Perspective

Curricular approaches are more than just writing and defining learning priorities, goals, outcomes. In many ways, implementing a curricular approach is as much about organizational change as it is about defining a structure. This is one of the reasons why Kerr, Tweedy, Edwards, and Kimmel (2017) call it a “paradigm shift.” The word “paradigm” is most famously associated with Thomas Kuhn. In a book Kuhn wrote entitled, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn describes shifts in thinking that are so fundamental in nature, that they represent completely revised ways of thinking resting on entirely new sets of premises and assumptions. Moving to a curricular approach is an excellent example of such a shift as it represents a complete change in the assumptions about how to approach educational activities in the residence halls. Many of these “new assumptions” are enshrined in the ten essential elements of a residential curriculum.  Furthermore, enacting these changes at an institution requires that one re-examine their values, culture, and organizational structures.

Without fully appreciating the breadth of the change this approach entails, some schools may attempt to recreate curricular models and end up falling short. Rather than having a “true” curriculum, some schools may be tempted to develop a robust set of learning outcomes and attach it to their already existing program model. This is not a full embrace of a curricular model but is instead a traditional programming model that has more developed learning outcomes attached. It does not take into account that student staff members are not experts in developing educational activities and learning outcomes. A traditional programming model mindset assumes the educational strategy of programming first. It lacks the intentional design of deciding on outcomes first and methods of delivery second. Program models also do not work towards scaffolded and sequential learning, and likely do not include robust assessments of student learning.

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So how do you know if you have a true curriculum or just a programming model with highly developed learning outcomes? The following are five warning signs that may indicate you haven’t made the curricular shift:

1. You survey your residents at the beginning of the year to guide your programming.

Although it’s not a bad idea to get an understanding of your residents self-identified needs and desires, it should not be your only, nor primary, source of data for educational planning. What students want and what students need are not necessarily the same things.  Through research on college students and our own on campus assessments, professionals already know much of what students need to learn throughout their collegiate experience. This should form the bedrock of a residential curriculum.

This is not to say students do not have a voice in the design or enactment of a residential curriculum. Successful curriculums often borrow heavily from the work of Marcia Baxter Magolda and her concepts of developing learning partnerships. This is one of the reasons why programming is de-emphasized in a curriculum. Programming often mimics the style of a lecture, with a one way exchange of information. A successful partnership helps set the stage, define parameters, sets measurable outcomes for achievement.  Students have voice in co-constructing this, but educators do not cede control over the entire focus of a curriculum.

2. Your student staff write learning outcomes.

Having undergraduate student staff members design educational activities and interventions does not play to their strengths. Student staff member strengths typically lie in their creativity and their abilities, as peers, to connect authentically with their residents. Writing specific and measurable learning outcomes is typically not something student staff members are well trained on or something they have extensive experience in doing. This is more the strength of professional staff members with master’s degrees in education and educationally related fields. Furthermore, these professional staff members are also typically situated to view the larger educational picture–including how all of these educational activities fit together and how they can be sequenced and scaffolded. While student staff members should be trained on learning outcomes, the primary responsibility of writing, developing and mapping these outcomes should be on the professional staff members.

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3. Your staff members decide what learning goals and outcomes they want to focus on for their halls and floors.

Having learning goals and outcomes for your department but then allowing staff to pick and choose which ones they want to focus on leads to an inconsistent student experience. Why should the students in one building or on one floor receive different educational experiences than those on another? Curricular approaches set a baseline and parameters for what students should expect to learn through their experience in residence. Furthermore, through consistency, educational activities can be better assessed and improved. When approaches are completely decentralized, assessment data becomes useless for continuous improvement. Furthermore, focal areas are often subject to the whims and interests of individual staff members instead of being student centric.

4. Staff expectations are defined through “numbers” of activities achieved.

In traditional programming models, staff may be expected to complete “X” number of programs from a given category or goal area per semester. With this approach, learning activities are often scattered and non-sequential. One of the bedrock principles of a curriculum is that it recognizes that learning occurs through time and is cumulative. For example, in order to write an effective resume, I first need to be clear about what my values, goals and desires are. When staff do not take responsibility for designing educational activities that are scaffolded and sequenced, the result is often a hodge-podge of disconnected programs that do not adequately allow for learning progression.

Similar issues arise in how the effectiveness of such models is measured. The number of activities that occur, although still a useful data point for determining a potential level of engagement, does not measure learning. Similarly, recording the number of students attending a program does not measure whether learning occurred or the extent to which it was achieved.

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5. No staff members have attended the Institute on the Curricular Approach.

ACPA’s Institute on the Curricular Approach (ICA, formerly the Residential Curriculum Institute) is the source for learning about how to enact these models. Designed as an Institute, with faculty members leading progressive learning sessions, ICA guides attendees through a staged process of designing a curriculum. ICA also showcases the unique ways institutions have instantiated the curricular process in practice. In addition to attending ICA, some institutions may wish to bring in an expert consultant to train their entire staff. While it may be tempting, especially during periods of tight budgets, to try to hack together a curriculum based off information gleaned online and through colleagues, this often risks missing important steps in the process and a full appreciation of the transformative nature that the shift requires. Not attending RCI and/or not bringing in an expert to fully re-train your staff means the probability of developing a robust curriculum is severely diminished.

Key Questions

  • Have you made the shift to establishing objectives, first, and methods of achieving them, second?
  • Are your professional staff members driving the curriculum?
  • Do you assess learning or just count engagement opportunities?
  • Have you attended the Institute on the Curricular Approach and invited in a trained expert for your entire staff?

For further assessment of your progress, consider downloading our Residential Curriculum Self-Assessment Instrument.

Curriculum Standards Self Assessment Guide Download


Kerr, K. G., Tweedy, J., Edwards, K. E., & Kimmel, D. (2017, March-April). Shifting to curricular approaches to learning beyond the classroom. About Campus, 22(1), 22-31. doi:10.1002/abc.21279