Curriculum development can be defined as the step-by-step process used to create positive improvements in courses offered by a school, college or university. As the world continues to evolve, new discoveries have to be roped into the education curricula. Innovative teaching techniques and strategies (such active learning or blended learning) are also constantly being devised in order to improve the student learning experience. As a result, an institution must have a plan in place for acknowledging these shifts—and then be able to implement them in the college curriculum.

This article will explain what curriculum development is, why it’s important for an instructor’s pedagogy, and how the three different models of curriculum design can be used to set any course up for success. You’ll understand why a thoughtful course plan is essential to the success of any classroom—and any group of students. Plus, we’ll guide you through building your own curriculum using our fully customizable course planning template.

Table of Contents

  1. What is curriculum development?
  2. What is curriculum design?
  3. What are the three models of curriculum design?
  4. What are the different categories of curriculum development?
  5. What is curriculum planning?
  6. What is curriculum development and renewal?
  7. What’s the difference between curriculum development and curriculum design?
  8. How to create your own college curriculum [with free course planning template]
  9. Conclusion

What is curriculum development?

The way we understand and theorize curriculum today has changed significantly over the years. Today, the most simple definition of the word “curriculum” is the subjects that make up a course of study at schools, universities or colleges. The word curriculum has roots in Latin. It originally meant “racing chariot” and came from the verb currere, “to run.” Curriculum development is synonymous with course planning or course development.

It’s important to recognize that differences in course design exist: a math course taken at one university may cover the same material, but the educator may teach it in a different way. However, the core fundamentals of curriculum development remain the same.

Higher education institutions must balance two opposing schools of thought. On the one hand, some believe students should have a foundation of common knowledge, through core curriculum requirements. Others believe that students should be able to choose their own educational pursuits, by choosing their own courses or area of study. This fundamental disagreement is a frequently discussed topic in higher education environments, due to Harvard University’s core course requirement restructuring process.

An important element of curriculum design is identifying the prerequisites for each course. This can include prior courses taken, as well as relevant work experience or entrance exam completion. Typically, more advanced courses in any subject require some foundation in basic courses, but some coursework requires study in other departments, as in the sequence of biology classes for upper-level biochemistry courses.

The curriculum is the foundation for educators and students in outlining what is critical for teaching and learning. The curriculum must include the required goals, methods, materials and assessments to allow for effective instruction.

Goals: Goals within a curriculum are the expectations based on course standards for learning and teaching. The scope and skills required to meet a goal are often made explicitly clear to students. Goals must include the range and level of detail that instructors must teach.

Methods: Methods are the instructional approaches and procedures that educators use to engage inside and outside the classroom. These choices support the facilitation of learning experiences in order to promote a student’s ability to understand and apply content and skills. Methods are differentiated to meet student needs and interests, task demands, and learning environment. Methods are adjusted based on ongoing review of student progress towards meeting the goals. 

Materials: Materials are the tools selected to implement methods and achieve the goals of the curriculum. Materials are intentionally chosen to support a student’s learning. Material choices reflect student interest, cultural diversity, world perspectives, and address all types of diverse learners.

Assessment: Assessment in a curriculum is the ongoing process of gathering information about a student’s learning. This includes a variety of ways to document what the student knows, understands, and can do with their knowledge and skills. Information from assessment is used to make decisions about instructional approaches, teaching materials, and academic supports needed to enhance opportunities for the student and to guide future instruction.

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What is curriculum design?

Now that we’ve covered curriculum development and planning, let’s discuss curriculum design. Curriculum design is the deliberate organization of course activities and delivery within a classroom. When higher ed instructors design their curriculum, they identify:

  • Learning objectives
  • Method(s) of delivery
  • Timely and relevant bridge-ins
  • Course content and readings
  • Both low- and high-stakes assessments

Remember that the curriculum contains the knowledge and skills that a student needs to master in order to move to the next level. By thinking about how their curriculum is designed, teachers ensure they’ve covered all the necessary requirements. From there, they can start exploring various approaches and teaching methods that can help them achieve their goals.

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What are the three models of curriculum design?

There are three models of curriculum design: subject-centered, learner-centered, and problem-centered design.

