There is good evidence that whether or not a curriculum is internally coherent can influence aspects of student learning that are important for wellbeing (1). These aspects include the development of mastery and self-efficacy, the development of a student’s own self-narrative, within their discipline and the quality of meaning gained from their learning (2).
Internal coherence refers to coherence in curriculum content – what is taught, in what order and how this content is explicitly linked together. An internally coherent curriculum deliberately organises and sequences content. This enables students to develop a growing understanding of their discipline and systematically ensures that students understand how different aspects and concepts, from across the curriculum, are related to each other (3-5). A coherent curriculum supports deep learning, which is beneficial for academic outcomes and wellbeing (2) (see Deep and Surface Learning).
In an incoherent curriculum, the sequencing of information has no clear pattern of development or narrative, which students can easily follow (6). Knowledge or skill training may appear randomly and students are left to make connections between concepts and subject matter themselves. This is a risk as being able to connect and integrate disparate concepts and facts is a high order skill, unlikely to be possessed by students, particularly in the first year. An incoherent curriculum can push students towards surface learning and rote memorisation, which may be short term and lacking in context (6). In these circumstances, students may be able to remember and perform a technique or skill but not understand why, how the skill works or in which circumstances it should or should not be applied (2). This surface learning is vulnerable to forgetting and, stripped of context, does not provide a secure platform for future learning which can, in turn, lead to greater anxiety, a reduced sense of belonging and disengagement.
While many academics will take great care to ensure their individual modules are sequenced logically, the modular system can result in incoherence between modules (7). For example, two closely related concepts, taught in two separate modules may never be connected in students’ minds.
How and why things are sequenced in the way that they are, may also make a difference to the quality of learning and wellbeing. Rata (8) argues for sequencing to be guided by the interrelationship of important concepts. This is based on Ryle’s (9) conceptions of different types of knowledge – Know That and Know How. A curriculum sequenced around concepts can aid the development of Know How knowledge that provides deeper learning and a greater sense of mastery over the student’s discipline. When students understand their subject conceptually, they can approach new learning with more confidence and can more easily integrate new learning into pre-existing mental structures.
The deeper learning provided by a coherent curriculum can lead to a growth in student self-efficacy and a better understanding of their discipline. This in turn allows students to place themselves more confidently in their discipline, helping to develop their own self-narrative and professional identity. Being able to link concepts together allows students to form a coherent narrative account of their subject and a more stable hold on their discipline. This also allows them to more easily find and extract meaning from their studies. All of this is beneficial for their wellbeing across the duration of their programme.
To achieve a coherent curriculum, content must be sequenced and connected across the entire programme – between and across modules and years of study. Consideration must also be given to elective modules, to ensure they are meaningful connected to core modules and student development and to ensure that choice is extended appropriately in a scaffolded fashion. This demands a level of team planning, rather than the development of modules in isolation.
- An internally coherent curriculum is one in which content is sequenced and connections between facts and concepts are made explicitly for students. It develops logically, providing a narrative path for students to follow.
- An internally coherent curriculum benefits student wellbeing by supporting the development of mastery, self-efficacy, self-narrative within discipline, deep learning and meaning.
- An incoherent curriculum can leave students disengaged and lead to surface learning of apparently unconnected subjects
- Curriculum must be coherent between and across modules and years of study, this requires co-ordination in design and delivery across the teaching team.
- In design, map the expected development of students’ understanding of key concepts and ensure that this is carried out across modules.
- Provide students with additional material that supports their ability to link content.
- Use formative summative assessment to build students’ ability to connect concepts and focus assessment on Know How knowledge.
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Ryle G. Knowing how and knowing that: The presidential address. In Proceedings of the Aristotelian society 1945 Jan 1 (Vol. 46, pp. 1-16). Aristotelian Society, Wiley.