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Designing curriculum and assessment to promote effective learning in chemistry in higher education

Author - Christine O'Connor

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Current chemistry education is in a dynamic state as third level institutions are under pressure to fulfil the economic demands from industry, as well as attracting prospective students to their programmes from the ever decreasing pool of chemistry second level graduates (Childs 2002). Current chemistry programmes in Ireland are becoming more career focused than before, and the transferable skills acquired during the programmes are now used as marketing tools for prospective students. The change in career-focused curricula design may be a way forward. However, the question that needs to be asked is: Is the content knowledge being lost by our current students? A ‘need to know’ attitude is being experienced by academics from the students as they frequently ask ‘What do I need to know?’. This question, theoretically, should be answered by the list of learning outcomes of the curricular documents and module descriptors, and the delivery mechanisms and assessment strategies (Biggs 1999) in place, ideally, should reinforce the intended learning outcomes. A structural guide to standards of knowledge, skill or competence, to be acquired by learners has been published by the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland (NQAI) and the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) is being implemented as part of the Bologna process. Since the ECTS is designed to be a student-centred system, based on the student workload required to achieve the learning outcomes and competences to be acquired, why are we still being asked ‘What do I need to know?’.

Designing curriculum and assessment strategies for third level education in the twenty-first century has drastically changed from that of the past. Since 1975 education researchers have witnessed a shift in focus from the curriculum to the student (Bucat 2004).

OECD economies are placing an increasing emphasis on the production, distribution and use of knowledge. The knowledge economy is dependent on people’s ability to adapt to situations, update their knowledge and know where to find knowledge. These so called knowledge workers are being paid for knowledge skills rather than manual work.
(Maier and Warren 2000)

The past 100 years saw the dominant influence in the curricula structure as being that of the academics in their separate knowledge fields. Barnett (2000) states that ‘in the contemporary world, academic hegemony is dissolving as curricula become subject to two contending patterns of change’. The two patterns of change suggested by Barnett are: (i) widening of participation at third level colleges and (ii) an emerging universal shift in the direction of performativity. What counts is ‘less what individuals know and more what individuals can do (as in their demonstrable skills)’. He goes on to say that ‘curricula are taking on ad hoc patterns that are unwitting outfall of this complex of forces at work, diversifying and universalising. He feels that as a consequence, curricula will be unlikely to yield the ‘human qualities of being that the current age of supercomplexity requires’.

Bodner (1992) stated that ‘changing the curriculum – the topics being taught – is not enough to bring about meaningful change in science education, we also need to rethink the way the curriculum is delivered’. Bucat (2004) proposes that ‘Before our teaching can advance, we need to be knowledgeable not only about the learning outcomes of our teaching, but of the conditions, including subject specific factors, that have given rise to those outcomes. Then perhaps we can design our teaching accordingly’. The dramatic changes which have been taking place in higher education in recent years and the consequential disruption to the ‘traditional identities of place, of time and of scholarly and student communities’ is changing the structure and functions of third level education institutions. The changes are producing for the twenty-first century a higher education system that operates under a greater variety of conditions than ever before (part-time/full-time, work-based/institution-based, face to face/delivered at a distance, etc.) and which brings with it a student experience and an informal curriculum, which are both changed and increasingly diverse. Competing epistemologies are struggling to shape the formal undergraduate curriculum of the twenty-first century: the deconstruction of the subject, as reflected in, for example, the modularisation of the curriculum; the cross-curricular ‘key’ skills movement, the learning through experience movement and the shift of the seat of learning outside the academy; the profoundly disruptive potential of web-based learning. (Bridges 2000)

In order to approach the challenges of the diversifying educational demands in third level institutes the role of curriculum design and assessment strategies will be discussed in the remainder of this paper and some evaluation techniques suggested.

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