Research and Resources

Departmental Curricular Alignment

Instructor with students in a study hallDepartmental curricular alignment, known as vertical alignment, is a key support for our learners. Ultimately, large scale alignment for a major, program, or course of study is done at the department level by collectively examining the terminus outcomes for seniors and identifying which courses support those competencies. Every department at the university participates in Academic Program Review and Planning and vertical alignment is often a component of program review. Similarly, many disciplines have accountability to external professional organizations. There is a recent increased emphasis by these organizations in expecting departments to show alignment of learning objectives, assessments, and student success. Tools and strategies are available for mapping courses and outcomes. Tracking student competencies at the program level is possible through Canvas.

At a more granular level, instructors need to know how their course(s) fit into the larger scope of the major and how their course outcomes are aligned with the forward trajectory of the major. Every instructor brings personal perspective and expertise to their courses and it is not expected that all sections of a single course are identical. Nor should the alignment work eliminate academic freedom; rather, alignment is intended to identify the learning progression so that students who enter our courses are prepared by prior courses and that your course prepares students for their next level courses.

Two other lenses in curriculum alignment include (a) looking at how students gain necessary competencies germane to employment and being an active citizen, and (b) identifying gaps and redundancies. Your department alignment should examine how cross-cutting skills such as writing, soft skills, or technology use are developed across and between courses. For example, students need support in early courses to be able to write extensive analytical essays in upper level courses or to complete complex projects as seniors. Another outcome of reviewing and analyzing the progression of content competencies from one course to the next is finding gaps (who is actually teaching that?) and redundancies. With the continual press on instructors and students for enough time, you might find redundant topics that are already taught in another course or identify topics that are currently on your syllabus but are not critical to the course learning outcomes. Sometimes we inherit these artifact topics when we are asked to teach a course that was turned over to us by someone else. Sometimes we realize that a curriculum refresh is necessary due to changes in the field. Removing topics that have become outdated, are suitable for another course, or are not fundamental to what students need to learn might buy you more time to focus on what is critical.

Course Curriculum and Alignment

Course curriculum is the set of knowledge, skills, behaviors and dispositions intended as outcomes for the course. As you plan your course, be mindful of how it falls in the sequence of courses for the major. Take time initially to compare your course learning objectives to the objectives for prerequisites and courses to follow yours. Don’t fall into the trap of believing you have to use a textbook as THE curriculum. Textbooks are written to satisfy broad audiences and are not intended to be the defining arbiter of what you should teach. Textbooks should be a resource FOR your curriculum.

Intentionally create content that deliberately reflects the diversity of contributors to your field. Consider the large issues in your field. What are the overarching essential questions? What are the meta considerations your students should be grappling with? For example, in a history course, how are the stories of individual people and groups represented? How might power and identity be used as fundamental lenses to specific historical events? With large themes and essential representations, you are then ready to begin course design and alignment.

Course design and alignment is known as backwards design. It has similarities to vertical alignment but is at the course level. To use backwards design, instructors (1) identify student learning objectives for the course (both at the end of the course and the progression through the course), (2) identify assessment evidence that will allow the instructor and student to gauge student mastery, and then (3) identify/develop course materials and class activities to support student learning. We start with the end in mind and work backward to the individual lesson design knowing that there is a logical connection from the beginning of the semester to the end but, it is all driven by the end-of-course outcomes. Alignment is based on careful planning and allows you, throughout the semester as you teach, to highlight the connections between readings, activities and assignments with the course learning objectives. This coherence sets students up for greater likelihood for success and can ensure that students can see the relevancy of their work. Align the rigor of your class activities, discussions, simulations, performances, and quizzes with the rigor of assessments; this will provide students insight as to how to prepare for upcoming assessments.

Learning Objectives

Learning objectives are measurable statements that convey what students should know or be able to do. A learning objective should include how students will demonstrate mastery. For example, “You will identify and describe factors that impact the long term viability of an ecosystem and you will convey those factors with a 1 minute, student-generated video.” As you develop learning objectives, consider cognitive complexity. A more complex learning objective for our example might be “You will summarize and analyze the factors (and their interactions) that impact the long term viability of an ecosystem; you will submit a written 5 page report to inform the reader”. Consider the level of rigor of student work you expect and how you can scaffold increasing complexity throughout the course. You might first expect recall and application and later in the course expect higher level analyses and the creation of new artifacts. Of course, learning objectives also require you to consider student preparation. What assets do students bring to your course you can capitalize on? Where might there be gaps that can be filled by changing how you teach or by directing students to support services?

Levels of complexity and measurable verbs are available in Bloom’s Taxonomy (see our Course Goals and Objectives Worksheet). An alternate that some faculty use is Fink’s Taxonomy which offers a framework to write learning objectives based on level of learning. Each learning objective should map directly to a course level outcome. In addition to cognitive complexity, pacing of lessons, variety of lessons and alignment of assessments with objectives, keep in mind how you will engage and motivate students. Engage students with applications to real world situations and discipline specific scenarios. Provide frequent opportunities for students to make connections within the course, the broader discipline, and the world. Design activities where students make connections between content and student learning outcomes. Provide students with some measure of choice in demonstrating mastery.

Syllabus

Conveying the coherence of your course learning objectives, assessments, and lessons is done with a syllabus. The syllabus provides students with an opportunity to see how you envision learning happening. In past years, the syllabus has become more of a contract among students and faculty and these documents can be upwards of over 20 pages. Keep in mind that students are often unfamiliar with contracts and often do not read a syllabus (or know HOW to read a syllabus). Plan for this inevitability; help students understand your syllabus and refer to it often throughout the semester. It should be a living document. Think about the language you use in your syllabus. First generation students and those whose first language is not English may be confused by jargon.

How might you streamline your syllabus so it’s more user friendly? You might consider using Canvas to house important information such as texts, office hours, student services, student resources on and off campus, student rights and responsibilities, and your contact information. Your syllabus then would primarily focus on learning outcomes, assessments, lessons, classroom culture, academic integrity, and required notifications. Refer to the CSU Faculty Manual Section I: Academic and Legal Matters for more information on what needs to be in your syllabus.

Consider your syllabus and what you want it to convey. What is the tone you want to set? A learner-centered syllabus helps set the stage for a shared learning environment and shifts the responsibility for teaching to student learning. A learner-centered syllabus is one that incorporates clear statements of goals and student outcomes and provides an opportunity to set expectations for students at the start of the course. When the syllabus is more learner centered, it can be used as a student reflection tool.

There are a variety of ways to convey information to students in a syllabus. You might include a visual map and link content to assignments and learning objectives. Colleagues on campus and in other institutions are using syllabi with graphics and Visual Syllabi. Keep in mind that your syllabus needs to be accessible for all learners, that is a university requirement.

Boettcher, J. V., & Conrad R. (2016), The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Fink, L. D. (2013) Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005), Understanding by design (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA; Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.