Whether you're a first-year teacher at a high school or a veteran university professor, you know that developing an effective curriculum is a core component of providing a successful education.
As any educator knows, the literature and philosophy surrounding the concept of curriculum have evolved over the years. Today the term can be broadly used to encompass the entire plan for a course, including the learning objectives, teaching strategies, materials, and assessments.
Generally, curriculum development is the process by which an instructor or institution creates or adopts that plan for a course. Because this subject is so broad, it can be difficult to wade through the noise to find up-to-date best practices. There are also many schools of thought for how best to approach the curriculum development process. With an overwhelming amount of advice available, how do you know who to listen to so that you can develop a curriculum that makes sense for you and your course?
At Skyepack, we're driven to help professors and teachers provide the best learning experience possible for their students. We equip instructors with customized course materials built to align with their curricula, so we understand the importance of a thoughtful development process.
In this guide, we'll walk through everything you need to know to build your curriculum or program, including:
Frequently asked questions about curriculum development
Common models of curriculum development
Skyepack's curriculum development process
There will never be a one-size-fits-all curriculum that works for every environment, even for the same subject matter. In this article, you'll learn why (and how) to develop a curriculum that is tailored to the needs of your students. Let's get started!
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Curriculum Development FAQ
Before we dive into the details of the curriculum development process, we'll walk through a few of the most common questions and concerns instructors have.
What is curriculum development?
Curriculum development is the multi-step process of creating and improving a course taught at a school or university. While the exact process will vary from institution to institution, the broad framework includes stages of analysis, building, implementation, and evaluation.
In K-12 schools, curricula are often developed at a local or state level to result in standardized learning outcomes across different schools. At the college level, instructors may get more individual flexibility to develop their own curricula. Either way, the individual or group is responsible for planning a course (and choosing strong corresponding course materials) that effectively accomplishes educational goals and meets student needs.
Ideally, the curriculum development process should be one of continuous improvement rather than a linear or stagnant approach. Plans for instruction should be frequently reviewed, revised, and updated as new and different needs arise. Change may be required due to subject-area discoveries, innovations in instructional best practices, or shifts in course delivery such as the pivot to remote teaching.
Why is curriculum development useful for educators?
In many ways, the need for curriculum development is self-evident. Just imagine trying to teach each day in a lecture hall or K-12 classroom without a plan in place! A thoughtfully developed curriculum provides educators with a useful framework to build upon during day-to-day instruction.
Curriculum development takes care of the big-picture strategy required to successfully teach a course. Because decisions like course objectives, content sequencing, and delivery methods are made upfront, instructors can focus on smaller details like planning for a specific lecture or writing effective assessments.
Additionally, an iterative curriculum development process gives educators a structure to make improvements to the course after evaluating student performance and receiving end-of-semester-feedback.
Why is a concrete curriculum development strategy valuable for learners?
In addition to providing benefits for teachers, curriculum development is a useful structure for learners.
Curriculum development allows teachers to take a thoughtful and methodical approach to determine what students will be required to learn. The early phases of the process involve deep research and analysis to ensure that students get the best education possible.
Additionally, one of the most effective approaches for course development specifically addresses the needs of learners. We'll cover learner-centered design later in this article.
Are there different curriculum development processes or models?
First, there are generally two types of curriculum models: the product model and the process model. The model you choose to follow will influence the steps you'll take to develop the course.
Entire textbooks have been written on these long-standing models, but here's a brief explanation of each to make sure everyone is on the same page:
Product model. Also known as the objectives model, this model focuses on evaluations, outcomes, and results. It determines what learning has occurred. If you need to develop a curriculum that prioritizes standardized test scores, you'll need to adhere to the product model. Generally, this model is thought to be more rigid and more difficult to adapt to your students' unique needs, but it does provide quantitative learning assessments.
Process model. This model focuses on how learning develops over time. There's an emphasis on how the students are learning, and what thoughts they have throughout the process. This approach is more open-ended and considers the overall growth and development of a student rather than their performance on an exam.
Consider the characteristics of each model as well as any institutional requirements you need to adhere to. You may already have a strong preference for one of the two! It is also possible to develop a curriculum that values both product and process.
Once you've determined what type of curriculum you want to create, it's time to choose an approach. There are three widely accepted methodologies for curriculum design:
We'll explore each of these in greater detail later on so that you can determine which curriculum development strategy makes the most sense for your course.
What's the difference between curriculum development and instructional design?
You've likely encountered the concept of instructional design while researching curriculum development. So what is instructional design, and how does it compare to the process of developing a curriculum?
Instructional design (often abbreviated as ID or referred to as learning design) is the systematic process of designing and creating a high-quality educational experience. ID is a multi-step approach that prioritizes the needs of the learner at every phase.
In some cases, the term is used interchangeably with curriculum development, but the two have some key differences.
As some education experts put it:
Curriculum development is what students will learn, while instructional design is how students will learn it.
When it comes to creating a truly high-quality educational experience for your students, the two go hand in hand, but here we're focusing primarily on the concept of curriculum development.
What are the steps of curriculum development?
Generally, the steps to curriculum development will fall into a rough framework that mirrors many instructional design approaches. Each process looks something like this:
For the best results, you'll want to choose a framework that looks at these steps as a cycle rather than a linear process. This ensures you can continue revising your curriculum even once your course is underway.
We'll walk through the steps of one cyclical process later in this post when we explore Skyepack's iterative six-step approach to curriculum development.
What are the challenges of curriculum development?
With so many steps to follow, curriculum development is not a simple or easy process. Instructors across all education levels may also face additional obstacles that make the process more difficult or time-consuming.
