Teaching and Learning Forum 97 [ Contents ]

How can we 'unstuff' the curriculum?

Bob Fox and Alex Radloff
Teaching Learning Group
Curtin University of Technology


One issue facing learners and lecturers in higher education is having to learn and teach more in less time. This can lead to an overstuffed curriculum where courses have too much content, a reliance on student 'busy work' to comply with assessment demands, and not enough opportunity for learners to acquire a deep understanding of the subject, and to develop lifelong skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, communication and interpersonal skills.

In order to avoid the problems associated with an overstuffed curriculum and to achieve a quality education, tertiary teachers must answer the following macro questions: 'How can we ensure that students are active learners, reflective about their work and responsible for their own learning?'; 'How can we encourage learning for understanding and transfer?'; and 'How can we encourage positive attitudes to, and skills for, lifelong learning?'

In this paper, we provide practical suggestions to address these questions. The suggestions are based on our own teaching experiences and our work in academic staff development, instructional design and distance education. They are also supported by research on student learning and tertiary teaching (Angelo, 1993; Gibbs & Lucas, 1995; Ramsden, 1993; Shuell, 1990). We focus on ways in which we can 'unstuff' the curriculum and encourage quality learning under two broad headings: Course planning and design; and Instructional activities and strategies.

Underlying these practical suggestions is an assumption about the general approach to teaching which tertiary teachers adopt. We believe that effective teachers are systematic in the way they conceptualise and plan their courses and teaching, adopt a reflective approach to their work, and seek and value feedback about their courses and teaching.

Below are ideas that may help towards unstuffing the curriculum by providing a structured and systematic approach to designing, developing and teaching a unit of study.

Course planning and design

Clarify the rationale and context for the unit of study

Ask yourself these questions and answer them in three or four sentences. Why is this unit worth studying? How does it fit into the course(s) of which it is part? How does the unit relate to other units in the course(s)? Are there pre-requisite units to this unit? Is this unit a pre-requisite to other units? Are there other units that parallel this unit and should be taken at the same time?

By answering these questions you get a clearer idea of the underlying rationale for the unit and where the unit fits within a larger context. It then becomes possible to isolate or pinpoint more accurately the parameters of the particular unit you are working on.

Identify the learning objectives and outcomes

Ask yourself what you want your students to know and be able to do after completing this unit and what you imagine or believe students will want to know and be able to do when they have finished this unit. Write no more than three or four outcome statements in terms of knowledge, skills and attitudes. By sticking to a few key statements on outcomes, you will find it easier to maintain a firm grasp on the general focus of the unit.

Develop assessment criteria to match the overall objectives

The assessment tasks should match the objectives and outcomes you have identified. The weighting of different assignments and the examination should also reflect the importance of the corresponding objectives and outcomes.

Develop a marking scheme which outlines how you will assess student learning. Clarify the main levels of marking based on overall objectives and outcome statements. Later, when you develop details about the unit, you will be able to elaborate on assignments and the marking scheme. At this stage, however, generate a series of key concepts/issues/skills, etc. that make up the essence of the unit.

Identify the learners

Develop an overall map or 'thumbnail sketch' of your potential students. This may be a difficult task, but it will help you to focus on the content of the unit and how the content will be treated. The main categories to guide you are: age range, gender mix, cultural backgrounds and diversity, student expectations of the unit, their expectations of their role and that of the lecturer, previous study experiences, especially within the subject area and discipline culture of the unit, the numbers taking the unit and the mode of study (full-time or part-time, on-campus or off-campus). This sketch obviously becomes more complex as variations in students increase. Rowntree (1990, pp. 39-43) provides a useful sample thumbnail sketch.

Gauge the workload of the unit

You need to consider what the unit is worth in terms of its study load and time you expect students to devote to this unit in relation to their total study load. A useful guide is to match the number of similar or equivalent units students are required to take per semester. In very general terms, a full time equivalent undergraduate student will take four units of study per semester. How many hours of study, on average do you expect students to be studying per week? Divide these hours by four to gauge the hours per week your students can be expected to spend on your unit.

Another guide is to match the credit points the unit is worth to find a benchmark for study load. In some universities, dividing the credit points by two will provide a general guide to hours of study expected (e.g. Curtin University Handbook, 1995, p. 67). It is interesting to note that a number of research findings suggest that we poorly match our expectations of workload with the time students require to study (for example Svinicki, 1990; Chambers, 1992; MacDonald-Ross & Scott, 1995). Feedback from distance education students at Curtin also supports this view.

It is also important to consider how realistic the expected workload is not only in relation to the unit objectives, assessment and credit points but also in terms of students' other commitments. Research into how students spend their time outside class (de la Harpe, Radloff & Parker, 1997) points to a worrying trend with many students reporting spending more time in paid work than in study.

Decide what to include and exclude in the unit

It is often difficult to determine what to keep in and what to leave out of a unit. Try writing a list of all items, issues, topics, concepts, etc. you would want to include in the unit taking into account the three or four outcomes you listed in the paragraph: Identify the learning objectives and outcomes, divide your list into three columns: essential, recommended and supplementary. The limitations of a semester unit mean that despite your desire as the subject specialist to include more than is realistic your main task is to pare down the curriculum to its essential elements. The essential list must include the key issues mentioned earlier in this paper regarding a range of transferable generic and lifelong learning skills. All too often, these skills and strategies are left out or squeezed out as the unit discipline content increases. Candy et al.'s (1994, pp. 65-66) description of how this happens at present and how they advocate placing life long learning skills in the centre of the unit is illustrated in Figure 1. Radloff (1996) recommends a strategy to avoid this squeezing, by integrating all discipline content with life long learning skills, as shown in Figure 2.

