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The University of Southampton
Quality HandbookProgrammes and modules

Curriculum Complexity

Curriculum Complexity – principles and definitions

The strategy has been driven by several key principles which emerged from both from existing work at Southampton (e.g. Education Strategy) and also from reviewing approaches to complexity among peer institutions. Fundamental to the project are that:

  1. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ curriculum model for our University. Curriculum design must be a balance between the variation and complexity we need to deliver world-class content, and the simplicity and consistency that we need to ensure that students have a world-class experience.
  2. Curriculum design should attempt to maximise the positive impact of teaching hours (the time academic staff spend with students, preparing classes, delivering activities, marking and giving feedback). Organisational improvements, such as simplification of module choices and reduced timetable complexity, will help both staff and students to make more effective use of this time.
  3. Programme planning and review require genuine partnership between students, academics and professional services (with guidance and input from external advisors, accreditation bodies and PSRBs). Programme design and development should involve students (ideally prospective, current and past), academic staff (to determine pedagogy and content of the curriculum) and professional services teams (to ensure delivery of timetabling, estates, annual planning etc.)
  4. Reducing the complexity of our curriculum will enable us to articulate our programmes more clearly to staff, students and prospective students, make better use of our estate and reduce fragmentation of staff and student timetables. This will enable more appropriate scheduling of teaching activities in optimal spaces, ensure that that we can continue to deliver our curriculum within the existing teaching day, improve the clarity of our programme documentation and make it easier for academic staff (e.g. PATs) to advise students about their choices and pathways.

Module sizes (number of students)

Working to optimise our use of the estate will reduce pressure on the timetable and decrease the number of classes delivered in non-optimal locations or at inconvenient times.

Programmes Framework

Greater guidance in the design of both undergraduate and postgraduate taught programmes (inc iPhDs)

Programme interdependencies

The sharing of modules between programmes can enhance both the Student Experience and the increase the viability of programmes, however it can have detrimental effects.

Recommendations about how to best approach significant curriculum reviews:

  1. Do not underestimate the time it takes to develop or restructure the curriculum well. Set a realistic timescale for the necessary thought and development work, and allow time to engage staff and students. Most of the groups we consulted felt that they had underestimated the time that would be required. A lower intensity of work over a longer period (i.e. starting earlier) is probably good advice.
  2. Gather information from internal and external sources and use it to inform decision-making. This will enable the process to be less bound by assumptions and to be driven more objectively. It also helps and reassures colleagues that decisions are taken objectively.
  3. Engage all levels and types of staff and students. Arrange face-to-face meetings and listen. Consider the voices of current students, alumni and prospective future students. Do not underestimate the value of engaging early with timetabling and other professional services.
  4. Have a core leadership team that includes both Academic and Professional Services staff. Individuals can easily find themselves overwhelmed, and bring the wider team into the process by delegating parts of the task both builds ownership and ensures the workload is better distributed.
  5. Ensure that the processes, frameworks and guidance are understood. A sound understanding of the requirements of a UoS curriculum will encourage consistency between different parts of the University and prevent time being wasted. Work with colleagues in CQA teams, Registry (particularly FARs) and CHEP, as needed.
  6. Agree the core principles that form the foundations of the curriculum. Address both pedagogy and delivery. Don’t be driven by what you currently offer but try to imagine how you would organise a UoS curriculum if you were starting with a blank sheet of paper.
  7. Agree an overall direction of travel, including the general structure of the programme(s) and what should be core and compulsory. Consider whether to build programmes around common elements or parts (such as a common Part I) and whether the curriculum would be most effectively organised into pathways or themes;
  8. Focus on improving the student experience through simplifying. The goal should be a high quality, research-informed curriculum that is expressed with clarity and sustainably delivered. Imagine how the programme will appear to students. If it takes more than a paragraph or two to explain the structure of the programme, it is probably too complex.
  9. Agree how many, and what kinds of, option modules should be offered. There are many, sometimes competing, pressures on this which we have tried to offer a framework for in the six material concerns.
  10. There are often unanticipated gains from the ‘pain’ of these processes. Gains included achieving greater ‘ownership’ of programmes and freeing up staff time to develop new ideas or allowing them to focus on specialist knowledge.
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