Some of these challenges include:
Institutional requirements. You may need to conform to standards set by your state's board of education or by institutional administration. This may mean covering material that will be assessed by standardized tests, requiring you to incorporate product-focused curricular elements. Or it may mean including certain types of course objectives.
Long waits for development experts. Your institution may have trained curriculum experts on staff to help professors with course development. Unfortunately, there is usually a much higher demand than these small teams have the capacity for, leading to long wait times.
Gathering relevant required materials. Once the curriculum is mostly outlined, instructors will need to search for the right required materials to align with course objectives. Often, it's difficult (and sometimes impossible) to find an option that is affordable for students and works well for your course. This is too often the case with both textbooks and e-textbooks from traditional publishers, but new options like custom digital course materials can alleviate these concerns.
Between the many challenges and the complex steps involved, many instructors may feel they aren't up to the task of developing an effective curriculum on their own. In this case, an expert course content creator could help simplify and streamline the process.
Common Curriculum Development Models
Earlier, we listed the different course design models you're likely to come across. We'll now walk through each of them in greater depth so you can understand what they are and how you might apply them to your course.
This model emphasizes the specific skills and knowledge associated with a subject area. Most kinds of widely standardized curriculum fall under the subject-centered approach. It's the most common approach used throughout K-12 schools in the U.S, but it's also found throughout college classrooms, especially in large 1000-level lecture classes.
When you hear the term "core curriculum," it's referring to a subject-centered approach. While this model intends to create equal learning experience across different schools and classes, it doesn't always work out that way in practice.
Because this approach is not student-centered, it can lead to a lack of engagement and potentially lower performance. Additionally, this approach leaves little room for cross-subject connections.
Example: If you're teaching an introductory European history course, a subject-centered curriculum may include covering the details and key players of major wars.
This approach aims to provide students with relevant real-world skills. Learners are taught how to look at a problem and come to a solution. Some benefits of this approach are an increased emphasis on critical thinking, a focus on collaboration, and more innovation in the classroom. Students still learn key skills and knowledge, but with additional context.
Example: A problem-centered approach to teaching a public relations course might involve tasking a group of students with assessing a real business's PR strategy and developing an actionable campaign.
Learner-centered design emphasizes the needs and goals of each learner as an individual. With this approach, you'll analyze the preexisting knowledge and learning styles of your students. The needs of your learners will guide your curriculum development process.
Generally, this type of curriculum development aligns most closely with a process-focused curriculum.
Example: One way to incorporate learner-centered design into your curriculum is by inviting students to fill out a pre-course survey to see what they already know about your subject and what areas they are most interested in learning. This can be especially beneficial for upper-level courses—hopefully, students are coming in with a solid foundation of knowledge, but a learner-centered approach uses data rather than assumptions to determine curricular goals.
For a comprehensive curriculum that strikes an ideal balance for your course, learners, and subject area, you'll want to include elements from each of these models. A fully customized and comprehensive approach to curriculum design will yield the best results for your course over time.
Skyepack's Curriculum Development Process
With so many different approaches and steps available, you're probably wondering what curriculum development actually looks like when you put it into practice.
At Skyepack, we use an iterative approach to develop course materials and curriculum. Based on Agile methodology, our process aligns with best practices in both improvement design and learner-centered curricula. Rather than a linear list of steps, our approach is a six-step cycle: analyze, research, design, curate, build, and launch.
We use these steps to build affordable, dynamic, and engaging learning materials that meet the needs of both students and professors. While we focus primarily on building custom course materials, these steps can also be applied for a more comprehensive curriculum overhaul.
Let's walk through a more detailed explanation of the entire process.
Step 1: Analyze
Like any strong curriculum development process, our design strategy begins with a thorough exploration of the needs of both instructors and students. In this stage, we work to understand the instructor's current instructional practices so that we can create targeted materials.
Step 2: Research
Next, we dive deep to find resources that cover the relevant educational subjects and fulfill the objectives of the course. Based on what we find, we can also identify areas for overall curriculum improvement based on the needs of students.
Step 3: Design
Our custom design process ensures a dynamic and engaging flow for each course. We'll develop the layout, design, and flow of content to align with the instructor's existing teaching process.
Step 4: Curate
We leverage content from a variety of sources, including:
Peer-reviewed open source content
Instructor created content
Custom Skyepack-created content
Third-party licensed content
Our curation process ensures professors can use the best content available—without having to conduct any of the time-consuming searches.
Step 5: Build
Based on the data and content we gathered in the previous steps, we build the course. The process is a collaborative one, so the instructor gets insight into the entire process, as well as the ability to review and revise the course.
Step 6: Launch
We launch the course with day-one access for students and easy access to (human) tech support. And remember, this is an iterative process, so launch day isn't the end of the road. We encourage each professor to get feedback from students so we can make continuous improvements to the course.
For real-life results from Skyepack digital course materials after launch day, check out our case studies.
When done correctly, process-driven curriculum development strategies will set your course up for long-term success. With the right framework at your fingertips, you'll be equipped to make improvements as circumstances change for your students, your subject, and society.
Once you have your course plans in place, you may want to consider partnering with educational design experts to create custom digital course materials that actively support your unique curriculum. This ensures a student-focused approach across all areas of your course for more effective learning outcomes.
If you want to learn about other strategies for effective and engaging instruction (especially in a remote classroom), check out these additional resources:
Digital Course Materials: The How and Why of Going Online. Once you have a strong curriculum in place, you'll need the right course materials to go with it. Learn more about the advantages of digital course materials over traditional textbooks.
4 Hints for Developing Effective Lecture Presentations. Make sure your curriculum is supported by lecture best practices. These tips will help you prepare engaging slides to enhance student learning.
How (And Why!) to Write a Course Syllabus. Once your curriculum is finalized, you must develop a clear and straightforward syllabus. Learn more in this article.