Does Your Residential Curriculum Cascade?

An important concept in developing intentional learning experiences for students is the idea of the “cascade.” Much like the successive steps of a waterfall, as water flows from one plateau to another, learning goals and outcomes in a residential curriculum should flow from more general statements of educational priority down to more specific and measurable student-level outcomes. Cascading goals can also be used for a number of different purposes outside of a curriculum, including staff development and and departmental planning. The key to these processes, however, is to create links to ensure that all of your various objectives, at all stages in a process, are in alignment.

Cascade - a process whereby something, typically information or knowledge, is successively passed on.

In a residential curriculum, the cascade begins when you set your educational priority. The educational priority is your ultimate statement about what you want your students to learn. If you are successful in your educational efforts, all students should be able to see themselves reflected in your priority statement. Although your educational priority is the guiding statement of your curriculum, it can also be considered part of a larger cascade at your institution. Educational priorities are developed in context. They are informed by your unique institutional mission, values, and culture.

Reciprocal and Iterative

From your educational priority flows your educational goals and ultimately the outcomes nested within those goals. This nesting, part of the cascade, reaches towards successive levels of specificity. By the time one reaches the outcome level, these individual statements of student learning should be highly specific and measurable. When testing for student learning, it should be relatively easy to determine if these outcomes have been satisfied.  Achievement of these outcomes can demonstrate the achievement of your broader goals and ultimately your overall educational priority.

Educational Priority

Learning Goal 1 – Students will…
Narrative Description/Philosophy

  • Learning Outcome 1-1
  • Learning Outcome 1-2
  • Learning Outcome 1-3
  • Learning Outcome 1-4 (Repeat as necessary)

Learning Goal 2 – Students will…
Narrative Description/Philosophy

  • Learning Outcome 2-1
  • Learning Outcome 2-2
  • Learning Outcome 2-3
  • Learning Outcome 2-4 (Repeat as necessary)

Tips For Developing Your Cascade

Make them SMART. Although the goals and outcomes of an educational curriculum are different than those seeking to advance the performance of an organization, the traditional “SMART” acronym can still be useful in evaluating your curricular cascade. Are the objectives Specific? Measurable? Attainable? Relevant? and Timely? Ask yourself these questions at each subsequent stage of development.

Keep them manageable. Although one may be tempted to create scores and scores of learning goals and outcomes attempting to define every possible scenario, try to keep your curriculum “human sized.” Having too many goals, more than 5 or 6, makes the curriculum unruly and difficult to track. Make difficult choices about what not to include and what is most important.

Ensure they align. Developing goals and outcomes is not a top-down-only process, but a reciprocal one. Each successive stage should inform and be informed by the other. Although it may be natural to start with the educational priority before moving on to goals and outcomes, at each successive stage return to earlier points in the process to ensure that objectives align and that all concepts are accounted for.

Cascading Curriculum

Developing a cascade is a logical process. Logic helps inform how each of your learning goals and outcomes relate to one another and your educational priority. Although this is seemingly a linear process, it is actually reciprocal. Developing a tight and coherent educational plan will ensure that the educational offerings are focused and effective. Being able to test these objectives ensures that you can demonstrate that learning occurred. Cascading objectives can help you achieve this.

Key Questions:

  • Is there coherence in your curriculum?
  • Did you make difficult choices about what to include and what not to include?
  • Do staff members all understand the connectedness and cascading nature of your educational objectives?
  • Are all of your objectives in alignment?

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