You Don’t Need to Have a Residential Curriculum to Benefit From its Concepts

Developing a residential curriculum or a divisional curricular approach is hard work. It takes time. It can take years to develop a curriculum that you feel is on solid footing and functioning well. The move to a curricular model is not just about identifying objectives, writing facilitation guides, and completing tasks. There is a lot of work required to change organizational culture, the way you work, and how you understand problems and conceive of solutions.

Because this evolution takes time, many institutions will frequently say that they don’t have a “true” curriculum. The idea of a “true” curriculum, however, is somewhat of a myth. While it is true, some curricula are more highly developed than others, some are more consistent with their learning outcomes, and some adhere more closely to and achieve the 10 essential elements, institutions can still benefit from adopting many of the components of a curriculum. If you department or institution is not ready to take on a curricular approach, the following are three curricular concepts you can still benefit from in your practice.

1. Better individualized attention for students.

Program models that rely heavily on programs and events as the main means of student engagement and educational delivery typically privilege one-to-many style learning environments. Akin to giving a lecture in a large classroom, they are efficient at communicating knowledge to a mass audience. Where they are often lacking is in individualization and meaning making.

Curricular approaches require thinking about other methods of engagement and educational delivery outside of the traditional program. One of the more common strategies that departments and divisions adopt, is 1-on-1 interactions or “intentional conversations.” The idea behind these is to provide more space for student meaning making and contextualization. This can also encompass mentorship programs or peer led efforts–such as orientation advisors or student leadership advisors.

2. More consistent outcomes achievement.

Too often when designing experiences for students we may think of what we want to do before what we want students to achieve. A program idea may be developed and then it is “back-filled” with outcomes. This type of design process can lack intentionality.

Curricular approaches follow a general “backwards design” style approach. Identify the “problem,” or, first understand the outcomes you want students to achieve, then work to design your intervention or engagement. Engaging in this type of design more can achieve better and more consistent outcomes for your students.

Another way to think about it is, what if you were to design the student experience from scratch? What would its outcomes be? How would you build it? Freeing yourself up from the constraints of your current context can allow you to dream big. Brainstorm. You can figure out the how later.

3. Assessing learning and not just “seat time.”

When looking for easily quantified, reportable, and understandable results, the easiest measure one may default to are attendance figures and satisfaction scales. These measures, however, only tell part of the story and do not address the achievement of outcomes you may identify for your programs, strategies, and services. When designing assessments, think beyond student self reports and test whether they knowledge and takeaways you hope for students were actually achieved. This can help in reforming your efforts in subsequent years for improvement.


Developing a residential curriculum or curricular approach may not be right for all institutions at all times. These approaches require an organization that is well structured and staffed to begin this journey.  There is also an investment of time and resources needed to transform the organization. Although one loses some of the consistency and effectiveness of a curricular approach by only adopting some of its components, these ideas can nevertheless can help you improve the effectiveness of your current practice. As some of the faulty at the Institute on the Curricular Approach say, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Key Questions:

  • How can you provide experiences for students that are individualized to their life goals and needs?
  • Have you defined your outcomes independent of the programs and services you already have established?
  • Do your assessment efforts measure exposure or attendance as opposed to actual student learning?

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