ResEdChat Ep 50: Developing A Curricular Approach Mindset

In this episode of Roompact’s ResEdChat, it’s just the host! Paul Brown walks you through how to cultivate a “curricular mindset” in your residence life work. As many of you may be heading to the Institute on the Curricular Approach this month, this episode can be a good primer!


  • Dr. Paul Gordon Brown, Director of the Campus Experience, Roompact

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All right, welcome back to Roompact’s Res Ed chat. We’ve got a little bit of a different episode for you today. It’s actually going to only be me on the podcast. And what I want to do is, actually I want to talk through residential curriculum, or curricular approaches.

And the reason why we’re tackling this topic today, of course, is because the institute on the curricular approach is coming up in a few weeks. And for those of you for whom this may be new, or for some of you who may wish to have a little bit of a refresher, I want to talk to today, what exactly is residential curriculum, and then more importantly, how is this different from the practice that we’ve done in the past?

Using a curricular approach or a residential curriculum is a complete rethink of the way that we do things, and there’s certain ways that you can begin to get into that mindset. So to start us off, I want to share a video clip for those of you watching us on YouTube. But for those of you listening into the podcast, the audio will actually describe everything that you need. It gives you a brief overview of the curricular approach and the residential curriculum model and what it means. Here we go.

This video is brought to you by Roompact. Roompact is a software and educational services company focusing on enhancing the work of resident’s life and educational professionals.

College and university students today have more choices than ever. And as a result, there is more competition for student time than ever. As educators, we can use our expertise as mentors and guides to help students navigate this dizzying array of choices.
We can help them select more purposeful experiences, and be better at designing educational experiences that are more focused, intentional, and relevant. The emergent idea of a curricular approach to the overall student experience is helping advance these efforts, and allow students to explore ideas, reach their own conclusions, and achieve their own unique life goals.
Broadly speaking, a residential curriculum, or curricular approach, is an intentional way of promoting learning in college and university residential education and student affairs programs. Borrowing from methods utilized by teachers in the classroom environment, learning is by design, not by chance.

A curricular approach to student affairs work and residence life has existed in some form since the 1990s. But in the early 2000’s, Kathleen Kerr and Jim Tweedy at the University of Delaware began experimenting with new ways for enhancing the student learning experience.
In 2006, they teamed up with ACPA to host the first ever Institute on the Curricular Approach. Since then, the institute has grown in size and scope, starting with a focus on residential life and education, and ultimately broadening to the entirety of student affairs work.

A curriculum is designed as a cascade. You can think of it as a waterfall, with water cascading from one level to the next. Each level comes from and is related to the one above it. Starting from a broad statement of student learning, learning goals and subsequent learning outcomes further narrow the focus of the learning in a more measurable way. These outcomes are sequenced through successive stages in a series of rubrics.

Once one knows what they would like students to learn, it’s important to think about how they can learn it. In a curricular approach, learning should be sequenced, designing learning opportunities so they successively build off one another through time. A curriculum should grow and evolve with the student.

Because the learning process is dynamic, curricular approaches require that students be engaged in the learning process through multiple methods. This could include events, lectures, group or one-on-one dialogue, mentorship programs, bulletin boards, or social media engagement.

These methods or strategies should be diverse, and best suited to the type of learning you hope a student will achieve, and go beyond just the typical program. Facilitation guides, part of your educational plan, are developed that outline how each of these strategies will be put into practice.
When designing learning experiences for students, it’s important to utilize campus experts and strengths appropriately. One need not recreate learning experiences for students that other departments or individuals on campus may already be offering. Instead, curricular approaches require us to do more by doing less, avoiding unnecessary duplication and providing clarity in purpose.

This concept of expertise also extends to staff. Whereas professional staff members may have the most expertise in designing and constructing intentional learning environments, student staff members, resident assistants, and student leaders are peers that have expertise in making content exciting and engaging, utilizing creativity to bring learning objectives to life. Both groups are positioned and possess skills and knowledge that can enhance student learning in partnership.
Finally, curricular approaches utilize learning assessment data for continuous improvement. This includes direct measures of student learning, and goes beyond student satisfaction and self-report. By bringing consistency to the student experience year-over-year, learning experiences can be improved, staff can be better trained, and the entire curriculum can be reviewed and enhanced.
Above all else, a curricular approach is a systematic way of organizing the out-of-class learning environment to enhance the learning opportunities for students. By providing fewer and more focused coordinated and researched learning experiences, colleges and universities can provide students with more clear and tangible benefits. The opportunities are endless, and we all have a role to play.

