The Point of Curriculum Maps

Over at her blog, Linda Suskie asks the question, “Why are we doing curriculum maps?”  She argues that curriculum maps—charts that show where learning goals are achieved in program requirements—can answer several questions:

Is the curriculum designed to ensure that every student has enough opportunity to achieve each of its key learning goals? A program curriculum map will let you know if a program learning goal is addressed only in elective courses or only in one course.

Is the curriculum appropriately coherent? Is it designed so students strengthen their achievement of program learning goals as they progress through the program? Or is attention to program learning goals scattershot and disconnected?

Does the curriculum give students ample and diverse opportunities to achieve its learning goals? Many learning goals are best achieved when students experience them in diverse settings, such as courses with a variety of foci.

Does the curriculum have appropriate, progressive rigor? Do higher-numbered courses address program learning goals on a more advanced level than introductory courses? While excessive prerequisites may be a barrier to completion, do upper-level courses have appropriate prerequisites to ensure that students in them tackle program learning goals at an appropriately advanced level?

Does the curriculum conclude with a capstone experience? Not only is this an excellent opportunity for students to integrate and synthesize their learning, but it’s an opportunity for students to demonstrate their achievement of program learning goals as they approach graduation. A program curriculum map will tell you if you have a true capstone in which students synthesize their achievement of multiple program learning goals.

Is the curriculum sufficiently focused and simple? You should be able to view the curriculum map on one piece of paper or computer screen. If you can’t do this, your curriculum is probably too complicated and therefore might be a barrier to student success.

Is the curriculum responsive to the needs of students, employers, and society? Look at how many program learning goals are address in the program’s internship, field experience, or service learning requirement. If a number of learning goals aren’t addressed there, the learning goals may not be focusing sufficiently on what students most need to learn for post-graduation success.

She doesn’t view the primary purpose of curriculum maps as identifying where in a curriculum to find assessments of particular learning goals.  I’ve previously argued the contrary: that this is the primary purpose of curriculum maps, but I think I’m coming around to Ms. Suskie’s view.  The point I would emphasize, however, is that curriculum mapping—while valuable—is not in and of itself programmatic assessment.  It does not demonstrate whether students are achieving the learning outcomes we have set out for them, only where evidence of such learning may be found.

As a tool for assessing the curriculum (versus student learning), maps can be helpful tools.  Ms. Suskie offers several suggestions in this regard:

Elective courses have no place in a curriculum map. Remember one of the purposes is to ensure that the curriculum is designed to ensure that every student has enough opportunity to achieve every learning goal. Electives don’t help with this analysis.

My take: I agree and disagree.  Electives are not helpful if you are trying to determine what every student will have learned.  But a map with elective courses can demonstrate a mismatch between degree requirements and learning outcomes.  For example, at our school, a curriculum map showed that although we identified negotiation as a critical skill for our students, it was only being taught in a handful of electives that only a small number of students were taking.  (This led us to develop an innovative, required course for all students in Lawyering skills.)

List program requirements, not program courses. If students can choose from any of four courses to fulfill a particular requirement, for example, group those four courses together and mark only the program learning outcomes that all four courses address.

My take: I agree.  In theory, the courses in the cluster should all revolve a common goal.

Codes can help identify if the curriculum has appropriate, progressive rigor. Some assessment management systems require codes indicating whether a learning goal is introduced, developed further, or demonstrated in each course, rather than simply whether it’s addressed in the course.

My take: I agree.  Note that faculty require definitions for the various levels of rigor, and one should be on the lookout for “puffing”—a course where a professor claims that all of the learning outcomes are being addressed at an “advanced” level.

Check off a course only if students are graded on their progress toward achieving the learning goal. Cast a suspicious eye at courses for which every program learning goal is checked off. How can those courses meaningfully address all those goals?

My take: 100% agree.


Law school curricula are notoriously “flat.”  After the first year, there is not necessarily a progression of courses.  Students are left to choose from various electives.  Courses are not stacked on top of one another, as they are in other disciplines and at the undergraduate level.  There are exceptions: schools that prescribe requirements or clusters of courses in the 2L and 3L year that build sequentially on learning outcomes.  And some schools have capstone courses, a form of stacking.

So much attention in law school curricular reform is paid to which courses are worthy of being required in the first year.  But we have three or four years with students.  In my view, assessment gives us a chance to talk meaningfully about the upper-level curriculum.  And, as Ms. Suskie points out, mapping can help with this endeavor.

What is the point of curriculum mapping?

Curriculum mapping is the process of identifying where in a school’s curriculum each of its learning outcomes is being taught and assessed. We recently posted our curriculum maps on our assessment webpage, including the survey instrument we used to collect data from faculty.

Curriculum mapping was a big discussion item at an assessment conference in Boston last Spring and understandably so. But, to be clear, curriculum mapping is, itself, not assessment. It is, rather, a tool to assist with the programmatic assessment process.  It also furthers curricular reform.

Mapping is not assessment in the programmatic sense because even the best of curriculum maps will not show whether, in fact, students are learning what we want them to learn. Curriculum mapping helps with assessment because it enables an assessment committee to identify where in the curriculum to look for particular evidence (“artifacts” in the lingo) of student learning.

It also helps with curricular reform in two ways:

  • by enabling a faculty to plug holes in the curriculum.  If an outcome has been identified as desirable but it is not being taught to all or most students, a new degree requirement could be created. Our school did this with negotiation. We had identified it as a valuable skill but realized, through a curriculum mapping exercise done several years ago, that it was not being taught to a sufficient number of students. We then created a 1L course specifically on negotiation and other interpersonal skills.
  • by restructuring degree requirements so that smarter sequencing occurs. In theory, advanced instruction should build upon introductions.  A curriculum map will help show the building blocks in particular outcomes: introduction to competence to advanced.

Overall, I hope that schools put serious thought into curriculum mapping, while also recognizing that it is not the end of assessment … but instead the beginning.