How to develop a curriculum?

A curriculum is a group of related courses, often in a special field of study. Or, stated in a more formal term: a planned educational experience (Brock, 2009). When developing a curriculum there are some general assumptions:

  • Educational programmes have aims and goals, even when they are not clearly articulated
  • A systematic approach to curriculum development will help achieve these aims and goals
  • Educators have the ethical obligation to meet the needs of their learners

Curriculum development determines the type of information that is taught, as well as how it will be taught, and who will teach it. It is an iterative process based on a six-step approach. These six steps will be discussed next.

Adapted from Kern, D. E. (2015). Overview: A six-step approach to curriculum development

Getting started

Step 1 Problem identification and general needs assessment

The need for curriculum development usually emerges from a concern about a major issue or problem of one or more target audience. The first step explores some of the questions that need to be addressed to define the issue and to develop a statement that will guide the selection of the members of a curriculum development team. The issue statement also serves to broadly identify the scope (what will be included) of the curriculum content.

Step 2 Needs assessment for targeted learners

A needs assessment of targeted learners is a process by which the curriculum developers identify the differences between the ideal and actual characteristics of the targeted learner group and their environment. Some methods to conduct a need analysis are:

  • Formal interviews
  • Focus group discussions
  • Questionnaires
  • Audits of current performance

Step 3 Goals and objectives

After the needs of learners have been clarified, the curriculum is targeted to address these needs by setting goals and objectives. A goal or objective is defined as an end towards which an effort is directed.

A goal is a broad educational objective or directive. It communicates the overall purposes of the curriculum. An objective is a more specific educational directive that is usually stated behaviorally, i.e. it is measurable.

Step 4 Educational strategies

Once the goals and objectives are determined, the next step is to develop educational strategies. There is a distinction between content, specific material to be included in the curriculum, and methods and ways in which content is presented.

Step 5 Implementation

Within implementation a major part concerns determination of available resources:

  • Personnel: teaching staff / secretarial / administrative support
  • Time: teaching staff , support staff, learners
  • Facilities: space, equipment, IT
  • Funding/costs: direct financial costs, hidden or opportunity costs

Step 6 Evaluation and feedback

Step 6 closes the loop in the curriculum development cycle and provides information to guide individuals and the curriculum in cycles of improvement. Evaluation results can be used to seek support for curriculum, assess individual achievement and satisfy external requirements.



Further reading

  • Brock, S. J., Rovegno, I., & Oliver, K. L. (2009). The influence of student status on student interactions and experiences during a sport education unit. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy14(4), 355-375.
  • Read more about the six-step approach in: Kern, D. E. (2015). Overview: A six-step approach to curriculum development. In Curriculum Development for Medical Education: A Six-Step Approach, Third Edition (pp. 5-10). Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • A handbook on curriculum development




What models can we use in curriculum innovation?

Curriculum models are models that help curriculum designers to systematically and transparently map out the rationale for the use of particular teaching, learning and assessment approaches. Curriculum models help stress the importance that different courses should build on each other.

Students acquire content knowledge and master the main skills step-by-step in the consecutive courses of the curriculum. These developments of students can be described with help of learning pathways for the main skills and the main content knowledge. Each curricular learning pathway can be made explicit with help of a schematic model, showing the steps in the learning process of the courses involved.

Getting started

Step 1. Choose a suitable curriculum model

In general, curriculum models can be divided in product models and process models:

Credit: O’Neill, G. (2015). Curriculum Design in Higher Education: Theory to Practice, Dublin: UCD Teaching & Learning. ISBN 9781905254989

Product models develop and communicate transparent outcomes to the student populations and move emphasis away from lists of content. Recent literature in this area suggests that in using this model, care should be taken not to be overly prescriptive when writing learning outcomes (Gosling, 2009; Hussey & Smith, 2008; Maher, 2004). Examples of product models are competency-based curricula and theme-based curricula.