Subject-centered curriculum design

Subject-centered curriculum design revolves around a particular subject matter or discipline, such as mathematics, literature or biology. This model of curriculum design tends to focus on the subject, rather than the student. It is the most common model of standardized curriculum that can be found in K-12 public schools.

Instructors compile lists of subjects and specific examples of how they should be studied. In higher education, this methodology is typically found in large university or college classes where teachers focus on a particular subject or discipline.

Subject-centered curriculum design is not student-centered, and the model is less concerned with individual learning styles compared to other forms of curriculum design. This can lead to issues with student engagement and motivation and may cause students who are not responsive to this model to fall behind.

Learner-centered curriculum design

Learner-centered curriculum design, by contrast, revolves around student needs, interests and goals. It acknowledges that students are not uniform but individuals, and therefore should not, in all cases, be subject to a standardized curriculum. This approach aims to empower learners to shape their education through choices.

Differentiated instructional plans provide an opportunity to select assignments, teaching and learning experiences, or activities that are timely and relevant. This form of curriculum design has been shown to engage and motivate students. The drawback to this form of curriculum design is that it can create pressure to form content around the learning needs and preferences of students. These insights can be challenging to glean in an online or hybrid learning environment. Balancing individual student interests with the course’s required outcomes could prove to be a daunting task. Download our free course planning template that takes a learner-centered approach to building your curriculum.

Problem-centered curriculum design

Problem-centered curriculum design teaches students how to look at a problem and formulate a solution. A problem-centered curriculum model helps students engage in authentic learning because they’re exposed to real-life issues and skills, which are transferable to the real world. Problem-centered curriculum design has been shown to increase the relevance of the curriculum and encourages creativity, innovation and collaboration in the classroom. The drawback to this model is that the individual needs and interests of students aren’t always accounted for.

By considering all three models of curriculum design before they begin planning, instructors can choose the model that is best suited to both their students and their course.

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What are the different types of curriculum development?

Current curriculum can be broken down into two broad categories: the product category and the process category. The product category is results-oriented. Grades are the prime objective, with the focus lying more on the finished product rather than on the learning process. The process category, however, is more open-ended, and focuses on how learning develops over a period of time. These two categories need to be taken into account when developing curriculum.

What is curriculum planning?

Curriculum planning involves implementing different instructional strategies and organizational methods that are focused on achieving optimal student development and student learning outcomes. Instructors might structure their curriculum around daily lesson plans, a specific assignment, a chunk of coursework, certain units within a class, or an entire educational program.

During the curriculum planning phase, educators consider factors that might complement or hinder their lesson. These include institutional requirements, for example. Each administrator at a university or college will have guidelines, principles and a framework that instructors are required to reference as they build out their curricula. Educators are responsible for ensuring that their curriculum planning meets students’ educational needs, and that the materials used are current and comprehensive.

Educators should employ the curriculum process that best incorporates the six components of effective teaching. These components are applicable at both the undergraduate and graduate level:

  • To demonstrate knowledge of content
  • To demonstrate the knowledge of students
  • To select suitable instructional strategy goals
  • To demonstrate knowledge of resources
  • To design coherent instruction
  • To assess student learning

What is curriculum development and renewal?

Curriculum development and renewal are vital components of higher education course planning, as they are critical for maintaining the quality and relevance of academic programs. Curriculum development involves the strategic design and creation of educational pathways, ensuring that courses align with institutional objectives and evolving industry needs. It encompasses the establishment of clear learning outcomes, pedagogical approaches, and assessment methods. Given the constantly changing educational landscape, curriculum development is crucial to incorporating emerging knowledge, technologies, and instructional strategies, fostering dynamic and engaging learning experiences. Regular review and updates are essential to keep the curriculum current, reflecting the dynamic nature of disciplines and the evolving requirements of the job market.

Curriculum renewal is equally indispensable, as it allows institutions to revisit and refresh existing academic programs, thus enhancing their quality and continued relevance. It responds to the recognition that curricular content and instructional methods may become outdated over time, necessitating adjustments to maintain program effectiveness. Curriculum renewal involves a comprehensive analysis of program outcomes, stakeholder feedback, and assessment data, ultimately leading to curriculum redesign, the integration of emerging best practices, or the development of new courses and concentrations. The primary aim of curriculum renewal is to ensure that higher education institutions offer programs that equip students with the knowledge and skills needed for success in an ever-changing world while adhering to the expectations of accreditation bodies and the needs of employers, thereby ensuring the value and competitiveness of their educational offerings.

