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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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Curricula design

Chemistry is regarded as a difficult subject and many of the concepts are inexplicable without the use of analogies or models. Reviews of misconceptions over the past 16 years will affirm this (Andersson 1990; Gabel and Bunce 1994; Nakhleh 1992). Recent modifications in chemistry education have seen the introduction of modularisation. The introduction of the modular system has been a quick transformation and perhaps with little time for forward planning and inadequate prior knowledge of the importance of programme learning outcomes.

Planning for learning means that designing the forms of instruction which support learning becomes as important as preparing the content of programmes.
(Dearing 1997)

Many of the programmes currently modularised are a dissected version of the ‘unmodularised’ course with all the content, and less delivery time and formative assessment due to semesterisation. If we look closely at the current curricula of our programmes, are they ‘The planned and guided learning experiences and intended learning outcomes, formulated through the systematic reconstruction of knowledge and experiences, for the learners’ continuous and wilful growth in personal social competence’ as defined by Tanner and Tanner (1980)? An example of a curriculum design model is given in Figure 1 which gives a simplistic overview of where to start. The level of award which the programme is to achieve can be selected in accordance to the NQAI. Level 7 is a B.Sc. (Ord), level 8 is a B.Sc. (Hons) and level 9 is M.Sc., and so on. The next step is to decide on the programme aims and objectives in the form of learning outcomes specific (i) to the programme and (ii) to the individual modules.

The learning outcomes should reflect the skills and competences required of the graduate from this programme. Learning and teaching activities should be selected that are suitable to the delivery of the module (Bucat 2004). Activities is the ‘key’ word as ‘Learning takes place through the active behaviour of the student: it is what he/she does that he/she learns, not what the teacher does’ (Tyler 1949). In an integrated system where assessment is constructively aligned to drive the learning (Biggs 2002), this approach to curriculum design optimises the conditions for quality learning.

When designing a new programme a curriculum planning model may be used to oversee the programme design as shown in Figure 2 . This gives the programme manager and committee a prospective view of the programme as a whole and the criteria that must be fulfilled in order to implement it successfully. Fink (1999) has outlined five principles to ensure good course design. These include criteria such as:

  1. challenging students to higher level learning;
  2. using active forms of learning;
  3. giving frequent and immediate feedback to students on the quality of their learning;
  4. using a structured sequence of different learning activities;
  5. having a fair system for assessing and grading students.

The last criterion is an important one, as the increased diversity of learners has changed from the traditional students of the past, and this diversity must be catered for within the programme design.

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