Volume 36 Issue 1, spring 2009, pp. 100-106

The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies at the University of Edinburgh, UK, recently initiated a curriculum-mapping project to develop a tool that would facilitate curriculum review, improve integration and clarity across the curriculum, and provide a transparent method of demonstrating outcomes for quality-assurance purposes. The key finding from this project was that the curriculum-mapping process is a more resource-intensive undertaking than expected, and one that should not been taken lightly. At the time the project began, no commercial software was available that could be integrated with the program's other online systems or had content appropriate to an outcomes-based veterinary degree program. We recommend that future projects ensure a minimum of one dedicated full-time staff member, plus adequate educational technology support to develop a coherent and consistent format for the curriculum map that is integrated with the rest of the local online environment. Identifying the main focus of the map is also recommended at an early stage, as is the instigation of a small-scale pilot exercise to identify major local issues before starting the full mapping process. Future sustainability and development of a curriculum map also require buy-in from colleagues to ensure that relevant components of the map (e.g., learning objectives) are maintained and developed appropriately. This article is aimed at our colleagues who are considering starting a curriculum-mapping process at their institutions; we provide a brief overview of curriculum mapping, based on current literature, and then illustrate the process using our own experiences.

The concept of curriculum mapping has been attributed to English1 and has more recently proved popular in schools, particularly in the United States, where it has been further developed by Hayes-Jacobs and others.2–6 In higher education, however, as Harden comments in his 2001 overview of the subject, experience with curriculum mapping is limited.7 One 2005 study found only a few published accounts of curriculum-mapping projects in higher education,8 and, indeed, we found the same to be true at the time of writing (June 2008).

Curriculum mapping is a tool for organizing, managing, and evaluating curricula9 that typically uses databases and other information technology (IT) tools to manage and cross-reference the data. An ideal curriculum map should be a visual representation of the key components of a curriculum, such as “what is taught, how it is taught, when it is taught, and how it is assessed,” and should also be able to demonstrate the relationships and nature of the connections between these key components.7 A curriculum map thus provides a transparent, broad overview of the complete curriculum and its intended outcomes to the many stakeholders,7 and this goal is considered by some to be essential for all staff involved in educational programs.8

It should also be possible to interrogate a curriculum map in order to answer key questions about a curriculum and to identify both duplication and gaps or missing components. A curriculum map can therefore be a powerful tool to inform curriculum management and review, and it has also been suggested that curriculum maps can lead to more effective and efficient education, if used appropriately.7

Various authors have made pertinent observations about the value of curriculum mapping. Harden discusses their potential value in support of information exchange and aligning teachers’ activities with overall curriculum goals, in addition to their ability to make explicit “what it is that students need to learn,” as students are obviously key stakeholders in any curriculum.7 Udelhofen et al. identify the value of curriculum mapping in bringing teachers’ practices out of isolation,2 and Rush considers curriculum maps as agents for moving static curriculum statements into a more dynamic set of processes.10 Robley et al., on the other hand, emphasize a curriculum map's ability to provide a visual presentation of a curriculum and to identify inconsistencies or gaps,8,11 while Plaza et al. discuss the use of proportional shading on graphical curriculum maps to represent the amount of coverage given to particular topics within a curriculum.12 Willett et al. identify the comparison of curricula between universities as a further benefit of curriculum mapping that can be facilitated by the use of a standardized taxonomy.9

Udelhofen describes curriculum-mapping processes in American schools in some detail in her book;2 she summarizes the process by saying that

all teachers document their own curriculum, then share and examine each other's curricula for gaps, overlaps, redundancies, and new learning, creating a coherent, consistent curriculum within and across schools that is ultimately aligned to standards and responsive to student data and other school initiatives.2

School-based curriculum-mapping models use the month of study as the key architectural basis of a map; individual teachers record the content and skills taught during their lessons, how these are assessed, and how they are aligned to academic standards.2 The process then involves teachers’ reading one another's maps, discussing them in group settings, and using them as the basis for curriculum reform.2

While the concept of curriculum mapping is still in its relative infancy within general higher education circles,7,8 in UK undergraduate veterinary medicine, the European Association of Establishments for Veterinary Education (EAEVE) and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) have shown interest in using curriculum maps for quality assurance (QA). Indeed, the EAEVE standard operating procedures include the following statements:

  • “The aims of the curriculum, and the learning objectives, must be clearly explained to both staff and students.”13

  • “Methods must be established to monitor, and where necessary, amend the curriculum.”13

  • “Student assessment procedures are expected to be designed to measure the achievement of the intended learning outcomes and other program objectives.”14

  • “Assessment is expected to include development and publication of explicit intended learning outcomes, including a description of essential competences required at graduation.”14

While curriculum mapping is not essential to meeting these requirements, it can be of unprecedented value in doing so.