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What’s the difference between curriculum development and curriculum design?

Curriculum development and curriculum design are two interrelated but distinct processes in the field of higher education. Curriculum development involves the overarching conceptualization and creation of a curriculum, often guided by educational goals, institutional mission, and learner needs. It encompasses the identification of key learning outcomes, the selection of appropriate content, and the sequencing of courses or modules. Curriculum development also involves decisions about assessment strategies, teaching methods, and the overall structure of the educational program. It’s a strategic and long-term endeavor that sets the direction for the educational experience.

Conversely, curriculum design refers to the more detailed and tactical aspects of implementing the curriculum that has been developed. It involves crafting the specific learning materials, activities, and assessments to achieve the established goals and outcomes. Curriculum design focuses on the day-to-day organization of individual courses, determining the order and timing of lessons, and creating instructional materials, such as syllabi, assignments, and assessments. It’s about translating the broader curriculum into practical, actionable plans that educators can use to guide their teaching and students can use to navigate their learning journey. In essence, curriculum development sets the vision, while curriculum design brings that vision to life in the classroom.

How to create your own college curriculum [with free course planning template]

Now that we’ve outlined the three models of curriculum development, how do you get started on building out your own course plan? An effective course plan will highlight your proposed curriculum for the semester along with your individual lesson plans. Developing an engaging course plan means considering how learning occurs before, during and after your class. Here are some factors to consider.

  • Before your lesson, consider your learning objectives and source meaningful content
  • During your lesson, administer relevant formative assessments to gauge pre-existing—and current—understanding of course concepts
  • After your lesson, determine what students have learned by facilitating summative assessments

A thoughtful course plan is an essential piece of the instructional design process. Not only does it help you track progress towards your learning objectives, it ensures lectures are balanced with adequate opportunities for reflection, application of knowledge and community building. Here are a few questions to ask yourself pertaining to your learning objectives, assessments and course content.

Learning objectivesFormative and summative assessmentsCourse content
Do my learning objectives indicate what students will accomplish by the end of the lesson?Do my formative assessments measure students’ ability to meet my learning objectives?Does my course content allow students to accomplish my learning objectives?
Do my learning objectives reflect what learners will do in a given unit (versus what you will do)?Do my summative assessments equitably and fairly test students in any modality (face-to-face, hybrid, online)?Does my course content provide a mix of lecturing, comprehension and reflection?

These steps and questions are only just the tip of the iceberg. Depending on the curriculum model, educators must make a concerted effort to design and deliver content that strengthens a sense of belonging, participation and performance in and out of class.

Curriculum design tips

These curriculum design tips can help higher education instructors manage every step of designing their classroom curriculum:

  • Identify stakeholder needs as early as possible when designing the curriculum. By conducting data analysis on a group of learners, instructors can uncover data what learners already know and what they still need to learn, in order to be proficient in a particular area or skill. It may also include information about a student’s strengths and weaknesses.
  • Try making a curriculum map in order to evaluate the order and flow of instruction. Curriculum mapping provides educators with indexes or visual diagrams of a curriculum. This way, educators can easily identify potential learning gaps, repetition or ordering issues in instruction plans.
  • Establish evaluation methods that will be implemented throughout the duration of the term to better understand instructor and learner achievement, as well as the efficacy of the curriculum. Evaluation will help instructors better understand if the curriculum design is achieving its desired results. The most effective evaluation is summative, and ongoing throughout the duration of the term. 
  • Remember that curriculum design is not a one-step process; continuous improvement is a necessity. The design of the curriculum should be assessed periodically and refined based on assessment data. This may involve making alterations to the design partway through the course to ensure that learning outcomes or a certain level of proficiency will be achieved at the end of the course.

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Developing, designing and implementing an education curriculum is no easy task—especially with online and hybrid learning. With educational technology playing an increasingly essential role in higher education and with today’s diverse student body, instructors have their work cut out for them. But by following the fundamental guidelines and framework of curriculum development, educators will be setting themselves—and their students—up for long-term success.

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