Process models start planning a curriculum with defining the processes, messages and conditions of the curriculum and trusts that good outcomes will follow. Examples of process models are negotiated curriculum models and problem-based models.

Identifying and being consistent with these models will help support cohesion and clarity of approaches in your programme.

Step 2. Apply the model to designing a curriculum

Independent from the choice of model, six quality criteria should be met when (re)designing a curriculum (Berkvens, Van den Akker & Brugman, 2014):

  1. Relevance: the curriculum is based on up-to-date academic knowledge and understanding of contextual need;
  2. Consistency: the structure of the curriculum is logical and coherent;
  3. Practicality: the curriculum is usable in the context it is designed for;
  4. Effectiveness: the curriculum leads to the desired outcomes;
  5. Scalability: the curriculum is successfully adaptable to different numbers of students;
  6. Sustainability: the curriculum remains useable over extended periods of time.




Further reading

O’Neill, G. (2015) Curriculum Design in Higher Education: Theory to Practice, Dublin: UCD Teaching and Learning.




  • Berkvens J,.  Van den Akker J, Brugman M (2014). Addressing the Quality Challenge: Reflections on the Post-2015 UNESCO Education Agenda. Netherlands: Netherlands National Commission for UNESCO.
  • Dearn, J.M. (2010) Innovation in Teaching and Curriculum Design.  International Encyclopedia of Education. Gale Virtual Reference Library (GVRL). Available online 14 May 2010.
  • Diamons, R.M. (1998) Designing and assessing courses and curricula. A practical guide. Second edition. Jossey-Bass Publishers: San Francisco
  • Gosling, D. (2009). Academic development identity and positionality. SRHE Academic Development Network Paper (London: SRHE).
  • Verloop, N. en Lowyyck, J. (2003) Onderwijskunde Wolters Noordhoff.
  • Hussey, T., & Smith, P. (2008). Learning outcomes: a conceptual analysis. Teaching in higher education, 13(1), 107-115.
  • Maher, A. (2004). Learning outcomes in higher education: Implications for curriculum design and student learning. Journal of Hospitality, Leisure, Sport and Tourism Education, 3(2), 46-54.


Systematic design of teaching and learning

Systematic design of teaching and learning is an important factor for success in the enhancement of teaching and learning and in educational innovation. Design processes are goal oriented; they lead to high quality education, are continuously adjustable and let teachers keep a critical eye on their education. Making these design processes explicit enables teachers to discuss them.

The first steps in successful educational design processes are the analysis of learning goals and student characteristics, the identification of a mutual supported educational vision and the formulation of a clear and accepted educational goal.


In order to be successful, goal-oriented design processes are needed to implement the eight educational themes. This approach should include SMART-described ambitions per process phase.

What are the key aspects?

An example of a general educational design model is ADDIE (standing for analyse, design, develop, implement and evaluate). Many educational design models are based on the ADDIE model (Branch, 2009). This is the case for both micro-oriented models such as the conditions of learning (Gagné a.o., 2005), the Systematic Design of Instruction (Dick & Carey, 2015) and the 4C/ID model (van Merrienboer et al., 2002) as well as macro-oriented models such as the Elaboration Theory (Reigeluth, 1999).

In the analysis phase of the ADDIE approach, the teachers involved study the final attainment levels of their students, the qualities of the students that start the specific course programme and the characteristics of the subject matter. These analyses support teachers to develop their own vision on teaching and learning. Such a vision can contain a number of elements:

  • A vision on teaching and learning in an academic environment. The starting point of such a vision is a clear picture of the knowledge, skills and attitude of the alumni. This picture is used to structure the course programme. Elements of such an educational vision are the integration of research and education and the activation of students’ learning through research activities. Both elements are briefly described below, and in more detail elsewhere in this guide.
  • A vision on how to activate students’ learning. A vision on activating students’ learning starts with an idea about organising the interaction between teacher and student and the interaction between students in order to stimulate students’ learning processes. The nature and content of the interaction should connect to students’ interests and should stimulate further development of students’ interests. Examples are Problem-Based Learning, the Harvard case-based method, Project-oriented Learning and Peer tutoring.
  • A vision on graduate attributes. The attainment levels of many course programmes do not fit with the qualities alumni need in their first jobs. These course programmes aim at delivering scientific researchers, but many graduates start working in other jobs. They do not become scientists, but rather become professionals. Programmes need to answer the question to what extent the course programme is organised to support the students to acquire the required knowledge, skills and attitude for this type of career.
  • Constructive alignment of learning goals. When designing learning activities based on an explicated vision, the course programme should be aligned in terms of interrelated learning goals. The knowledge and skills that students acquire in one part of a course programme should be built upon in the next part of the programme. All parts eventually lead to the adoption of knowledge and skills that students need to have after completing a specific programme. Flexible learning paths through the course programme can be used to align with and to stimulate the development of students’ interests. (see Flexible learning pathways)

When implementing an educational vision, the analysis phase is the more crucial to see through the enhancement and innovations. The results of the analysis inform the direction the next design phases will take. These phases are described in more detail in the tip concerning curriculum design.

Educational change is carried out by a group of teachers and supported by educational leadership and provision of facilities by the educational management. These two aspects have been proven many times to be crucial in educational change processes. It is impossible to underestimate the importance of both of these aspects. More details in how to involve all teachers and practice educational leadership will be described in the tip concerning change management.

Further reading

  • Branch, R. M. (2009) Instructional design: The ADDIE approach (Vol. 722). Springer Science & Business Media. – This book offers a practical guide for the use of the ADDIE-model in instructional design projects.
  • Gagné, R. M., Wager, W., Golas, K. C., & Keller, J. M. (2005) Principles of instructional design (5th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson. – This model of instructional design is basically an information processing model. Applying Gagne’s nine-step model in a lesson plan is an excellent way to ensure effective and systematic learning.
  • Dick, W. & L. Carey (2015) The Systematic Design of Instruction. Pearson Education Limited. – This model uses nine phases to describe an iterative process of instructional design.
  • van Merriënboer, Jeroen.J.G, Richard E Clark, Marcel B M de Croock, (2002) Blueprints for complex learning: The 4C/ID-model, Educational Technology, Research and Development. 50 (2);39-64, DOI: 0.1007/BF02504993 – This Four Component Instructional Design Model (4C/ID) prescribes instruction for learning in a complex environment. This model focuses on incorporating prerequisite skills with learning.
  • Reigeluth, C. M. (1999) Instructional-design theories and models: A new paradigm of instructional theory (Volume II). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. – According to Reigeluth’s elaboration theory, instruction should be organized in increasing order of complexity for optimal learning

Example: curriculum development

BA Archaeology

Audrey Aijpassa (Archaeology) and Daan Romein (ICLON)

What is this example about?

In 2014 the Faculty of Archaeology started preparing for an international BA Archaeology. Until then, the Faculty had only accepted international students in their Master’s programme. Based on experience, the Faculty recognised that both teachers and students need certain skills to make an international classroom successful. These skills are best learned by practice.

Several lecturers had positive experiences in the International Classroom workshop (ICLON). A logical next step was to include this workshop for all teachers in the preparation for the international BA Archaeology. Considering the large number of teachers, a shortened version of the workshop was offered at several moments in 2015. Since 2016, the workshop is a part of the University Teaching Qualification programme for new teachers at the Faculty of Archaeology. Furthermore, a student version of the workshop is included in the introduction activities for new BA as well as MA students.

What are the objectives?

During the workshop, international classroom skills are developed and practised. Both teachers and students experience that the workshop works well in creating awareness, receiving tips and tricks, and sharing and learning from experiences about cultural differences. As the workshop participants typically represent different nationalities, the international classroom already offers an international experience.