In the United Kingdom, the General Medical Council's (GMC) increasing interest in curriculum maps for QA purposes is also stimulating medical schools to initiate curriculum-mapping projects. At present, the GMC does not provide specific guidelines on how curriculum maps should be presented or what data or functionality they should offer.15 In the United States, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) offers access to an online curriculum management and information tool (CurrMIT16) through its Web site. Among other tasks, CurrMIT is reported to have been used to compare curricula across American and Canadian medical schools, to ensure coverage of content for accreditation, and to facilitate curriculum reform.16 At present, however, CurrMIT is available only to faculty and administrators from American and Canadian medical schools.16,a

Several authors have discussed the issue of the “hidden curriculum” (which is present but is not explicit to students) and the fact that the “delivered curriculum” (the curriculum students actually receive) may not match the “declared curriculum” (as stated in course documentation such as learning objectives) and may show even less consistency with either the “learned curriculum” or the “assessed curriculum.”7,11,17,18 One study found that curriculum maps can help to address the issue of hidden, delivered, declared, and assessed curricula by providing a useful tool for enhancing both the horizontal and the vertical alignment of these components of a curriculum,8,11 while another study demonstrates the ability of a curriculum-mapping process to identify omissions or weaknesses in a curriculum.18 In addition, a recent study describes a standardized taxonomy (TIME-ITEM) that is suitable for use in curriculum maps for medical education and can also facilitate comparison of the declared, taught, and learned curricula.9

In 2005, Leeds Medical School in the United Kingdom reported the development of a “systematic model” for mapping the provision of generic skills training within their curriculum.8 This model was based on a four-stage methodology that involved mapping declared, delivered, learned, and assessed curricula in order to check the validity of curriculum alignment for generic skills provision through all stages of its curriculum. One Swedish medical school has also used a triangulation-based curriculum-mapping process to identify consistencies and inconsistencies in the provision of cultural competency training within their program.17 The authors address this question from the perspectives of the declared curriculum (learning outcomes in course documentation), the taught curriculum (teacher intentions), and the learned curriculum (student experience), concluding that a curriculum evaluation based on only one of these perspectives cannot be trusted and that, while curriculum mapping has its limitations, the associated triangulation process provides a more representative overview of cultural competency training in their program.17 A study at Edinburgh Medical School in the United Kingdom also concurs with this finding, having used a curriculum-mapping process to identify significant discrepancies between described and delivered curricula for the provision of undergraduate teaching on allergies.18 These authors also comment that “curriculum mapping and evaluation from a single perspective can be misleading.”18

At the time of writing, three UK veterinary schools (the Universities of Edinburgh, London, and Nottingham) are known to have ongoing curriculum-mapping projects. Some UK medical schools, including Edinburgh, Leeds, IVIMEDS, Sheffield Medical School, and Hull York Medical School, are also known to have active curriculum-mapping projects. In addition, the issue of electronic curriculum mapping was discussed in some depth by representatives from several UK medical and veterinary schools who attended a workshop sponsored by the Higher Education Academy Subject Centre for Medicine, Dentistry and Veterinary Medicine at Hull York Medical School in October 2006.15

When starting a curriculum-mapping process, it is important to identify the scope of the map2,15 and to choose a focus for it based around the key question that the map will be required to answer: for example, “Where do we deliver the skills, knowledge and practical competencies required, for example, by the RCVS?” or “Where do students learn about issues of confidentiality?” or “Where do students learn about and practice their suturing techniques?”

