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
Jump Down To: Goals and Assumptions | Constructing Matrices | Using Your Matrix | An Example of Using the Matrix Approach in Curriculum Design | 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 reflect on their own and learn about each others' courses and teaching styles, building self-awareness and 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

  • Students moving through a degree program will have predictable opportunities to be exposed to ideas and practice skills over their academic career.
  • These opportunities will come both in the classroom during required and elective courses, and outside the classroom in co-curricular activities such as field trips, peer-peer mentoring, and participation in student organizations.
  • Graduating students within a major should be proficient at a set of predetermined, discipline-specific skills, and have had an opportunity to practice these skills several times over their academic career.
  • Graduates should also have developed a set of more general skills such as communication, analysis, and quantitative methods as part of their experience in the major.
  • Identifying the suite of Program-Level Learning Outcomes (PLLOs) for a degree program is a starting point for gap analysis, curriculum and program planning, as well as designing program assessment.

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 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.

Additional Reference
Rhodes, D.D., 2011, Curriculum and program learning outcomes mapping to enhance program assessment: Geological Society of America Abstracts with Programs, v. 43, no. 5, p. 300.

Example Program Matrix (Excel 2007 (.xlsx) 22kB Sep4 14). Provided by Dallas Rhodes at Georgia Southern University

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, you can begin to develop your plan to assess where the program is in terms of fulfilling the goals you've set. Can you reasonably expect students to master the skills you consider essential, given how often they practice each one? How does what you have now work? Which skills may need additional opportunities for practice? What opportunities are present or could be created outside the classroom?

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