A Formal Rationale for a Residential Curriculum or Curricular Approach

Occasionally divisions and departments may be called upon to provide a more formal rationale for why they pursue (or why they wish to pursue) the development of a residential curriculum or curricular approach. I developed the following to provide a succinct overview of the curricular approach, its history, the work and research that supports it, and its benefits. This is being provided "open source"--meaning you can copy-and-paste it, modify it, and utilize it as you see fit. All I ask in return is that you include a line "Adapted from Dr. Paul Gordon Brown" as an attribution somewhere in your document. I hope this will help!

The curricular approach to out-of-classroom learning emerged and matured as a method for developing intentional learning environments in student affairs divisions and departments within the past two decades. Curricular approaches are built off of defined learning outcomes and integrated assessments that more squarely focus the work of student affairs educators on student learning (Blimling, 2015; Kerr & Tweedy, 2006; Kerr, Tweedy, Edwards, & Kimmel, 2017). These curricula represent holistic learning plans that are designed to enhance and follow a student’s developmental journey through college.  Designed with the student at the center, curricular approaches hold the promise of better assessment, continuous improvement, and ultimately improved student outcomes and retention.

Curricular approaches are grounded in the principles set forth in the Student Learning Imperative (1994), Learning Reconsidered (2004), and Learning Reconsidered 2 (2006). These documents center student learning as a primary mission of student affairs divisions, departments, and higher education institutions. The concepts behind the curricular approach rest on a collection of research and literature on contemporary college learning outcomes (ex. CAS and NACE Competencies, AAC&U Essential Learning Outcomes, etc.), student development theory (most often the work of Marcia Baxter-Magolda (2004) on self-authorship and creating learning partnerships), and the work of K-12 educators on learning objective and lesson plan development. Through this work, an approach was developed that enables institutions to be more intentional in their efforts and in their design of experiences for and with students.

What is now known as the curricular approach (or residential curriculum) began in a residence life department at the University of Delaware. In 2006, Kerr and Tweedy published “Beyond Seat Time and Student Satisfaction: A Curricular Approach to Residential Education” in About Campus, asserting institutions and professionals needed to shift how they measured success. This was followed up with an article in 2017, “Shifting to curricular approaches to learning beyond the classroom” (Kerr, et al., 2017), and codified in the book, The curricular approach to student affairs: A revolutionary shift for learning beyond the classroom (Kerr et al., 2020). Although the curricular approach started in residence life, its applicability has since been broadened to the entirety of student affairs work.

To share learning and strategies for this paradigm shift, ACPA hosted the inaugural Residential Curriculum Institute (RCI) in 2007, bringing together institutions from across the United States of America and Canada. The institute, renamed the Institute on the Curricular Approach (ICA), continues to occur yearly through ACPA. Higher education and student affairs professionals attend to learn how to begin implementing a curricular approach and to improve it effectively over time. 

Although curricular approaches to learning beyond the classroom began nearly two decades years ago, research on their impact and how students experience it is still developing. Existing research on the curricular process focuses on organizational impact (Lichterman, 2016), implementation challenges and successes (Kropf, 2020), and the experiences of the staff (Pernotto, 2021). Other authors conducted studies addressing the impact of the curricular approach on students–including how a curricular approach impacts students’ personal development, community engagement, cultural exploration, and institutional commitment (Sanders, 2018), how students make meaning of the collegiate experience (Scheibler, 2021), and the impact on outcomes for students with underrepresented identities (Williams et al., 2021).

Outcomes achieved through a curricular approach are tied to the outcomes set forth by the institutions themselves. Success in achieving these outcomes are defined on a campus-by campus basis. As an example, one campus’ residence life department showcasing at the Institute on the Curricular Approach reported that students participating in their curriculum indicated feeling a greater sense of belonging (ACPA, 2017). Furthermore, this instiution shared data reflecting 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 noted, 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 leaning objectives, an institution may find these or additional benefits.

Some of the biggest strengths of utilizing a curricular approach is that it centers student learning, defines student learning, encourages intentional design in experiences that promote student learning, measures student learning with data, and then utilizes this data for continuous improvement. This “double loop assessment” process (Kennedy, 2016), is a departure from traditional student affairs practice which typically relies on one-off engagement opportunities (typically programs) that are developed as standalone departmental offerings. Curricular approaches utilize a backwards design method whereby a student’s potential learning journey is defined first, before opportunities are sequenced and scaffolded to help them in outcome achievement. This aids institutions in ways that are not possible when efforts are ad-hoc or learning objectives are ill-defined.

American College Personnel Association (ACPA) and National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA).  (2004). Learning reconsidered: A campus-wide focus on the student experience. Washington, DC: Author.

American College Personnel Association (ACPA) and National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA).  (2006). Learning reconsidered 2: A practical guide to implementing a campus-wide focus on the student experience. Washington, DC: Authors.

American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). (2008). Liberal education and America’s promise: Essential learning outcomes. Retrieved from https://www.aacu.org/leap/essential-learning-outcomes

College Student Educators International (ACPA). (1996). The student learning imperative: Implications for student affairs. Washington, DC:  Author. Retrieved from: https://myacpa.org/publications/acpas-student-learning-imperative/

College Student Educators International (ACPA) (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

Baxter Magolda, M., & King, P.M. (Eds.). (2004). Learning partnerships: Theory and models of practice to educate for self-authorship. (pp. 1-35). Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Blimling, G. S. (2015). Student learning in college residence halls: What works, what doesn’t, and why. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education (CAS) (2015). CAS learning and development outcomes. In J. B. Wells (Ed.), CAS professional standards for higher education (9th ed.). Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from https://www.cas.edu/learningoutcomes

Kennedy, K. (2016). Making a difference: Improving residence life assessment practices. Columbus, OH: ACUHO-I.

Kerr, K. G., Edwards, K. E., Tweedy, J., Lichterman, H. L., & Knerr, A. R. (2020). The curricular approach to student affairs: A revolutionary shift for learning beyond the classroom. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Kerr, K. G., & Tweedy, J. (2006). Beyond seat time and student satisfaction: A curricular approach to residential education. About Campus, 11(5), 9-15. doi:10.1002/abc.181

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

Kropf, H. (2020). Residence life as learning organizations: An inquiry into organizational elements that support integration of the residential curriculum. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from https://pdxscholar.library.pdx.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=6537&context=open_access_etds

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

National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). (2017). Career readiness defined. Retrieved from http://www.naceweb.org/career-readiness/competencies/career-readiness-defined/

Pernotto, E. T. (2021). Embracing the role of educator: The experiences of housing and residence life staff in implementing a curriculum model. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from https://tigerprints.clemson.edu/all_dissertations/2916/

Sanders, L. A. (2018). The influence of residential curriculum on first-year residential students in higher education. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/openview/3877b4a16dec8d092884bfd10657b26d/1

Scheibler, D. L. (2021). Home sweet home: A phenomenological case study exploring the lived experiences of residential students in curricular environments. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/docview/2594711935/8F090E9A2D2

Williams, S., Johnson, M. R., Kolek, E. A., Hornak, A. M., Ampaw, F., Gardner, K. (2021). Using inclusion assistants within a residential curriculum to improve the experiences and success of students with underrepresented identities. Journal of College and University Student Housing 47(2), 44-61.

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