Putting the Heart Before the Course

July 28, 2014 Jenifer Van Deusen

Have you ever designed your own home, or dreamed about your perfect dwelling? When we imagine the home we would like to create for ourselves, we start with where it would be (by the ocean? In a city?) and how it would make us feel once we are in it. Where would our hearts truly feel at home – safe, warm, sheltered and happy? Only then do we think about how we would create the structure. What rooms would the house have? How would they look and feel? Fireplace? Skylights? And then the details follow–blueprints, wiring diagrams and other specifics.

Good curriculum planning is like building an ideal home. In the past, faculty started planning with their content – with what they think needs to be taught. Although every home in this country needs electricity, no one building a house would ever start with the wiring diagram. To mix metaphors, this puts the proverbial horse before the cart. It emphasizes what teachers want to teach rather than what learners need to learn. When we envision what we want the outcome of our educational program to be we can better create a program to realize our vision.

In my field of medical education, the ultimate goal is to improve the lives and health of people. Knowing this, we can determine our ends: what we want students to know and be able to do when they graduate as physicians. The 21st century calls for a new kind of doctor who will provide care in very different ways than we currently know. Although what medical education has done in the past worked then, the new landscape requires new skills, knowledge and attitudes. We must gather the best intelligence we can and then, “begin with the end in mind, as Stephen Covey advises in his book, “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”

Covey knew that much of our success begins in our imaginations, in collectively envisioning what we want to create. Like home design, the building follows the blueprint. With a clear picture of our desired outcomes we can plan backwards, creating learning activities and content that align with our ends. Simultaneously we can design assessments to collect evidence of student learning, and design benchmarks to chart progress.

Well-designed assessments that align with the benchmarks allow us to measure individual students’ progress and track our progress toward program goals (our program uses ExamSoft to do this). The backward design loop (determining desired results, crafting evidence of learning, designing curriculum & instruction, reviewing results) supports continuous improvement in curriculum and instruction, and allows us to put the heart before the course.


About the Author

Jenifer Van Deusen

Jenifer Van Deusen holds a B.S. in Education from Lesley College and an M.Ed.in Educational Administration from the University of Southern Maine. She completed extensive additional academic study in medical education, educational leadership, assessment design and organizational development. During her long career, Jen has been a public school teacher, a consultant with a state department of education, a program director in an educational consulting firm, curriculum director in a school district, the education specialist in a family medicine residency and currently as curriculum director at UNECOM. Her background includes successful curriculum transformation; technological solutions that support high-quality learning, teaching and assessment; professional development; and grant writing.

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