All right, hopefully that gave you a brief overview of a curricular approach. That video is actually available on YouTube. If you go to Roompact’s YouTube channel, you can find that video if you want to use it for staff trainings, that’s often what I think it’s probably used most for. But it’s something we make freely available for you if you ever need some short clip to share with folks to explain what a curricular approach is.

The other thing that I’ll mention too is, if you want to delve into this deeper, there is way more that we could talk about, just about how to structure a curricular approach and things like that. So if you go to, that will point you to a resource page where you can delve into that a little bit deeper.

But what I want to talk a little bit about today is the why, the what is, how do I get into this mindset of what a curricular approach is? And when I speak with schools, or when I work with campuses, one of the ways I do it is to talk about how it’s different from what we used to do.

Many schools will employ what’s called a program model in their residence life department. This would typically be categories of things, let’s say social, multicultural, educational, and then they’ll ask their students to have to do three in this category, four in this category, and two in this category over the course of a semester or a year.

Sometimes it can be tied to a wellness wheel, so there can be some do it in different parts of spirituality, financial wellness, all those types of things. But the idea behind a program model is that you set broad categories, and then you let loose that on your student staff to come up with program ideas that fit in those broad categories.

So what is it about those traditional models that don’t really work as well as maybe we’d hoped? And so that’s one way I start in describing a curricular approach, is because it’s attempting to take care of some of the things that maybe didn’t work with our previous approaches.
So one of the things about program models is they are often in the vein of throwing a dart and drawing a bullseye around it. And this is not an analogy that I came up with. I think I first heard it from Susan Komives, but I don’t even know that it started with her. I can’t even attribute it to who it is.

But this idea that we’re going to figure out what we want to do, and then backfill it with learning outcomes afterwards. That’s not really the best approach when designing engaging learning opportunities for students. If we really want to be intentional about what we do, we want to figure out what it is we want students to know first, and then design the experiences around those.
One way of thinking about it is, if you’re teaching in a formal classroom setting, the teacher doesn’t just decide, oh, here’s the things I want to cover, and oh, here’s the stuff you’re going to learn as a result of it. Now, they may do that for a very specialized seminar, but when it comes to, let’s say gen ed requirements, the things that we want all of our students to walk away with, that is not the approach. We need to figure out what is it that all of these students need, and then let’s design those experiences.

And program models too often are the, well, here’s what I want to do, and then let me massage it and make it fit into a category, or define outcomes later. It’s not really the best approach, and that’s in part what curricular approaches attempt to change.

The other thing with our old models is it tends to go towards a model of, let’s throw something at the wall and see what sticks. Now, I am all for experimentation. Sometimes you do have to say, oh, let’s go in with a plan. Let’s figure this out. Let’s see how it goes. Let’s experiment that. That’s actually in the spirit of a curricular approach to a certain extent.

But the idea of just doing it, and then watching what happens with no intentionality, is not really the best method for making sure that your students are learning. You should think about what you want, try some things, experiment, but not this complete, throw it against the wall and see what sticks approach.

The other thing that I’ve found with some of our older models is their heavy reliance on food. Now, I don’t want to be known as the anti-pizza guy. But if you have to bribe your students with food to get them to go to programs, there might be something wrong with the program.

Food can be a great draw, but if that flips and it becomes food is the only way to do it, and we’re just going to bribe with food, then there’s something wrong with the program or educational opportunities that you provide to your students.

And so if you can’t conceive of your educational efforts without involving food, I think that’s an opportunity to say, hey, we need to do something different. That’s something that, I think, pushes some folks along this curricular path. Is they say, what we’re doing isn’t isn’t working.
And then the final thing that I usually talk about as it relates to some of our older approaches is actually very similar to the food piece that I mentioned. Which is the herding cats syndrome that we sometimes have.

So hey, all right, I’ve got a program happening in the lounge right now and there’s no one there, so I’m going to go around and kind of herd people up, and you should come. And residents might go just because they feel bad for the RA, that they’re holding a program and no one’s attending.

That kind of herding cats experience really often does not reach the target students that we want with our educational efforts. The students that feel bad for the RA are probably, in fact, the ones that don’t maybe need the content that’s going to go on in that program. It’s the students we can’t reach that are the ones that really kind of need that content.

And so if, similarly to how we might bribe with food, if we’re herding folks into a program because it’s just not interesting to them, then maybe there’s something wrong with that program.
The final thing I’ll mention, before I start talking about what curricular approaches really are, and how to embrace that philosophy, is when it comes to curricular approaches, educational efforts don’t always have to be a program. They could be an intentional conversation, they could be the messages that you communicate on social media. Curricular approaches break us out of that model of everything needs to look like a program. Programs can certainly be a part of it, but not everything.

So what is it about this curricular approach mindset that might help you get started in this process? One thing I always say is that curricular approaches are about getting everyone moving in the same direction. Now, what I mean by this is, if we don’t know what our goals are, how can we guide folks towards a common end?

And curricular approaches, one of the very first steps that you’ll undertake in going down this path is to define your goals and your outcomes that you have for students. And that gives them an opportunity to really focus in on, what is it we want to accomplish? Can we accomplish this? Do we need to tweak our goals and outcomes so that we can better accomplish this? What is the impact on students? These are the types of questions that a curricular approach is going to challenge you to ask. This is a very different mindset from what we would see with a program model.

Now, curricular approaches are also about using student learning as the starting point. So we’re always going to go back to, what is it we want students to be able to do? What is it we want students to know? What is it we want students to be able to achieve? This is really the main goal of our curricular approaches. This is different from something like a mission statement, and this is something commonly I’ll see in a number of schools. Is, there’s a confusion between what’s a mission statement, and then in a curricular approach you have an educational priority.
A mission statement is about your office, how you do your work. So we will provide an environment where students feel welcome, we’ll provide great customer service. It is about you.

An educational priority, which is what drives your curriculum, is about what you want students to learn. So students will be able to be contributing members to society, and giving back to the communities that they’re a part of.

That’s different. That’s, if you’re succeeding in your mission, then hopefully the students will be achieving your educational priority, what it is you want them to learn. And so when you start to think in this curricular approach mindset, you always want to go back to, it’s not about me, it’s what I want for students. What is it that I want for students? We need to put that at the center of what we do. And that should be a constant question that you ask yourself throughout, in case you find yourself straying from that path at any point.

Now, curricular approach and that mindset is also about not leaving up to chance. So this kind of goes back to a little bit of what I said was the problem with some of our past program models. Is that we’ll put out this broad category, I hope we have a great RA to execute a great program that will actually achieve the things that we want. To me, that is leaving way too much up for chance.

Does the RA happen to be a really good programmer? I was not in my career. And if I’m not, then maybe my students don’t get what they need to get. And so are there ways that we can make that more likely to happen for them? And so curricular approaches, you might hear the term facilitation guides or lesson plans. This is really the opportunity for us to provide some scaffolding, some structure to, hey, here’s what we know works. Here’s what we know as far as what students need to learn, and how best we can help them learn that.

And so we’re going to outline that out, so that if you need to then execute this facilitation guide, could be a program, could be some other type of educational intervention, you’re going to have a guide to know the things that we’ve experimented with, and learned from our past, are the best approaches to teaching and engaging students on this.

And so curricular approaches are not about leaving that learning up to chance like we have with some of maybe our previous models.

Curricular approaches are also about the process as much as the product. So one of the dangers when we’re working to educate students is we get fixated on the thing, the program. The, this is what it is. The end piece, but we don’t really think about the process through which we get there.
So in a curricular approach mindset, pedagogy, how are we going to teach students these things becomes actually critically important. And if we’re good teachers, if we indeed are good educators, what we’ll think through is how can we adjust things as we go to make it better? Just like a faculty member may, if they’re teaching in a formal classroom, teach a class once, and then teach it again, and constantly improve on that course content and the way that that course is organized.

So for a curricular approach, that process, the part that you go through in order to get to that end goal is just as important. It also means that you need to involve your entire team in this process.
So if you have one person who’s really gung-ho and really into it, but the rest of the team isn’t being brought along on this journey, that curricular approach is likely destined to fail. It’ll certainly fail if that person ever ups and leaves the institution, because they’re not bringing everyone on in their journey.

And that’s what brings me to another mindset piece about curricular approaches. They’re also about organizational change. So I can come in, and you can come to the institute, and we can teach you all the nuts and bolts pieces of putting this curricular approach together.

But when you start enacting that in your organization, you really need to think about, what are the various ways that our organization needs to be able to support this kind of approach?
Are we ready to begin our journey towards curricular approach? If there are things logistically that aren’t in order, we’re missing staff, you need to take care of those foundations first before you can really be freed up in order to do this kind of learning-centric work.

For many of you, this might make you think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. So if our classroom isn’t set up well, if the heating doesn’t work in our classroom, if we don’t have the right materials, how can we expect students will be able to learn in that environment? It’s the exact same type of thing with a curricular approach.

If our organization isn’t set up to be able to do that, how can we possibly achieve that? It also means your culture of your organization itself might need to change. Do you have a learning orientation, or is it all about counting numbers, staff time allocations and things like that?

