What is a Residential Curriculum? Curricular Approach? Residential Learning Model?

More and more, residence life and education programs are moving to a curricular approach for their educational efforts, but what is a “curriculum”? In informal discourse the term “residential curriculum” is used to describe an intentional way of promoting learning in college and university residence life and education programs. A residential curriculum, however, is a very specific approach to structuring these learning opportunities.

First implemented in the early 2000s, the Model was detailed in a 2006 article, “Beyond seat time and student satisfaction: A curricular approach to residential education,” in About Campus magazine by Kerr and Tweedy. This approach lead to the establishment of ACPA’s Residential Curriculum Institute in 2007. Since then, the curricular approach has become increasingly common and popular. In his 2015 work, Student Learning in College Residence Halls, Blimling provides an overview of the curricular approach and related models for designing residential education initiatives. A follow up article in 2017, “Shifting to curricular approaches to learning beyond the classroom,” by Kerr, Tweedy, Edwards, and Kimmel, further refined the Model.

To be considered a “true” Residential Curriculum, an educational plan should incorporate the following “ten essential elements” (Kerr, Tweedy, Edwards, & Kimmel, 2017):

1. Directly Connects to the Institutional Mission

1. Directly Connects to the Institutional Mission

Curricular approaches should be based in the mission of each institution. Therefore, every curriculum at each institution should be unique. This is not to say that there are not some common educational mission components across higher education, but each curriculum should be sensitive to institutional characteristics, academic foci, and student characteristics. Learn More >>>

2. Learning Goals and Outcomes are Developed and Based in a Defined Educational Priority

2. Learning Goals and Outcomes Developed and Based in a Defined Educational Priority

Desired learning should be documented in a cascade-from Institutional Mission to Educational Priority to Learning Goals to Learning Outcomes. Cascading goals and outcomes are logically connected, with each flowing into the next. This occurs from the broadest of educational objectives down to the individual level.  The objectives should be clear and measurable. Learn More >>>

3. Basis in Developmental Theory and Research

3. Basis in Developmental Theory and Research

Curricular approaches are based in developmental and learning theory. Baked into the core of a curriculum, learning models should be informed by the latest research on how students learn best and how to accommodate diverse learning styles and the unique needs of each learner. Professional staff implanting a curriculum should be well versed in theory and evidence-based practice. Learn More >>>

4. Educational Strategies Are Developed to Advance Learning Outcomes

4. Educational Strategies are Developed to Advance Learning Outcomes

Rather than deciding on a learning intervention first and then defining outcomes, the outcomes should instead drive what strategy is implemented. Some outcomes may be better suited to intentional conversations, while others may be best achieved through an experiential learning experience. Viewing all interactions and engagement through this lens broadens what strategies may be used to achieve outcomes beyond the traditional residence hall program. Learn More >>>

5. Educational Strategies Go Beyond Programmed Events

5. Educational Strategies Go Beyond Programmed Events

For decades, the “program” has been the main unit of educational delivery in the residence halls. Effective learning models recognize that programs and events are only one strategy by which learning can be advanced in residential environments. When programming and events are used, they should be of high quality and targeted to the appropriate audience. It is better to have fewer, more strategic programs than many programs of lower quality that are ill-targeted. Learn More >>>

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6. Student Staff Are Utilized in Roles Appropriate To Their Skill Development

6. Student Staff Are Utilized in Roles Appropriate To Their Skill Development

Most student staff are not educational experts. They are often undergraduates with little formal education in designing learning environments and curricula. Because of this, educational planning should be accomplished by the professional staff who possess advanced degrees and are trained in these skill areas. Student staff are best utilized when their strengths in creativity, connecting to peers, and encouraging dialogue are engaged. Professional staff are best utilized when they are determining and developing educational plans and strategies. Learn More >>>

7. Learning is Scaffolded and Sequenced To Follow Time-Based Development

7. Learning is Scaffolded and Sequenced To Follow Time-Based Development

Development occurs over time. Cognitive, interpersonal, and intrapersonal complexity increases as one experiences, learns, and grows. Effective learning models are built with this in mind. Learning can be sequenced as a student moves thorough their residential and/or educational experience. From month-to-month and from year-to year, learning should be scaffolded such that each learning opportunity builds off of the one prior. Opportunities should be provided with an appropriate level of challenge and support. Learn More >>>

8. Key Stakeholders are Identified and Involved

8. Key Stakeholders are Identified and Involved

Campus partners are crucial to the development of a curriculum. Each partner or department possesses educational expertise in a number of areas that are valuable to the learning experience of students. Effectively implementing a curriculum requires one to recognize that collaborations and partnerships with experts across campus are necessary to be successful. It does not matter where a learning opportunity originates from, but how it fits into the overall learning plans. Learn More >>>

9. Peer-Review is Accomplished Through an Intentional Process

9. Peer-Review is Accomplished Through an Intentional Process

Curricular plans should be reviewed by multiple advisors, stakeholders, and neutral partners-both within and outside of the organization. Through the review process, curricula can be improved by honing educational goals and outcomes and ensuring that learning plans and educational strategies are successful in achieving their stated objectives. Reviews should occur on an annual, semi-annual, or ongoing basis and should inform the overall evolution of the curriculum. Learn More >>>

10. Assessment Occurs at All Levels: From Educational Priority to Learning Goals and Outcomes

10. Assessment Occurs at All Levels: From Educational Priority to Learning Goals and Outcomes

Assessment and the measurement of learning outcome achievement should be an integral part of the curricular process at all levels. Moving beyond student satisfaction and attendance figures, successful assessment of a residential curriculum should measure what students learned by participating in educational activities. Assessments should be contextualized and account for progression through the curriculum. Assessment activities would be ongoing as well as summative. Learn More >>>

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The previous ten elements are outlined at the beginning of ACPA-College Student Educators International’s Institute on the Curricular Approach, ICA, (formerly the Residential Curriculum Institute, RCI). The Institute, offered annually in the Fall, educates attendees on how to build a successful residential curriculum. Roompact is proud to be a sponsor of the Institute and is committed to providing campuses with digital tools to enhance student learning. Over the next series of posts, we will be exploring the ten elements in more depth. In order to learn and be trained in the approach, however, the Institute on the Curricular Approach represents the best source for knowledge and implementation. If you are interested in attending ICA, you can find out additional details and register on the ACPA website.


Blimling, G. S. (2015). Student learning in college residence halls: What works, what doesn’t, and why. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kerr, K. G., Tweedy, J., Edwards, K. E., & Kimmel, D. (2017, March-April). Shifting to curricular approaches to learning beyond the classroom. About Campus, 22(1), 22-31. doi:10.1002/abc.21279

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