Evaluations of the First year curriculum design to engage or empower students

Most evaluations have focused on initiatives to develop academic and study skills: common areas of concern in first year that may also reflect the recent prominence of the employability agenda and its associated emphasis on skills development. Other literature has described the use of data to inform curriculum redesign, potentially enabling future comparisons.

Two evaluative studies designed opportunities for generic skill development as distinct modules within the curriculum. In their study, Harwood and McLaughlin (2005) found dear evidence of development in writing, presentation and information searching. Students also reported feeling more confident and became more independent in their learning. In the USA, Light and colleagues (2006) developed a study-skill/transition-related seminar programme as part of a ‘living-learning’ community. Qualitative data indicated that while living in the same halls of residence was found to have had benefits, the seminar programme was seen to be too generic, unchallenging and unrelated to their subject area. Some authors integrated skill-development strategies into subject-specific module

Keating (2004) redesigned a UK sociology curriculum for first-year students. The final reflective assessment suggested students had actively engaged with the learning objectives.

McLean, Ruddick, and Adams (2005) aimed to improve students’ engagement with chemistry material in an Irish university. Regular assessment and rapid feedback strategies demonstrated improvements in student performance and satisfacti

Three studies have targeted student engagement through active learning, as well as the development of academic skills. Oliver-Hoyo and Allen (2005) redesigned strategies, a chemistry module in a US university, and conducted surveys of attitudes and subject-specific anxiety before and after participation in either the traditional or new module (113 and 48 students, respectively). The latter resulted in significantly more positive attitudes towards the subject and no increase in anxiety.

A US-based  Engineering project aimed to encourage cooperative learning, team-work, and both subject-specific and generic academic skills through using collaborative simulations of real-life projects with students from two different universities (Mehrubeoglu and McLaughlan, 2007). Tasks were completed successfully, learning objectives were met and students reported positively on the experience.

Gleixner, Douglas, and Graeve (2007) aimed to develop more integrated and engaging materials for teaching Introductory Materials Engineering modules, focusing on concepts and applications of specific technologies. Survey responses demonstrated enhanced student enjoyment and learning.

Implementation of tutoring systems to facilitate academic skill development has also been evaluated, sometimes enabling early diagnosis of learning needs (Morda et al. 2007; Sutton and McLaughlin 2005). Interestingly, several studies have found that these have been associated with poor attendance when evaluated using focus groups, questionnaires, journal reports and module evaluations (Cook and

Naughton 2005; Morda et al. 2007). When the tutorial systems were integrated into assessed components of the course, attendance improved, for example from 34% to 74% in the study of Cook and Naughton (2005). Sutton and McLaughlin (2005) integrated tutoring into subject-specific modules from the start; they and others found strategies to be effective in addressing student concerns, and improving success and retention (Cook and Naughton 2005; Morda et al. 2007).

Indeed, in the wider literature, Nicol (2009) has drawn attention to the critical importance of designing assessments that engage students in self-regulation and self-evaluation of their learning, whilst developing other attributes such as study skills and time management. His paper describes two case studies in which assessments have been re-engineered following four key conditions for assessment (Gibbs and Simpson 2004) and seven principles for feedback (Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick 20

Evaluation demonstrated quantifiable learning benefits in terms of depth of learning standard of work, elevation of marks and reduction in failure rates.

Some studies have aimed to redesign entire first-year courses or programmes. Lines, McLean, and Taylor (2006) reported on a longitudinal study of course redesign for first-year architecture students at Robert Gordon University in Scotland. Various quantitative and qualitative data were collected and analysed leading to curricular change: increasing contextualisation of subject matter and promotion of independent learning.

Similarly, Jantzi and Austin (2005) reported on the early stages of curriculum redesign of a nursing course to develop five competencies over the four-year programme. Knowledge, skills and attitudes were evaluated as students entered the course and they were asked to specifically relate work tasks to the programme expectations as part of individual e-portfolio

The last examples have moved from course-specific interventions, towards more systemic changes. Several Australian authors believe that university-wide development is required (Kift and Nelson 2005; Krause 2007). Administrative and support services should support and help implement curricular aims. These authors have developed two separate lists of principles or guidelines that we have amalgamated and these are ordered conceptually in an overview. Kift and Nelson (2005) focus on awareness of students’ abilities and needs over the course of the programme, with progress from abilities on entry towards graduate attributes. Krause (2006, 2007) also emphasises the importance  students backgrounds — language, culture and previous educational experience.

No evaluation of Krause’s principles was located in this literature search, however, Kift and Nelson (2005) implemented their principles in a 10-year programme at QUT. While 4000 students were involved in the development process, the nature of their contribution was not detailed. Kift (2008) has outlined the changes to first-year curriculum which are being undertaken by half of the faculties at QUT. Six core first-year curriculum design principles have been used that reflect a systemic approach to change and a broad definition of curriculum, addressing issues of transition, diversity, design, engagement, assessment and evaluation and monitoring. Kift warns, however, of the need for continued support and resourcing of such ambitious plans.

Pitkethly and Prosser (2001) followed a similar university-wide model to facilitate change in an Australian university. A key component of their strategy was the regular, strategic collection of student feedback through surveys and focus groups. Key areas for improvement were disseminated to the appropriate staff at school and faculty level. While student responses informed change through highlighting areas of weakness, direct student involvement in curriculum design was not included.

From: Catherine Bovill, Cathy J. Bulley and Kate Morss Engaging and empowering first-year students through curriculum design perspectives from the literature. Teaching in Higher Education Routledge Vol. 16, No. 2, April 2011, 197—209.