It should be noted that at the heart of most curriculum maps is an integrated database consisting of tables of objects, such as learning objectives or outcomes along with their properties (type, date, author) and the relationships between these objects (e.g., learning objective A maps to professional outcomes B and C). Although several commercially available curriculum-mapping software packages exist,19–21 most are aimed at curriculum management in K–12 schools (particularly following North American patterns and standards). Some tools show more promise for a professional degree program, and, while none of these is specifically designed for a veterinary degree program, some veterinary schools (e.g., Iowa State University) are starting to use them.22 A potential limitation of any such tool set, however, is its ability to cross-integrate with existing virtual learning environments (VLEs) and other tools in use by the program, in addition to possible overlap in functionality between the two. Thus, while it may be possible to adapt some of these software packages to accommodate other “standards or outcomes,” such as professional competencies required of students at graduation (e.g., RCVS “Day One” Skills,23 AVMA Clinical Competencies,24 Tomorrow's Doctors25), the lack of integration and of focus on program needs and dynamics has led many higher-education curriculum-mapping projects to develop in-house Web-based technology, even though this approach “typically requires significant and sustained resourcing by a multi-skilled team.”15

A curriculum-mapping project was initiated in 2005 at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies (R(D)SVS), driven by a desire to clearly articulate the Bachelor of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery (BVM&S) program across all years, for the combined major purposes of

  • facilitating curriculum review,

  • improving integration across the curriculum,

  • providing a clear and transparent means of demonstrating outcomes for QA purposes, including accreditation visitations, and

  • providing clarity in an increasingly integrated curriculum.

For sound educational reasons, many curricula in medical and related professions are becoming increasingly integrated, with less emphasis on discrete disciplines. We have found that this lack of clear discipline-specific identity can be a problem for some students and can cause major concerns among academics about the effects of such integration on the future of their discipline.26 The emergence of new themes that we wish to emphasize in our curriculum has also proved challenging. For example, we have decided that the best way to deal with personal and professional development (PPD) issues within the BVM&S curriculum is to embed them, where appropriate, as a vertical theme within pre-existing courses. While some PPD specific elements remain discrete, the course as a whole is “long and thin” throughout the five-year program. Curriculum mapping, therefore, provides the ideal mechanism to allow students, should they wish, to see the PPD curriculum clearly in its entirety.

In addition, the requirement for outcomes assessment is becoming increasingly apparent as we seek to provide evidence about the outcomes of our curriculum and, where appropriate, to make changes in response to this evidence. Curriculum mapping facilitates such processes and enables easy retrieval of relevant learning objectives if these are accurately linked to the requirements of all stakeholders, such as the RCVS and American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) accrediting bodies. For example, schools accredited by the AVMA Council on Education (COE) are now required to detail the learning objectives relevant to each of the nine listed AVMA Clinical Competencies; the RCVS similarly requires schools to provide evidence that their “Day One” Skills are being addressed in the curriculum.

Although several commercially available curriculum-mapping software packages were available at the time when the R(D)SVS curriculum-mapping project was initiated (September 2005), none of these could be considered “fit for purpose”; for this reason, the project decided to develop an in-house Web-based system for its curriculum map. From the outset it was appreciated that the major resource to support the project would be staff time; an academic teaching fellow (author CB) was therefore appointed at the beginning of the project, with an average 0.5 full-time equivalent (FTE) devoted to the project. In addition, support from a learning technologist was also obtained to facilitate development of a supporting database within the school's custom-made virtual learning environment (VLE), the Edinburgh Electronic Veterinary Curriculum (EEVeC).27 Learning objectives from the BVM&S program were selected as the primary set of elements and focus for the R(D)SVS curriculum-mapping project, in order to both inform the ongoing curriculum review and meet the needs of accrediting bodies, as described above.

At an early stage, the project sought to identify key stakeholders and the information they may ultimately seek from the curriculum map. This involved consultation with key teaching staff, support staff, and students, as well as a review of the relevant literature.

As a starting point, learning objectives from each of the first- and second-year BVM&S courses were collated from course information booklets and were then further clarified through face-to-face individual meetings with course organizers. Learning objectives were then inserted into spreadsheets and edited to ensure that only one learning objective occupied each cell of the spreadsheet and that each was readable in a stand-alone format. Each learning objective was then assigned an eight-character unique identifier code. Each BVM&S program outcome was also assigned an eight-character code, and these were then “mapped” to the individual BVM&S learning objectives to which they corresponded (see Table 1). In a similar manner, other professional outcomes, such as AVMA Clinical Competencies, and a small number of assessment questions were subsequently assigned unique eight-character codes, added to the database, and mapped to corresponding BVM&S learning objectives.

