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Matrix Approaches to Program and Curriculum Design

Mapping program learning outcomes and course activities in a matrix provides a rich graphical portrait of program content and can be used as a starting point for program assessment

Geology departments at several schools, including Carleton College, the College of William and Mary, and Montana State University have employed a "matrix approach" to assessing and revising their curricula and programs. This approach and variations are described in detail below.
Carleton specific skills matrix
Carleton College Geology Department's communication skills matrix. "a' indicates always and '"s" indicates sometimes.
Jump down to Goals and Assumptions * Identifying the PLLOs * Constructing Matrices * Using Your Matrix * References and Additional Readings

Benefits of the Matrix Approach

There are benefits to this approach for both students and faculty members (see Savina et al., 2001):

  1. Faculty members learn about each others' courses and teaching styles, building collegiality.
  2. Faculty members share responsibility by understanding what skills they are responsible for teaching and which their colleagues will teach.
  3. The student experience is well-coordinated, making students feel better supported and prepared.

Goals and Assumptions with this Approach

Identifying the Program-Level Learning Outcomes

PLLOs vs SLOs. Student learning outcomes or SLOs are used to describe goals across a curriculum. Here we discuss program-level learning outcomes or PLLOs to emphasize the idea that learning also happens outside of the classroom, and the universe of department-related activities can be considered in building a matrix.

Once you agree that your graduates should be proficient at some set of discipline-specific and some set of general skills, the next step is to develop a specific list of those skills. Getting all faculty members in a department to agree on such a list is a non-trivial task. However, it may be one of the most important conversations your department can have related to curricular design. One way to initiate this conversation is to ask each faculty member to list the skills (both general and discipline-specific) that he or she sees as essential for your graduates, and then to compare all of the lists. (You could use the ideal student exercise to accomplish this.) Start by building consensus around the subset of skills that are common to everyone. In an ideal case, once a new program has been established, each PLLO will have one or more corresponding assessment activities. Outcomes should be generalized to keep their number, and therefore the assessment effort, reasonable.

Constructing Matrices

At its most basic, a matrix is a visual representation of the match between skills students should have and the opportunities they have to learn them. The form presented here places program-level learning outcomes (PLLOs) in the left-hand column of the matrix and groups them by content areas, e.g., discipline-specific knowledge, problem solving skills, and communication skills. You can construct multiple matrices, to look at skill development at multiple levels of detail, as shown in the matrices below. This allows you to look at where in the curriculum each skill is practiced and to look for gaps in the curriculum.

EXAMPLE: In this example a Curriculum Matrix built using only the program required courses was paired with a more comprehensive matrix which included a broader range of department-sponsored activities. Core Course Matrix (Acrobat (PDF) 64kB Sep4 14)Earth Science Course Matrix (Acrobat (PDF) 147kB Sep4 14). Provided by David Mogk at Montana State University

EXAMPLE: A Program Matrix build on 10 Program Learning Outcomes. This example includes core cores, required courses, and disciplinary electives in the list of learning opportunities. Provided by Dallas Rhodes at Georgia Southern University Example Program Matrix (Excel 2007 (.xlsx) 22kB Sep4 14)

Starting with a Blank Matrix Template (Excel 51kB Sep4 14) may be helpful in building a matrix tailored to your program.

Using Your Matrix

As you fill in the the matrix, the next step is to assess whether students have enough opportunities to practice each skill. This process can start with a visual scan of gaps in the matrix and lead to curriculum design and revision. Can you reasonably expect them to master the skills you consider essential, given how often they practice each one? Which skills may need additional opportunities for practice? Where could you add such opportunities? What opportunities could be created outside the classroom? At this point the matrix could be adapted to address other types of programmatic goals such as preparing students for the workforce or supporting the whole student.

The Matrix and Assessment

Assessment is collecting program data for a specific purpose. Following the development of a matrix, student learning outcomes can be assessed at the programmatic level. Assessment plans can be designed to: a) provide faculty with an opportunity to reflect on course goals, methods and expected student learning outcomes, b) aggregate these course learning goals an assessment of the PLLOs identified for the matrix, c) provide formative feedback to improve teaching and learning and d) to demonstrate that the departmental and institutional vision and missions are being met. The NAGT Building Strong Departments program has more information on Program Assessment and Review.

An Example of Using the Matrix Approach in Curriculum Design

In 2103 the Department of Earth Sciences, Montana State University, constructed a matrix as part of their process to revise their undergraduate curriculum. David Mogk has provided a detailed account (Curriculum by Design, part one and part two) of how the matrix approach was used in this process.

References and Additional Readings

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