By David Griffin
Redesigning or updating a university curriculum can be a daunting task. There are multiple stakeholders involved whose objectives may not closely align. These include the university itself, students, the accrediting body, teaching staff and prospective employers. Acutely aware of the challenge, staff at Imperial College London recently published a paper outlining the approach they employed in the updating of an accredited four-year chemical engineering degree program (Chadha et al., 2022). This paper is filled with useful insights into the specific redesign approach taken by the authors, the feedback they received from the student body and the resulting implemented changes.
The main goal of the program redesign was to align with the modularised format used by their European counterparts. Before taking on this challenge, however, the authors chose to set out specific end goals which would ensure students were at the heart of the change process. This goal included making the curriculum less burdensome and more engaging for students, while also ensuring it adequately prepared them for the working world.
The authors chose to follow a Theory of Change approach. This approach essentially requires a project end goal to be first chosen. Then, a series of backwards steps can be identified, indicating the actions needed to achieve that goal (Connell and Kubisch, 1998). The authors chose this approach as they felt it would best enable them to include the student voice in the process. To ensure both present and retrospective student opinions were heard, current and former students were provided a voice through three different means: focus groups, surveys and individual interviews. Their feedback on the current program revealed three major areas of importance:
More than a third of those surveyed indicated they did not think the current program provided a reasonable work-life balance. Through the interviews it was found that many endured stress and feelings of pressure as a result of this. Moreover, there was a feeling among the student body that issues of mental health were neglected by staff.
Perhaps surprisingly, the authors discovered that the majority of students felt the quantity and difficulty level of the current program coursework and exams were reasonable. However, many expressed concerns related to time management. Survey responses also indicated a preference for active learning approaches over passive ones and collaborative work over that based in competition.
While the vast majority of students felt confidence in the program’s ability to develop their intellectual skills, in terms of practical skills they felt ill-equipped. In addition to this, students felt the program lacked sufficient support on career planning and professional development.
In response to the student feedback, the authors gradually introduced several major changes starting in spring 2018.
These included the following:
Annual study hours had previously ranged from 1575 to 1825, depending on students’ specific year of study. This was reduced to 1499 hours for all years to address the work-life balance concerns raised.
Assessments were modified for some classes to limit the pressure on students, incorporating coursework where previously the grade was determined by a single exam.
Compulsory tutorials were replaced with optional-attendance sessions.
A wellbeing advisor was recruited to provide students with support as needed through one-on-one meetings.
A working group was established to investigate concerns with assessment, issues with group work projects and to engage with students in useful dialogue on these topics. In conjunction with this step, the use of active learning in the revised curriculum was encouraged among staff.
The outcomes of this curriculum redesign are yet to be fully understood and appropriately measured. The current Covid-19 pandemic forced the institution to adapt to remote and blended learning, much of which continues at present. However, the authors present some interesting conclusions nonetheless.
The Theory of Change approach allowed a roadmap for curriculum modifications to be effectively made. It also made partners of the student body, ensuring their input was heard and considered at every juncture. In doing so, the authors suggest that a level of transparency was provided in the change process. However, one challenge the authors highlight is the difficulty in adapting the Theory of Change model, due to its linear nature. The introduction of unforeseen events, such as the current pandemic, can greatly disrupt this simplistic approach.
While this paper outlines just one potential method of curriculum planning, it highlights the important dual role played by students within our institutions. As both a partner and a participant in their learning experience, they should also play a role in its design.
Chadha, D., Campbell, J., Maraj, M., Brechtelsbauer, C., Kogelbauer, A., et al. (2022) Engaging Students to Shape Their Own Learning: Driving Curriculum Re-design using a Theory of Change Approach. Educ. Chem. Eng. 38 (2022) 14-21
Connell, J.P. and Kubisch, A.C. (1998) Applying a Theory of Change Approach to the Evaluation of Comprehensive Community Initiatives: Progress, Prospects, and Problems. The Aspen Institute, USA.