Table

Table 1: An example of the initial process employed by the R(D)SVS Curriculum Mapping Project, using spreadsheets to map columns of eight-character unique identifier codes to each other

Table 1: An example of the initial process employed by the R(D)SVS Curriculum Mapping Project, using spreadsheets to map columns of eight-character unique identifier codes to each other

Year of Study: Graduate Entry Program
Course: The Animal Body
Section: Haemolymphatic System
BVM&S Learning Objective Relevant (Mapped) BVM&S Program Outcomes BVM&S Learning Objective Code BVM&S Program Outcome Code
Students will be able to identify and name the cellular components of blood and outline the development of blood cells from the bone marrow stem cells. The new veterinary graduate will need to have acquired a thorough knowledge and understanding of the structure and function of healthy animals, and all aspects of their husbandry. GEABHL01 EFDCB014
The new veterinary graduate will need to have acquired a thorough knowledge and understanding of the etiology, pathogenesis, clinical signs, diagnosis and treatment of the common diseases and disorders that occur in the common domestic species of the UK. GEABHL01 EFDCB015
The new veterinary graduate should be able to collect, preserve and transport samples, perform standard laboratory tests, and interpret the results of those generated in-house, as well as those generated by other laboratories. GEABHL01 EFDCC016

Simply mapping first- and second-year learning objectives to BVM&S program outcomes proved to be extremely laborious and time consuming. It was also recognized that the results of this mapping exercise would likely become increasingly redundant as a result of an ongoing curriculum-review process, and a decision was therefore made to focus the mapping project on a smaller section of the BVM&S curriculum. At that time, the design of a new one-year graduate entry program (GEP) was a priority for the R(D)SVS, and for this reason the learning objectives from this program were subsequently chosen as the focus for the curriculum mapping project. These learning objectives were developed by relevant colleagues and then mapped to BVM&S program outcomes by one of the authors (CB), using the process described previously. Once the mapping procedure had been completed, the learning technologist entered the spreadsheets of mapped columns (see Table 1) into the supporting database.

Because manual curriculum mapping using spreadsheets proved extremely laborious, a tool with a check-box mechanism was then developed for this purpose by the educational technology team. This mechanism proved extremely valuable, providing a user-friendly, time-efficient method of mapping individual items to one another.

Mapping of the GEP learning objectives to the BVM&S program outcomes was successfully completed; an example of the curriculum map's resulting relational readout for an individual learning objective is illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1: An example of the relational readout generated by the R(D)SVS curriculum-mapping project database for an individual BVM&S learning objective mapped to BVM&S program outcomes

The stakeholders identified for the R(D)SVS curriculum-mapping project were R(D)SVS students and staff; prospective R(D)SVS students; and quality-assurance (QA) and accreditation bodies, including the RCVS, the EAEVE, and the AVMA. Examples of the kinds of information that stakeholders may require from the R(D)SVS curriculum map are shown in Table 2.

Table

Table 2: Examples of the information that stakeholders may require from the R(D)SVS Curriculum Map

Table 2: Examples of the information that stakeholders may require from the R(D)SVS Curriculum Map

Current R(D)SVS students
Where do I learn about topic X ?
How do I learn about topic X ?
How will I be assessed on topic X ?
How does topic X link in with what I will learn later in the course ?
How will learning about topic X be relevant to me as a vet ?
R(D)SVS staff
When are students taught about topic X ?
What will students have already learned about topic X before coming to my class ?
Do I need to include topic X in my classes or is it covered elsewhere ?
How do I ensure that I achieve constructive alignment between my teaching and assessment of topic X ?
Quality-assurance and accreditation bodies
Where is topic X provided in the curriculum ?
How is topic X provided in the curriculum ?
Where is topic X assessed in the curriculum ?
How is topic X assessed in the curriculum ?
Prospective R(D)SVS students
What would they teach me on the BVM&S course ?
How would they teach me on the BVM&S course ?
What would I learn in the first year of the BVM&S course ?
How is the BVM&S course different from those at other veterinary schools ?

It was then acknowledged that if the curriculum map (or a modified version of it) is to be available to prospective students and external visitors, it will need to be made accessible through an open-access Web portal, such as the R(D)SVS Web site, as well as through EEVeC, the secure custom-made VLE in which the map is currently hosted. Because it is hosted on EEVeC, the software developed for this project is not currently available to other schools. However, the authors would be happy to discuss this issue with any interested colleagues.

