The Value of Providing an Intentional Curriculum

Most of us have heard about – or tried to defuse – at least one student who blew a gasket over their inability to get into a course that they thought they had to take during the next term.  Since we’ve just finished the registration period for spring, I’ve been thinking a bit more about our analysis of one item on the 2012 senior survey that relates to students’ course taking experience.  Seniors were asked to respond to the following statement.

“The courses I needed to take were available in the order in which I needed to take them.”

There were five response options ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree” (we scored them from 1 to 5 for the purposes of statistical analysis).  Our 2012 seniors’ average response score was 3.42.  Their responses were distributed like this:

Strongly Disagree 26 5%
Disagree 87 17%
Neutral 97 19%
Agree 250 49%
Strongly Agree 47 9%

Of course, we’d probably like the vast majority of our students to indicate “agree” or “strongly agree.”  However, just over 40% of our seniors selected “strongly disagree,” “disagree,” or “neutral.”  This begs two questions:

  1. To what degree is our students’ response to this item important?
  2. What could we do to influence our students’ responses in the future?

Most of the time, the story of the aforementioned panicking student concludes with a successful resolution – at least in terms of whether or not they were able to take the courses required to graduate in four years.  Often, a student’s panic can be assuaged when they realize that there are multiple course-taking patterns that will get them to the same outcome.  So, how important should it be to us whether students think that they were able to get into the classes they wanted to take when they thought they needed to take them?

It turns out that it may actually be pretty important.  We conducted a series of analyses of our senior survey data to identify the experiences that might be most directly influential on two outcomes, 1) the degree to which a senior would choose Augustana again if they could relive their college decision (a proxy for the value that a student thinks they got out of their education), and 2) the degree to which a senior is certain that their post-graduate plan is a good fit for who they are and where they want their life to go (a proxy for the student’s sense of the quality and clarity of their preparation for life after college).  Even after accounting for differences in students’ race, sex, pre-college ACT score, socio-economic status, and a variety of other curricular experiences, the degree to which courses were available in the order the student needed to take them proved to be a positive, statistically significant predictor of both outcomes.  In other words, students who felt courses were available in the order they needed to take them were also more likely to say that they would definitely choose Augustana again and were more certain that their post-graduate plans were a good fit for who they are and where they want their life to go.

It seems to me as if two things are going on here.  First, students often perceive themselves to be customers (sometimes to our great aggravation) and expect that the education for which they’ve enrolled – and are paying a lot of money – should be available in the manner that they choose it.  So if a student didn’t get into the classes they initially wanted to take, or were not able to take all of the major courses that interested them, they may well think that they didn’t get the full value of their investment.  While we’d like to provide an environment in which every student was able to take the courses they want when they want them, we all know that this is simply impossible.  This reality further emphasizes the value of an advising conversation that helps students understand their college education as replete with options and opportunity rather than constrained to a single checklist.

Second, although our students’ sense of Augustana’s educational worth is important, I am particularly intrigued by the statistically significant positive relationship between our students’ sense of sequence in their course-taking experience and their certainty that their post-graduate plans are a good fit for them.  The history of curricular design in higher education reveals a substantial shift from an entirely prescriptive curriculum with few – if any – choices a century ago to a sort of modern day modular smorgasbord where students select from a range of choices across a series of categories.  As institutions have focused more specifically on student learning we are repeatedly finding that this cafeteria approach, while it might give faculty more freedom to teach what they want to teach, ends up numbing students to the possibility of a holistic learning experience.  In some cases, especially at larger institutions, it also produces an almost laughable lack of awareness of what is going on outside of a given faculty member’s courses or department.  For our students, I suspect that a more sequential course-taking experience allows them to see the developmental nature of their education and to integrate each of the pieces into an accumulative whole.  In addition, it allows faculty to talk about the curriculum as a developmental construction in conversations with students.

The correlation between students’ sequential course-taking experience and their certainty of post-graduate plan fit suggests to me that the value of a more intentional curriculum can be framed around its benefits for student learning – not just about better “customer service” (a phrase that makes my skin crawl when used to refer to educational concepts).  Establishing a curriculum that embodies the developmental nature of learning encourages students to think about their own growth and, through that process, become more confident in their own progress toward their future goals.

So if you are in the midst of a conversation about curricular revision, I hope you’ll be able to shape your efforts around an explicitly intentional design.  And when you are talking with students about their course-taking choices, I hope you’ll suggest to them a strategic way of thinking about course selection.

Make it a good day,




One thought on “The Value of Providing an Intentional Curriculum

  1. I would guess that students might not be considering only courses in their major, but also core curriculum. For example, they might feel differently about their experience if they get the specific course they want for a learning perspective, rather than choosing something else later. The value students see in course selection should cause us to continue to look at is as well.

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