Seeing the Forest and the Trees: Mapping Curricula to Enhance Student Success

By Parks, Rodney; Parrish, Jesse et al. | College and University, Summer 2017 | Go to article overview

Seeing the Forest and the Trees: Mapping Curricula to Enhance Student Success


Parks, Rodney, Parrish, Jesse, Whitesell, Blake, College and University


The Forest

For today's registrar, disentangling the institutional curriculum can be a daunting task. The complex and interconnected learning that higher education institutions now strive for is highly desirable among millennial students, but even the most articulate curricula sometimes fail to represent it clearly. The advent of shared governance, the blending of various high-impact cocurricular practices, the continued growth of interdisciplinary programs, and an increasingly muddled mixture of prerequisites and co-requisites can make it challenging for faculty to see the "big picture" of their own programs. The confusion often results in loopholes, hidden variables, and curricular ambiguity at a time when students and institutions are trying mightily to craft feasible four-year graduation plans. Whether navigating the registration system, the academic catalog, or program "check sheets," students are required to mine disparate sources to extract the course information necessary to build a viable degree plan.

In 2014, the Office of the Registrar at Elon University sought to create a tool to help academic departments identify administrative barriers to student success. The project was inspired by students themselves: During registration, they frequently express frustration with a range of requirements and rules concerning course attributes-qualities assigned to courses that dictate their curricular applicability. For example, a history course might have the "civilization" and "art history elective" course attributes, which indicate that it satisfies the general education requirement category of civilization and also counts towards the art history minor. Beyond these attributes (of which there are more than 200), complex prerequisite and co-requisite parameters, ambiguous course track sequences, and term-specific course availability are among the issues students cited most frequently. Program and course information is maintained in several locations and sometimes seemed unnecessarily complex.

Further complicating the situation is the element of choice. Students often are given the flexibility to select from a set of courses to satisfy a particular requirement, yet the consequences of their choices vary. Sometimes the choice is inconsequential, as when neither option yields a more advantageous result. Consider, for example, Art History 112, 113, and 114: Each of these courses has no prerequisites, carries the "expression" course attribute, and fulfills a specific art history A.B. requirement. In other words, the courses are thematically different but functionally equal. Other choices, however, are deceptively significant. Both Math 116 (Applied Calculus) and Math 151 (Calculus I) satisfy fundamental math requirements for many majors, but Math 151 is a prerequisite for many more mid- and upper-level courses. Students who discover the difference after completing Math 116 are occasionally disad- vantaged and sometimes must take Math 151 as well. Choices like this one often have a greater impact on undecided students or students who change their major, as their academic goals change after they've already taken several steps toward attainment of another.

On paper, this looked like a wicked problem. How could the abundant attributes, pre- and co-requisites, sequences, and term-driven parameters of a degree program ever be reconciled into a more intelligible plan, let alone one that accommodates for student choice? Each of these sets of information was scattered across the academic catalog, major check sheets, and various websites, making the assembly of an academic plan more difficult than necessary. All of the information was there, but without a map it was difficult to visualize how it fit together. It was only when the problem was defined in this way-as "difficult to visualize"-that a potential solution surfaced: What if a visual curricular map were created for each degree program? Following the steps of the design thinking process, this problem definition was succeeded by ideation. …

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