One major constraint initially identified by the R(D)SVS curriculum-mapping project was the amount of staff time required to build and validate the map. “Cleaning up” learning objectives into meaningful stand-alone statements was laborious because of their number, level of granularity (or detail), and format (learning objectives are often presented as bulleted lists preceded by a common stem). In addition, the initial mapping process using spreadsheets proved to be extremely time consuming; this process was improved considerably by the development of the online tools mentioned above.

The lack of consistency in the quality and granularity of learning outcomes for different BVM&S courses was also identified as a major problem, and one that needed to be rectified before the project could progress further. In addition, initial curriculum-mapping exercises showed that constructive alignment between BVM&S learning objectives and assessment exercises needed to be improved; this is a good example of the added value associated with developing the curriculum map.

Given the effort required to build the R(D)SVS curriculum map, its sustainability was also identified as a major issue. The format and user-friendliness of the final online tool are likely to have a major influence on relevant stakeholders’ engagement with and ownership of the curriculum map.

The R(D)SVS curriculum-mapping project found that the provision of meaningful learning objectives varied widely between BVM&S courses and that there was a great deal of variation in the granularity of those provided. This finding concurs with those of Kerslake and McKendree (2006), who comment that, during a curriculum-mapping process, it is likely that “poorly written outcomes which do not stand as self-contained entities will need to be addressed.”15 It was therefore considered vital to focus on improving the quality and granularity of BVM&S learning objectives as the first step of our curriculum-mapping process.

Sustainability of the R(D)SVS curriculum map was also identified as a key future constraint, one that will require ongoing maintenance by course leaders, other course staff, or course administrators to maintain the map's currency. While initial development of a curriculum map by a single individual helps to ensure that the map develops in a coherent and consistent manner, subsequent stages of a mapping project must identify strategies for sharing ownership of the map with relevant colleagues and for discussing the map content with key staff stakeholders in a group setting. This approach will help to ensure that the accuracy of map content (e.g., learning objectives) is maintained every year; it is also likely to facilitate effective curriculum discussion and review. Other authors concur with this recommendation.2,15 In the future, therefore, the R(D)SVS project will focus on providing a means of delivering the curriculum map in a user-friendly, adaptable manner.

Despite the effort required, the R(D)SVS curriculum map is already providing benefits to the school, and it will continue to be developed in support of the undergraduate curriculum and to further inform the ongoing curriculum-review process, including identification of existing gaps and duplications within the curriculum and demonstration of vertical integration between courses. All BVM&S learning objectives will also be mapped to assessment tasks in order to ensure that appropriate constructive alignment is occurring within the program.

In recent years several commercial curriculum-mapping tools have come onto the market, some focusing on post-secondary education such as WIDS.b These undeniably provide a well-developed tool set “straight out of the box,” but they still need to be set up and populated with information. More importantly, they also come with a pre-emptive set of design constraints, notably their set workflows and their lack of integration with and alignment to other online systems used in the educational environment, such as VLEs. Any institution starting a curriculum-mapping project must decide whether it is more important to make the curriculum map easier to build or to make it more integrated and better aligned with the rest of the environment. It is hoped that over time this will become less of an issue.

Irrespective of the route taken, our main recommendation to colleagues considering curriculum mapping at their institutions is that the process should not be entered into lightly; it is essential to allocate sufficient dedicated staff time and resources to the project, both to set up the map and, later, to sustain it. It is also critical to integrate the curriculum map with the rest of the online environment and to align it closely with the program's culture and dynamics. The process is therefore extremely time consuming and both labor and resource intensive. Similarly, colleagues at Hull York Medical School found that it took approximately six person-months of in-house development time to develop a database and “web front end” for a basic curriculum map; they suggest that development of a more complex map could account for person-years of time, with similar resources required to initially populate the map.15 The same authors also warn that “a curriculum map is not simply a one-off end product—it is a commitment to an ongoing process of data management.”15

Despite some limitations, the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies has demonstrated that curriculum mapping can provide a useful tool for curriculum management, review, and development. The R(D)SVS will continue to develop its own map and improve the map's ability to support curriculum planning, delivery, and audit in the years to come.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The work described here was made possible in part through funding from the Principal's e-Learning Fund at the University of Edinburgh.

NOTES

a The AAVMC approached the AAMC in January 2007 about acquiring a CurrMIT software licensing agreement. This AAVMC request remains under consideration by the AAMC.

b Worldwide Instructional Design Systems, Waunakee, WI 53597 <http://www.wids.org>.

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