Posted by: Gregory Linton | 04/04/2012

Student Mobility Complicates Curriculum Design

In an earlier post, I showed that, even though student flow is such a common phenomenon, it is ignored when program completion rates are calculated. In this post, I want to show how student mobility complicates curriculum design in colleges and universities.

Let’s focus first on the design of the general education curriculum. A major concern of those who design general education programs is coherence. Professors design an intentional sequence of required courses that build on one another in order to develop the knowledge and skills in students that they need to succeed.

To achieve coherence, many institutions have initiated interdisciplinary courses, clustered courses, and themes that tie together sequences of courses. As a result, student choice and distribution requirements are becoming less common in higher education. A survey of chief academic officers in 2000 found that 54 percent revised their general education programs in order to achieve greater coherence. In spite of these efforts, only 38 percent thought that the changes resulted in increased coherence (Johnson, Ratcliff, & Gaff, 2004).

D. K. Johnson and J. L. Ratcliff (2004) argued that academicians have misplaced the focus on coherence. Coherence has been viewed as a structural issue, involving the design of courses and requirements. In contrast, they recommend viewing it as something that takes place in the minds of the students. Faculty should avoid designing programs that appear irrelevant to the students, offer too much or too little information, appear obscure or indirect, or appear inaccurate or incorrect.

Nowhere in their discussion, however, do Johnson and Ratcliff acknowledge that even the most coherently designed curriculum is actually experienced by less than half the students at most institutions. Many students transfer in from other institutions, or they take courses somewhere else and transfer them to their home institution.

Of course, coherence in general education could be ensured if all institutions of higher learning agreed on the required courses for general education, but such agreement would deny the distinctive priorities and emphases of various institutions. In order to circumvent the complication of student mobility, some state systems, such as Missouri, have tried to make general education requirements consistent across all their campuses. Such statewide approaches are promoted in the AAC&U report entitled General Education in an Age of Student Mobility, but as of the publication date, only twenty-two states had implemented statewide core curricula (Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2001).

As long as a student takes courses only within one state system, achieving the intended outcomes of the general education program is a reasonable possibility. Unfortunately, Adelman found that 20 percent of all undergraduates who earned more than 10 credits attended institutions in more than one state as undergraduates, and 24 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients attended institutions in more than one state as undergraduates (Adelman, 2003).

The recent report by the National Student Clearinghouse found similar statistics: “Within the public sector, more than one fifth (21.6 percent) of students who transferred from two-year institutions and more than one quarter (25.5 percent) of those from four-year institutions moved to an institution in a different state” (National Student Clearninghouse Research Center, 2012, p. 29). These statistics show that attempts by states to standardize their general education curriculum are frustrated by the mobility of students who take courses in different states.

Many students also transfer in general education credits from Advanced Placement courses in high school and CLEP exams or by taking courses at a community college and transferring in the credits. It would be very interesting to know the percentage of students who actually take all of their general education credits at one institution, thereby fully experiencing the designed purpose of the curriculum.

I see this complication in my own program. The Bible major at my institution consists of twelve courses that are intentionally designed to build on each other in a logical progression so that students will gain the desired knowledge and skills by the time they graduate. But how many actually take all twelve courses within our program? Some students transfer courses in from elsewhere, and some take distance learning courses or summer courses at other institutions. I don’t know how many actually experience our curriculum they way that we have designed it.

Another complication follows from this. If students are not experiencing our wisely designed curriculum as we intend, then what are we actually assessing at the end of their program? In the next post, I will discuss how student mobility complicates assessment of student learning.


Adelman, C. (2003, September). Postsecondary attainment, attendance, curriculum, and performance: Selected results from the NELS:88/2000 postsecondary education transcript study (PETS), 2000. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences.

Association of American Colleges and Universities. (2001). General education in an age of student mobility: An invitation to discuss systemic curricular planning. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Johnson, D. K., and Ratcliff, J. L. (2004, Spring). Creating coherence: The unfinished agenda. New Directions for Higher Education, 125, 85-95.

Johnson, D. K., Ratcliff, J. L., and Gaff, J. G. (2004, Spring). A decade of change in general education. New Directions for Higher Education, 125, 9-28.

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. (2012). Transfer & mobility: A national view of pre-degree student movement in postsecondary institutions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: