Journal of Nursing Education

Research Brief 

Exploring Unplanned Curriculum Drift

Andrew Woods, MCSc, RN

Abstract

Background:

This study explored the opportunities for quality enhancement in teaching and learning by examining unplanned curriculum drift in an undergraduate nursing course. Curriculum drift is defined here as a process whereby the learning experiences associated with a curriculum do not match the specific syllabus, vision, or intentions associated with attaining desired outcomes for nursing students.

Method:

Staff involved in the implementation of a new innovative Bachelor of Nursing curriculum at an Australian regional university were surveyed to explore their perceptions and knowledge of key philosophical and pedagogical concepts associated with a planned curriculum. A constructivist case study approach was used to explore curriculum drift.

Results:

Survey responses revealed that staff actions were inconsistent with their interpretations of concepts underlying the proposed curriculum.

Conclusion:

It is proposed that the discrepancy is a contributing factor in curricular drift, where the potential to achieve desired learning outcomes associated with innovative curricula is compromised by a drift to preinnovative or unplanned states. [J Nurs Educ. 2015;54(11):641–644.]

Abstract

Background:

This study explored the opportunities for quality enhancement in teaching and learning by examining unplanned curriculum drift in an undergraduate nursing course. Curriculum drift is defined here as a process whereby the learning experiences associated with a curriculum do not match the specific syllabus, vision, or intentions associated with attaining desired outcomes for nursing students.

Method:

Staff involved in the implementation of a new innovative Bachelor of Nursing curriculum at an Australian regional university were surveyed to explore their perceptions and knowledge of key philosophical and pedagogical concepts associated with a planned curriculum. A constructivist case study approach was used to explore curriculum drift.

Results:

Survey responses revealed that staff actions were inconsistent with their interpretations of concepts underlying the proposed curriculum.

Conclusion:

It is proposed that the discrepancy is a contributing factor in curricular drift, where the potential to achieve desired learning outcomes associated with innovative curricula is compromised by a drift to preinnovative or unplanned states. [J Nurs Educ. 2015;54(11):641–644.]

Twenty years ago, a commissioned report of education and training in Australia found that the concept of curriculum in the university setting was unfamiliar (Candy, Crebert, & O’Leary, 1994). The authors of the report found that academics taught courses based on their own interest, with an associated general neglect of ensuring coherence or identifying the aims and objectives of teaching. Since then, academics’ perceptions of what curriculum means to them remain diverse (Fraser & Bosanquet, 2006) and have been shown to vary among curricula in the form of content (Hicks, 2007), with a product orientation to curriculum that evolves with a process orientation. Curricular content can be viewed as being both designed in advance (the intended curriculum) and taught and experienced (curriculum in action; Barnett & Coate, 2006). Curriculum in action captures a process orientation and highlights the impact of pedagogy as a crucial link between learning and the concept of being designed in advance.

Although a wide scope of literature has examined curriculum design and related aspects of teaching and learning in higher education, a paucity of literature uses the term curriculum drift. However, concern about this concept is emerging as an international phenomenon and an avenue to explore opportunities for quality enhancement (Chan & Luk, 2013; Parker & Quinsee, 2012; van de Mortel & Bird, 2010). Curriculum drift has been described as a widening gap between an accredited curriculum and a taught curriculum (van de Mortel & Bird, 2010), characterized by staff working in unmonitored silos. Wilson, Rudy, Elam, Pfeifle, and Straus (2012) highlighted lost potential, describing curriculum drift as a process where an innovative curriculum insidiously returns to its preinnovative state (i.e., staff stick to what they know). Those authors suggested that although such drift is inevitable and predictable, “understanding the forces promoting curricular drift may lead to the development of strategies to prevent it” (Wilson et al., 2012, p. 23).

Following the Australian Nurses and Midwives Accreditation Council approval of the Bachelor in Nursing (BN) curriculum, teaching staff were introduced to the new curriculum as a concept over 3 planning days. Many staff involved in the teaching teams who were employed on casual contracts were not present at the planning days. Although formal nursing meetings were held prior to the commencement of the new BN course, in the year following the planning days, no sustainable internal curriculum review meetings were scheduled. In relation to curriculum drift, whether there is alignment between what is espoused, what is enacted, and what students experience and learn should be reviewed (Bath, Smith, Stein, & Swann, 2004). Teachers’ understanding of the curriculum and whether they implement the intended changes can have a substantial impact on the outcome of those changes (Lam, Alviar-Martin, Adler, & Sim, 2013).