Figures 1 and 2

Figure 1: Simplified after Candy et al. (1994, p.66)    Figure 2: Radloff (1996)

Determine the conceptual framework

Develop a conceptual framework to show how various components in the unit interrelate and how the overall unit relates to other units and the course(s) of which the unit is a part. Look for unifying or fundamental concepts, skills and ideas and make these explicit in your outline. Develop a strategy that enables you to refer students frequently back to this conceptual framework during the semester. One useful strategy is to produce a visual representation of the unit such as a flow chart or 'mind map' and refer to it regularly throughout the semester. You may also want to compare this unit's visual representation with other unit representations.

Structure the content around key concepts

Review your list of essential components discussed in the paragraph: Decide what to include and exclude in the unit, and group these in some way that helps students understand how the unit is structured. A unit can be organised in the following ways: related topics; theoretical domains to more practical or applied positions; simple, familiar concepts to more complex, less familiar ideas; major themes to more specific themes or issues; or in chronological order. Different subjects lend themselves to different strategies for organising content and these need to be addressed specifically within the context of the various disciplines and their associated cultures.

Organise the unit systematically

Consider how the content in the paragraph: Structure the content around key concepts will be covered in the semester. Draw up an overall plan of when various parts of the unit will be covered and how the unit is organised including times/dates for class contact, assignment due dates, examinations, field work, collaborative project work, etc. to be undertaken. Remember to schedule in public holidays and class-free-from-contact times. Ensure that you build in enough time for regular review and reflection and time to integrate the various components in the final weeks leading up to the examinations. Remember to build in time for out of class activities, group work, reading and research.

Select texts and readings in line with unit objectives

Students are often expected to read a great deal and to cover too much ground (MacDonald-Ross & Scott, 1995) and this can lead to a superficial approach to studying (Saljo, 1982). It is therefore important to make an appropriate selection of texts and readings for students to work through. Carefully consider what students will gain from the text. For example, will the text reinforce the unit content, elaborate or extend class activities, or provide contrast to class activities, etc.? How does the text relate to the overall aims of the unit, how should students use the texts and readings and what should they do with the information once they have read it?

Also consider the suitability of the selected text in terms of user-friendliness and readability. Hartley (1994) and Wright (1987) provide useful guidelines for selecting textbooks and readings. Finally, how you present prescribed reading influences student behaviour. Research carried out at Curtin across a number of disciplines has shown that student reading behaviours are influenced by the emphasis the lecturer places on the importance of reading per se for learning and on the perceived value of particular reading for mastering the unit content (Kirkpatrick & Mulligan, 1996).

Instructional activities and strategies

Encourage active student involvement in learning

Select learning activities which require students to engage with the content (Wang & Palincsar, 1989). Activities such as paired problem-solving, jigsaw, reciprocal teaching, question generation and role play can be used as part of regular class activities to encourage student participation in learning (Meyers & Jones, 1993). Allow time in lectures for short self-marked quizzes, buzz groups and pauses for reflection. When setting reading assignments, provide specific questions to guide student reading.

Encourage students to work cooperatively

Help students to learn with and from one another by encouraging cooperative learning as an integral part of your unit (Bossert, 1988). Set group learning tasks and provide opportunities for students to work together on activities outside class time. Discuss with students how to maximise group learning and overcome common problems in working with others. Encourage students to form informal study groups or set up a 'study buddy' or a student mentoring system. Make explicit the connection between working effectively in groups and the skills needed to be a successful team member in future professional life.

Integrate learning how to learn components into the unit

Most students, especially first year students, need help to become effective learners. Such help is most useful when it is offered in the context of subject learning (Chalmers & Fuller, 1995). Build into your classes explicit instruction and opportunity for practice with feedback, in strategies such as strategic reading, effective writing and study strategies necessary for successful learning of your subject. Include also 'generic' strategies such as goal setting, time and self-management.

Structure class times carefully to maximise learning

Students learn most in classes in which they are actively involved. Traditional lectures are least likely to provide opportunities for active student involvement (Gibbs, 1992) so consider dispensing with the traditional one-way delivery lecture and use the lecture time for small group work, self-instruction perhaps using self-paced or computer-based material, or for working in pairs on a specific topic or on problems or case studies using resources such as textbooks, journals, audio-visual material and other forms of information technology.

Increase feedback but reduce formal assessment

An effective teaching program requires two way communication between students and teachers. Therefore provide opportunities for regular feedback about learning and teaching throughout the semester. The Five Minute Exam or Half Sheet Response are both quick and easy ways to monitor progress even in large classes. These and other strategies for assessing student learning are described in Angelo and Cross (1993). Encourage students to seek feedback from a variety of sources including peers and provide opportunities for students to develop skill and confidence in self-assessment as part of regular class activities. Help students distinguish between formative and summative assessment.

Emphasise the importance of lifelong learning

Discuss how 'experts' in your field think and learn. Make transparent and model the strategies you use for acquiring understanding and skill in your subject. Provide opportunities during class for students to talk about how they learn and the strategies that work for them. Emphasise the 'how to' and not just the 'what' of the subject.


The suggestions we have made for improving the quality of tertiary teaching and learning by 'unstuffing' the curriculum are for the most part, neither radical nor difficult to implement. Nor do they necessarily have major resource implications. Rather, they require a systematic approach to course design and planning and thoughtful application of what we know about instruction to foster effective learning. Most importantly, they depend on a genuine interest in, and professional commitment to, teaching and a concern and respect for students.


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Please cite as: Fox, R. and Radloff, A. (1997). How can we 'unstuff' the curriculum? In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p118-123. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/fox3.html

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