Developing Program Learning Outcomes

  • If you were asked to provide a reference for a graduate of this program, what would you like to be able to say about that graduate?
  • What strengths should students who complete this program possess?
  • What should successful students know, value and be able to do by the end of their learning experiences in this program?

Reviewing Program Learning Outcomes

  • Do the learning outcomes align with those defined by the institution and/or other related programs?
  • Could multiple audiences (e.g. students, instructors, employers, administrators, across institutions) understand the learning outcomes? If not, how could the clarity of the learning outcome be improved?
  • Would the discipline be clear if the statement were read in isolation? If not, what additional detail could be added to provide additional disciplinary context?
  • Could you appropriately assess each outcome? If not, how should they be revised? What additional detail/context is required?

Solution-focused Questions to Guide a Student Focus Group

  • Why did you choose the program?
  • What were you expecting of the program?
  • How did you hope it would prepare you for your future?
  • What is one thing you like about the program?
  • What is a key strength of the program?
  • What current strengths should the program build upon?
  • What key improvement could be made to the program?
  • Why do you feel that this is an area that requires improvement? What two key changes would you suggest if you were to redesign the program?
  • What is the most important thing you would like to tell the curriculum committee as they work to enhance the program?

Conducting a Program SOAR Analysis (adapted from: Stavros, Cooperrider, & Kelley (2003); Stavros & Hinrichs, 2011)

  • Strengths: What are we doing well? What are we known for? What are our areas of expertise?
  • Opportunities: What are our best future opportunities? What are our areas of untapped potential? How can we distinguish ourselves?
  • Aspirations: What are we passionate about? What difference do we hope to make? What does our preferred future look like?
  • Results: What results do we want to see? What 3-5 goals do we want to accomplish?

Evaluating Curriculum Data

Based on the curriculum data gathered:

  • What questions do we have about our curriculum and the data presented?
  • What trends do we see?
  • What 3-5 key areas would we like to discuss further with our colleagues?
  • What data supports these areas for discussion?
  • How should we communicate these data and areas for discussion to our colleagues?

Developing an Action Plan

  • What can we do to strengthen this program? What three key improvements will we implement?
  • What are the key milestones?  When will they be accomplished?
  • Who will help support these improvements? What additional resources are required?
  • How will we know we have been successful? How will we monitor our progress?
  • How will we celebrate and disseminate our success?

Reviewing the Curriculum Review Process

  • What happened?
  • What did we learn?
  • What went well?
  • What could have been better?
  • What will we do differently next time?

Curriculum development is inherently complex.  It is a relief to most curriculum committees to realize that it is more important to ask questions to inspire further inquiry, reflection and dialogue, than it is to have all of the answers.

References:

 

Banta, Trudy W, & Blaich, Charles. (2011). Closing the assessment loop. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 43(1), 22-27.

Cockell, Jeanie, & McArthur-Blair, Joan. (2012). Appreciative Inquiry in higher education: A transformative force: John Wiley & Sons.

Stavros, Jacqueline M, Cooperrider, D L, & Kelley, D Lynn. (2003). Strategic inquiry appreciative intent: inspiration to SOAR, a new framework for strategic planning. AI Practitioner. November, 10-17.

Stavros, Jacqueline M, & Hinrichs, Gina. (2011). The Thin Book Of SOAR: Building Strengths-Based Strategy. Bend, OR: Thin Book Publishing.

 

 

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