The aim of the current study was to explore the concept of curriculum drift by identifying factors associated with unplanned curriculum drift. Staff involved in the implementation of the new innovative BN curriculum at a regional university in Australia were surveyed to explore their perceptions and knowledge of key philosophical and pedagogical concepts associated with a planned curriculum. In this study, curriculum drift is defined as a process where the learning experiences associated with a curriculum do not match the specific syllabus, vision, or intentions of the curriculum associated with attaining desired outcomes for nursing students’ graduation. Although curricula can evolve according to shifting learning needs and contexts, unplanned changes, or those instituted in isolation from the curriculum, can drift, without clear purpose. That drift can adversely impact the students’ learning experience and ultimately lead to nurse graduates who do not attain the intended learning outcomes and desired graduate attributes. This article contributes to the emerging research focusing on curriculum drift by exploring teaching staff engagement, with specific curriculum-associated philosophical and pedagogical concepts.

Method

A constructivist case study approach was taken due to the central objective of exploring the theoretical concept of curriculum drift (Gerring, 2007). Although quantitative data were sought to help measure participants’ self-rating of understanding key concepts, qualitative data provided the basis for the interpretative approach used. The survey was designed to encourage participants’ reflective inquiry and self-study based on the interpretive model by Drevdahl, Stackman, Purdy, and Louie (2002). In their review of reflection theory, they emphasized the importance of learning from practice and experience, as well as from conceptual knowledge.

Survey questions were designed to explore key philosophical and pedagogical concepts, as conceptual knowledge was associated with the original curriculum submission. Key concepts of practical knowing, hermeneutics, vertical alignment, and learning-centered design were identified following consultation with the individual responsible for designing the Australian Nurses and Midwives Accreditation Council–accredited BN curriculum submission. The first two concepts (practical knowing and hermeneutics) related to the core philosophy underpinning the new curriculum. The remaining terms related to key teaching and learning concepts. In addition, knowledge of the concept of curriculum drift was sought, as well as staff’s perception of their role in the implementation process itself.

Survey questions were checked for ambiguity, bias (leading), prejudice, potential to offend, and whether they contained more than one question within each question (De Vaus, 2002; Kline, 1986; Neuman, 2011; O’Leary, 2010) by sending draft copies of the questions to the university’s Department of Teaching and Learning staff. This was followed by a Delphi-style review process (Keeney, Hasson, & McKenna, 2011), which included three rounds of draft surveys e-mailed to discipline (nursing) leads who were not involved in the curriculum implementation and were not potential study participants. The first round of the review established the benefits of a mixed-method survey design. The second round of the review resulted in changes to ambiguous questions, inclusion or exclusion of multiple selections, and changes to specific descriptive words in some questions to match rating scale nomenclature. The final round of the review gained consensus (qualitative validation) from the panel that the survey tool was ready. Qualtrics® was chosen as the flexible online delivery mode, and the literature was reviewed for suggestions to enhance Web survey response rates (Sauermann & Roach, 2013) and quality (Barge & Gehlbach, 2012). Following ethics approval by the university’s Human Research Ethics Committee, staff that had been involved in the curriculum planning days (and exposed to the key concepts identified in this article) were invited to complete the survey.

Findings

A 53% (n = 16 of 30) response rate included eight participants with substantive permanent positions, seven with permanent positions (but not substantive positions, as they were still in their 3-year employment probation period), and one with a casual contract. Teaching experience ranged from 5 to 30 years. All but three staff held a graduate certificate or higher qualification in teaching and education. Prior to the implementation of the new BN curriculum, more than half (56%) of the participants had experience in a whole-of-curriculum (course-level) design. One quarter of the staff had experience in curriculum design at the unit level. Two participants indicated they had experience in both whole-of-curriculum and unit-level design. Almost half (47%) of the participants gained this experience at the current university, and the other participants (53%) gained their experience at other Australian and international universities. Twenty-five percent of participants had no previous experience in curriculum design.

Curriculum Drift

In relation to the new BN curriculum, 87% of participants believed there was a moderate-to-high risk of curriculum drift. One participant believed the risk was small, and one participant was not familiar with the term.

The majority of participants associated curriculum drift with not delivering an intended curriculum, as indicated by the following participants’ comments:

  • A curriculum is usually designed in a certain way. With curriculum implementation, teachers take it back to their areas of confidence, or how it was before (i.e., take it away from the new areas, foci, and design to somewhere else).
  • When the course goes off track and leaves the original curricular underpinnings—that is, the course does not deliver what it is supposed to deliver—alignment and integrity is lost.

Practical Knowing

The majority of participants (63%) rated the term practical knowing as a very important attribute for nursing students enrolled in the new curriculum. Two participants indicated that they were not familiar with the term. Despite this, responses to open-ended questions suggested that only two (13%) of 15 participants offered descriptions of the term practical knowing that were similar the term described in the curriculum philosophical statement. A further two participants offered descriptions that captured similar concepts. Eleven (73%) of the participants provided a description of this concept that did not match the curriculum statement.

