visualising a curriculum

 I’m always looking around for ways to improve my teaching, & my students’ learning. (The two go hand in hand. I might think I’m a good teacher, but unless my classroom practices improve my students’ learning experiences & outcomes, then I’m not. Not really.) Part of my search involves quite a bit of reading from the science education literature, and recently I read something that gave me a bit of a wake-up call. As Brydget (who runs our first-year labs) said, "it seems so obvious when you think about it!", but neither of us had actually thought from that particular viewpoint before?

So what was the idea that made us that little bit uncomfortable, & shifted our thoughts on communicating science in the classroom? (That discomfort, incidentally, is a Good Thing, & something we should seek to elicit in our students every now & then.) It’s contained in my current ‘light reading’: a book by Linda Nilson (2007) called The Graphic Syllabus and the Outcomes Map.

I bought the book because I’d been wondering for a while how better to communicate with my first-years about my papers: what they’ll be doing, when they’ll be doing it, that sort of thing. There’s always been a proportion of the class who fairly obviously don’t bother reading the ‘standard’ paper outline (they’re the ones who are startled to find out that yes, there’s a test tomorrow night! even though that information is there in black-&-white in the paper outline that they received on the first day of semester. That, plus the fact that I use concept maps a fair bit in my teaching anyway, made Nilson’s book catch my eye.

We use paper outlines (syllabi – or should that be syllabuses??) to communicate (we think!) a lot of information to our students. Of course there’s the list of topics to be taught & when they’ll be taught, plus a list of student learning outcomes. (The latter are intended to allow the students to judge their progress towards the paper’s goals.) But then we include a whole pile of administrative stuff, like required textbooks, due dates for items of assessment, what constitutes plagiarism & why they should avoid doing it… And we expect them to read all of it.

Nilson suggests there are good reasons why many students don’t or, if they do, why they don’t seem to process the information particularly well. Part of the problem may be that the syllabus is all text – she cites research indicating that [only] half of 18- to 24-year-olds in the United States read a book of any kind in 2002, and only 22% of 17-year-olds read daily in 2004. And worse – for many of those who do read the document, it may not actually make much sense to them.

This is the point where Brydget & I had that ‘aha’ moment. When a lecturer puts together a paper outline, they do it from the perspective of someone who’s totally mastered the content and the language involved. But for students, especially first-year students who are ‘content novices’, it’s a different story:

Even if students do read the syllabus, the content-heavy sections might not make much sense to them. Certainly one of the most content-laden sections is the schedule of topics that the course addresses. The topics usually contain technical terms of the discipline, terms with which the students are initially not familiar. if they already knew these terms, they wouldn’t be in the course to learn about them. Not surprisingly, the topics in syllabi in the sciences, mathematics, and engineering are almost exclusively technical worlds that a typical student wouldn’t understand until well into the course.

This is actually a deeper issue than a simple failure to read all that ‘stuff’ at the start fo the study guide, or in the first handout of the semester. It may also mean that the students don’t get any real idea of how the course is organised. You might think, “what does this matter? They’ll have it sussed by the end of the semester.” But there’s more to it than that. When we learn new things, if we’re to learn them in any meaningful way we need to be able to fit them into some sort of mental scaffolding, or schema. As Nilson says,

learning and storage take place only in the context of a logically organised conceptual framework. Deep processing, as opposed to simple memorisation, necessitates seeing the structure of new knowledge and integrating it into one’s existing structure of prior knowledge.

What’s more,

Our thinking is so dependent on structure that if we don’t have an established, complete logical structure to interpret and explain an observed phenomenon, we will make up connecting pieces or entire theories.

So there’s a real risk that many students won’t actually be learning what we think they’re learning, however well-structured our classroom teaching practices may be. So how can we help them understand the organisation of a course, so that they can use that to help incorporate the things they’ll be learning into their existing body of knowledge? nelson suggests the use of ‘visual’ syllabi that present course structure in flow charts or concept maps, showing what they’ll be learning (both content & process knowledge), how it all fits together, and how it links to material they might have already learned and to future courses.

I’ve used concept maps in class for years now, but while I know how well they help students to come to a deep understanding of complex information, I’d honestly never thought of using them to visualise the organisation of an entire paper. So that’s my next little project – to develop such a visual syllabus for the first-year biology papers I coordinate. And, at the end of the semester, I’ll be asking students for some feedback, so that I can gauge how useful that schema might have been to their own learning.

After all, my own learning journey is nowhere near its end 🙂

Linda B. Nilson (2007) The Graphic Syllabus and the Outcomes Map. pub. Jossey-Bass. ISBN978-0-470-18085-3

2 thoughts on “visualising a curriculum”

  • Have you used CmapTools? I’m really keen to promote concept mapping as a learning and teaching tool on campus and I suspect visual syllabi would be a great starting point for many (both students and staff).
    In a similar way, I’ve kept a “living course map” with students, cumulatively adding concepts as we covered new material until we were able to visualise the course as a whole. Effectively we created a visual syllabus.
    It’s an extremely powerful way of elucidating the connections between topics and a useful way of revising the previous lecture’s content.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    Hi Stephen – haven’t used that particular tool as I tend to build them up on the whiteboard (maybe in the future a tablet, lol) with student input. Cathy Buntting got me into concept maps when she was working on her PhD thesis & I’ve been using them ever since.

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