Using IT to increase educational effectiveness 2: Curricular Matrixing

By Dr. Peter Smith

Our use of technology at Kaplan gives us the capacity to embed certain learning outcomes across the curriculum in a matrixed approach. So, in a single course experience, we can evaluate the student’s mastery of the substance of the course. We can also, however, evaluate other knowledge development such as writing, team-work, or critical thinking as well.

For example, General Education at Kaplan is taught through a core curriculum of six courses with other outcomes distributed throughout the undergraduate curriculum. The overall program goal is for the student to be literate and knowledgeable in the following nine areas.

  • Arts and Humanities
  • Communication
  • Critical Thinking
  • Ethics
  • Mathematics
  • Research and Information
  • Science

The distribution of outcomes allows us to “double up” the learning in our undergraduate courses, getting added value for the learner and increased effectiveness and efficiency for the institution. In this approach, the vast majority of courses contain a communication course outcome, key to our writing across the curriculum approach. All required courses also contain course outcomes in Critical Thinking, Ethics, or Research and Information, while elective courses contain evenly distributed course outcomes in Arts and Humanities, Mathematics, Science, or Social Science. Technological literacy is reinforced throughout a student’s program.

As mentioned above, this method provides several other advantages including:

  • Centrally managed curriculum ensuring consistent learning objective distribution,
  • Consistent course outcomes across course sections and faculty,
  • Consistent faculty training on rubric use to ensure inter-rater reliability. And
  • Universal learning objectives with common rubrics to evaluate student learning.

To date, we have conducted two studies on this approach.

In a 2009 cohort study, we used three courses in sequence, with all students remaining enrolled. We reviewed the percentage of students achieving “practiced” or higher in the communication outcome: demonstrate college-level communication through the composition of original materials in standard American English. Students achieving “practiced” or better increased from 76% in the first course to 85% in the third course, documenting steady improvement in core academic skills of students as they progress through courses.

In the 2010 ethics and communications study, the sample included 2581 BS in Psychology students learning at the 1-, 2-, and 400 levels. They were each assessed in ethics and communications. In ethics, the average scores on the 0-5 rubric scale for students were 2.72 (100 level), 3.54 (200 level), and 3.64 (400 level). In communications, the average scores improved from 3.20 (100 level), to 3.49 (200 level), to 3.54 (400 level). Our initial conclusions were that the general education program was resulting in documented student improvement of core general education skills in the areas of ethics and communications.

As students progress through their programs of study, their progress on achieving these outcomes is monitored. CLAs provide feedback to students, faculty, and administration about specific knowledge and skills acquired by a student during the course of his or her education. We use this feedback to improve the quality of our courses and to support our faculty’s ability to improve the proportion of students who achieve proficiency and mastery.

The ability to employ technology to matrix learning outcomes within a single learning experience also has implications for reducing the time and cost to degree without reducing learning. If, for example, the outcomes embedded across the curriculum amounted to the equivalent of 45 quarter credits, we could consider increasing the credit award per course and decreasing the number of courses required for graduation. For a real-life example of this kind of “degree-shortening”, see Southern New Hampshire University’s three-year, 90 semester credit hour Business Baccalaureate.

My thanks to colleagues Kara Van Dam , Jason Levin, and John Eads who conducted this research.