The concept of practical knowing presented in the curriculum philosophy is hermeneutical in nature and, despite being rated as very important, approximately one third (31%) of participants were not familiar with the term hermeneutics. Fifty-six percent of participants thought the term was either somewhat important or important.

Vertical Alignment

The majority of participants (63%) rated the concept of vertical alignment as very important for the new curriculum. Two participants indicated they were not familiar with this term. Approximately one third (33%) of participants provided comments that captured the principles of vertical alignment, such as:

  • A clear map of ideas, expectations, and intended student outcomes of each session or year.
  • A purposeful and planned system of linkages to scaffold learning (e.g., problem-based learning with fostered independence) throughout the curriculum.

To help scaffold vertical alignment, the introduction of an ePortfolio (electronic portfolio), using the PebblePad Plus platform, was planned for the new curriculum. Despite vertical alignment being predominately rated as very important, 38% of participants reported that learning activities in their new unit were not linked to the students’ ePortfolios.

One participant demonstrated an understanding of the potential for the ePortfolio to scaffold learning across units and clinical placements, as indicated by the following comment:

Reflection pieces are linked to a number of clinical activities in both on-campus and off-campus learning. In addition, the ePortfolio is used as a repository for student work, as well as for video recordings of on-campus clinical activities.

Role Definition

Seventy-five percent of participants believed their role in the implementation of the new BN curriculum was not well defined. Several problems associated with the curriculum implementation process were expressed, including inadequate handover during the transition period; lack of release time for staff to work on curriculum development; confusion over roles and expectations; lack of, or exclusion from, planning; ad hoc changes during sessions; and minimal mapping of curriculum pillars.

Discussion

The results of this study demonstrated that staff involved in implementing a new BN curriculum were concerned about the risk of curriculum drift. Qualitative research (Chan & Luk, 2013; Parker & Quinsee, 2012) has offered perceived reasons for curriculum drift, including funding cuts, increased staff workload, staff reductions, and lack of support (resourcing), which resonate with academic staff’s perceptions that curricular quality measures are more associated with quality assurance (top-down), rather than quality enhancement (bottom-up; Lomas, 2007).

The current study contributes to emerging research that explores the concept of curriculum drift, with data that suggest further related factors for consideration. Although participants believed that the hermeneutical concept of practical knowing was important, few textual responses demonstrated an understanding of how this term was used in the curriculum planning documents or during planning events. Despite vertical alignment being seen as important, few textual responses demonstrated that staff had utilized a planned (available) ePortfolio to facilitate integration and scaffolding of learning across units and years. This is consistent with suggestions that academic staff, although subject experts in their fields of discipline, are not necessarily experts in the structure and delivery of curriculum design (Parker & Quinsee, 2012).

Limitations

Although the small purposeful sample limits external validity, the teaching and learning issues identified in this study have relevance to other universities implementing their own innovative curricula. A larger sample would provide an opportunity for nonparametric statistical analysis to enhance triangulation of the data gathered, thus linking perceived risk of curriculum drift to knowledge of concepts or satisfaction with role explanations. Members of the BN teaching team employed on casual contracts typically have limited formal teaching and learning professional development, and they are not funded to attend curricula planning days. Thus, surveying a larger sample of these staff, given their involvement in the implementation stage of curricula, would be of value.

Conclusion

The current study suggests that staff involved in the implementation of the new BN curriculum did not demonstrate knowledge of key philosophical and pedagogical concepts that consistently aligned with those indicated in the intended curriculum submission. Several perceived related factors that resonated with themes found in the literature, including poor handover, lack of collaboration, and lack of staff, time, and resourcing, were identified by participants. The study findings can help teaching staff to reflect on conceptual knowledge associated with the implementation of a planned curriculum. Recognizing factors influencing unplanned curriculum drift can help to identify training and development needs for teaching staff during periods of curriculum change and innovation.

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Authors

Mr. Woods is Lecturer in Nursing and doctoral student, Health & Human Sciences, Southern Cross University, Lismore, Australia.

The author has disclosed no potential conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise.

The author thanks Dr. Robyn Benson for her mentorship with the survey design. Appreciation is also extended to Drs. Louise Horstmanshof, Marie Hutchinson, and Andrew Cashin, who provided constructive feedback that helped shape the final manuscript.

Address correspondence to Andrew Woods, MCSc, RN, Lecturer in Nursing, Health & Human Sciences, Southern Cross University, P.O. Box 157, Lismore, NSW 2480, Australia; e-mail: andrew.woods@scu.edu.au.

Received: February 03, 2015
Accepted: July 08, 2015

 

10.3928/01484834-20151016-05

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