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A Matrix Approach to Curriculum Design

For many years, the Geology Departments at Carleton College and the College of William and Mary have utilized a "matrix approach" to assessing and revising their curricula. This approach is described in detail below.
Carleton specific skills matrix
Carleton College Geology Department's communication skills matrix.
Jump down to Building Faculty Consensus on Skills Lists * Constructing Matrices * Using Your Matrix * Benefits of the Matrix Approach * References and Additional Readings

Assumptions Behind the Matrix Approach

Building Faculty Consensus on Skills Lists

If your department's faculty agree that your graduates should be proficient at some set of geoscience-specific and some set of general skills, the next step is to develop a list of those skills. Getting all of the faculty in a department to agree to such a list is a non-trivial task. However, it may be one of the most important conversations your department can have on the topic of curricular design. One way to initiate this conversation is to ask each faculty member to list the skills (both general and geoscience-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.) Chances are there will be at least some subset of skills which everyone agrees are important.

Constructing Matrices

Once faculty agree on the skills their graduates should know, you can draft a matrix to examine where in the curriculum students have opportunities to practice those skills. List skills along the left-hand side and required courses along the top. 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.

For broadly defined skill categories:

Carleton general skills matrix

Carleton general skills matrix 2

Expanded version of a Documentation/Communication skills matrix for written communication:

Carleton specific skills matrix In the matrix above, "a" stands for always and "s" stands for sometimes.

Using Your Matrix

The final step is to fill in the matrix and visually assess whether students have enough opportunities to practice each skill. 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?

Benefits of the Matrix Approach

Carleton's geology faculty describe three major benefits to adopting this approach (Savina et al., 2001):

  1. Faculty learned about each other's teaching styles and courses.
  2. Faculty felt relieved at not having to try to teach every skill in their own courses, knowing what their colleagues were teaching.
  3. Students feel well-prepared for their senior capstone research experience.

References and Additional Readings

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