4. Approaches to Implementing Curriculum Reform: Backwards Design and 'Matrix' Strategies

The community vetted concepts, competencies, and skills provides the basis for successful curriculum revision in which student learning outcomes become the foundation of curricula planning.

A major conclusion of the 2014 and 2016 Summits, 2015 Geoscience Employers Workshop and 2014–2015 survey is that developing competencies, skills, and conceptual understanding is more important than taking specific courses. Faculty and other geoscientists commonly find it difficult to agree on what specific courses students should take, however they generally agree on what students should learn and be able to do. These student learning outcomes — ​what students should know, be able to do, and demonstrate when they have completed a course or program — ​should be the basis for any curricular revision. Many successful curricular revision efforts in the geosciences have worked from the “backwards design” principles outlined in Wiggins and McTighe (2005; see also McTighe and Wiggins, 2012), in which student learning outcomes, as the desired goals, become the foundation of curricular planning. The community vision for concepts, skills, and competencies, described above, provides the basis for developing bachelor’s geoscience curricula and programs.

The first step towards significant curricular revision is establishing departmental consensus on curricular learning outcomes, followed by defining how well these outcomes are being met by the current program. The keys to success are:

  1. attain faculty agreement on concepts, skills, and competencies that their undergraduate students should develop;

  2. carefully analyze the current curriculum and/or extracurricular activities to discover whether the course sequence builds these core elements and to find gaps and unnecessary redundancies; and

  3. redesign curriculum including course content and sequence to meet agreed upon student learning outcomes.

Listing concepts, skills, and competencies along one axis of a matrix, and the current courses along the other, allows individual faculty to indicate which of these they cover or develop in their class and to what extent or depth. The matrix then forms the basis for making changes to the curriculum. Examples and helpful information can be found at the National Association of Geoscience Teachers' (NAGT) Building Strong Departments website under Design Degree Programs. A modified approach is to focus on the big picture reforms, concentrating on building a new curriculum based on the agreed upon student learning outcomes, and doing a course-by-course matrix later.

A well-documented example of the Backwards Design and matrix strategy comes from David Mogk (Mogk, 2016), who used it for gathering information about depth of coverage of key skills and competencies in the Geology and Geography degree programs at Montana State University (see also Mogk, 2013, 2014, 2015; Savina et al., 2001). There, the faculty identified key discipline-based and transferrable skills and competencies central to bachelor’s graduates. Data on the coverage of these key competencies, concepts, and skills in their majors and supporting courses were then collected from the instructional faculty, based on their syllabi and course activities, and vetted by the Chair. These data were mapped by course and by faculty member in a matrix. This compilation was then used to identify gaps in coverage (i.e., important concepts/competencies/skills not currently covered) and depth of coverage (e.g., to what extent were key skills/competencies revisited and reinforced through the program, assuming at least three opportunities for practice were necessary to develop mastery; Mogk, 2016). This effort informed faculty decisions regarding the revision of courses and/or course content and activities, and the revised matrix became the foundation for establishing and measuring student learning outcomes required for University accreditation (Mogk, 2015).

Designing a curriculum focused on student learning outcomes makes assessment simpler. The course-by-course curriculum matrix serves as a blueprint of expected student learning outcomes, which can be used for any university or department-wide assessments or accreditation. Further, faculty know more about what students should have learned and done in prior courses and can build on these concepts, skills, and competencies.

A developed matrix should be shared with students so they can see how they are progressing across their program of study, recognize if they have developed the skills necessary to be successful, and help them identify areas where they may want to supplement the curriculum with other activities.

About 50% of progress reports from participating heads and chairs at the 2016 Summit and subsequent workshops stated that they used a matrix approach and the community vetted concepts, competencies, and skills for bachelor’s programs as a guide, but with modifications based on the type and size of the program. A common result was faculty went into the exercise convinced everything was fine with the curriculum and came out surprised by the large number of gaps and unnecessary redundancies. Most of the departments used the matrix approach to describe the current program and design a set of recommendations for curriculum reform. A few skipped analyzing the current program. Changes included modifying existing course content and designing new courses that merged content from others courses or introduced new content. Importantly, this effort resulted in specifically embedding skills into courses and developing a sequence so students had repeated opportunities to develop and attain a mastery of key skills. Course sequences were revised along the lines of the core-competency goals and implementation of competency-based bachelor’s curricula.

Hiker in a grassy valley
Tim Gibson for AGI's 2018 Life as a Geoscientist contest

Faculty retreats that focused on curricular redesign were found to be extremely useful by departments across the range of institutions. Some brought in NAGT’s Traveling Workshop “Building Stronger Geoscience Departments” to campus and others found resources at the Science Education Resource Center (SERC) at Carleton College (serc.carleton.edu) on retreat planning and Backward Curriculum Design helpful. Sharing of course syllabi and/or learning outcome goals (i.e., concepts, skills) in prerequisite and core courses helped in addition to using backwards design.


  • Establish a geoscience faculty and/or department consensus on curricular/student learning outcomes using recommended community vetted concepts, skills, and competencies, accounting for institutional priorities and capacities

  • Analyze how well these outcomes are being met by current curriculum and courses

  • Redesign curriculum including course content and sequence to meet agreed upon curricular/student learning outcomes