When encountering the curricular approach for the first time, many staff may wonder why the approach has gained such currency within student affairs and residence life and what research and data backs up and supports its use. When asking these questions, it is important to understand that the curricular approach is a model of how to organize one’s educational activities to ensure the achievement of learning outcomes. It is a planning and organizational tool. The actual execution of these occurs differently on different campuses. Therefore, it is difficult to ascribe success to the model itself. Furthermore, because institutions have not systematically engaged students in these ways before, they may not have prior data with which to compare their newfound practices. Each individual campus’ curriculum needs to be evaluated on its own merits and successes. This is why some of the nascent research on the topic, such as Lichterman’s (2016) doctoral research focused on a one-institution case study approach.

When exploring the soundness of the curricular approach itself, one can look to literature within education. Teachers and educators have written learning objectives and developed lesson plans for decades. The research on the effective writing of these plans is too numerous to review here, but many of the emergent best practices one finds in that literature can help student affairs educators in the development of their own curricula.

Reflecting on the Curricular Approach to Learning Beyond the Classroom

There is also a significant body of research on the effectiveness of various strategies in achieving set learning objectives. Industry associations typically identify “best” or “high impact” practices and programs at various institutions that have done a particularly effective job at advancing student learning in various areas. Associations may highlight these through their annual awards processes, through sponsored sessions at conferences, or spotlights in magazines and other industry publications. When developing a curriculum, one may find success in researching these identified exemplars and incorporating or modifying them as appropriate to fit the specific learning objectives identified for one’s campus or in a way that accounts for the unique needs and demographics of one’s student populations.

A number of professionals have indicated that their internal institutional data has revealed some of the benefits of the curricular approach. One practitioner reported that her internal institutional data indicated that students participating in the curriculum indicated feeling a greater sense of belonging (ACPA, 2017). She stated that students “felt more welcomed, enjoyed their floors more, felt more included on the floor, felt more challenged to think broadly about an issue, and were more likely to have worked to increase their understanding of diversity” (ACPA, 2017). As the practitioner notes, these are all factors that have been identified as increasing the likelihood of student retention (ACPA, 2017). These types of findings are frequently echoed by exemplar institutions that showcase at the Institute on the Curricular Approach. Other benefits institutions mention include decreased student conduct issues, lesser strain on institutional budgets, and staff reporting a more proactive stance when responding to student issues. Depending on the structure of one’s curriculum and its focus, an institution may find these or additional benefits.

While the research is still nascent, the overwhelming response from institutions and departments that have shifted to a curricular approach is positive. These include benefits for students, staff members, and campus partners. One of the biggest strengths of curriculum is that it surfaces student learning, is able to measure that with data, and that data, in turn, allows for continuous improvement through intentional educational design. Moving forward, campuses undertaking a change to a curricular approach should be mindful of setting performance metrics and utilizing assessment data to measure the effectiveness of their curricular efforts.

Key Questions

  • How will you evaluate the effectiveness of a switch to a curricular approach?
  • What outcomes and performance indicators are you hoping to move the needle on?
  • How can you share your successes and challenges with other institutions that might benefit?

ACPA – College Student Educators International (Producer). (2017). Reflecting on the Curricular Approach to Learning Beyond the Classroom [Video file]. Retrieved from https://videos.myacpa.org/reflecting-on-the-curricular-approach-to-learning-beyond-the-classroom

Lichterman, H. L. (2016). Organizational Perspective On Implementing The Residential Curriculum Approach: An Ethnographic Case Study. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from http://scholarcommons.sc.edu/etd/3817