You need to be able to provide space for your staff to see themselves as educators and to be thinking in that vein, are your reward system set up to privilege that type of thinking?

A lot of things can go into organizational change. This could be its own separate podcast episode. And in fact, if you ever do want to dig into that, there are a number of folks that have done some dissertations on this specific topic. Many of which you can find on that website that I mentioned.

Now, curricular approaches, some folks when they see it, they’re like, oh my gosh, this seems like a lot of work. I don’t even have the bandwidth to do what I already do, and now you’re asking me to do this? That’s not quite the way that you should be thinking about this. Curricular approaches, when done well, and done correctly, are actually about doing less so that you can be more.

nd what I mean by that is when you start thinking through intentionally of, here’s the things that we want students to experience and learn, that does mean some of the things that you’ve previously done, you may look at that and say, that doesn’t fit with our goals anymore. Or, that doesn’t fit with the goals we’ve now set. And so those things, maybe we should let go of them.

So in a true curricular approach mindset, it’s not meant to be an add-on. This is something we’re doing in addition to what we’re already doing. It’s actually meant to be a complete rethinking of the way that we do our work. And so when we rethink our work, we can begin to say, well, now that I have goals and outcomes that we’re basing our entire curricular approach on, what are the things that we do that aren’t congruent with that?

What are the things we need to let go of? What are the things that we’re spending time on, that are taking us away from this important work? And are there ways that we can do it more efficiently? Are there ways that we can use technology to make that more efficient? So that we can use the time and the training that we have focused on the things that we’re best suited to do.

So a curricular approach isn’t about doing more. It’s not an add-on. When you do it really well, it’s actually about doing less and trying to have a higher impact. Let’s let’s focus on those things that we know work, and work well, and put more energy into that. And give up the things that no longer work for us.

Now, the final thing I wanted to mention related to what our curricular approach is, and that mindset, is kind of the theme that’s been going throughout everything I’ve talked about today. Curricular approaches are about redesigning the room, not just rearranging the chairs.

Now, as someone who has worked in residence life settings for a couple decades, one thing I’ve been through is the multiple iterations of a program model, community development model that I’ve seen, even at the same institution over the course of even just a few years.

All that kind of work stays within the same paradigm. So last year we had these categories, and now we’re replacing it with these categories. Or you had to do three, and now you only have to do two, but you have to do one of this. That’s still staying within the same model of thinking.

Curricular approaches say, that’s not what we’re doing. We’re not just kind of tweaking this model. We’re actually blowing the whole thing up, redesigning the whole room itself, resting on a completely different set of premises. And so that is the mindset that you need to get into, to begin to enact a curricular approach.

Now, what are the differences now between this program model approach, which is what I’ll call some of our more traditional methods, and this curricular model? If you think about it, a program model is often like little islands or pockets of things going on. RA will do its own thing on its own floor, compared to a different RA who might be doing something completely different on another floor. One hall might be doing something completely different from another one. There’s not really a lot of coordination across different buildings, or even different floors within the same department.
This is contrasted to a curricular approach which says, we are going to organize ourselves. And we’re going to organize ourselves out of our learning goals and outcomes that we have for students. So here’s the things I want students to learn, now we’ll design those experiences and we’ll bring more consistency into the student experience.

If you ever have had a good RA in your past, a not so great RA, you’ll know that who that RA is in a program model can greatly influence the experience that you have on a floor. So if I have a rockstar RA, I’m set up to have a great community and learn a lot of things along the way. If I don’t have that, it’s going to make it much less likely for that to occur.

And in a curricular approach, since we’re designing these experiences that we’re going to make a little bit more consistent, we can even out that difference between different staff members who may have different strengths in different areas.

Many of the things that you might have seen, especially within the last few years about rethinking student-staff roles, and do we blow them up and make them more specialized into areas like these folks do? The duty, and this part, and these folks do the community-building.

That is kind of an outgrowth of this thinking of can we create spaces where people can do the things that they’re best at, and be guided by a set of principles? That’s really very germane to the way a curricular approach goes about it.

Now, in a program model, programming is assumed as the main method of delivery. Everything looks like a program. So we’ve already decided you’re doing programs. In a curricular approach, it could be a program, but we’re not going to prescribe that because we’re going to start with the learning goals and outcomes first, and then figure it out.

So with a program model, that program idea is already baked into the name of the model itself. That’s a key difference between a curricular approach and a program model.

Now, in a program model, it’s also true too, that student-staff members are the leaders that develop those programs. So hey, you need to create an educational program, figure out what you think it is your students need to learn.

In a curricular approach. We’re going to base that on research, things we know about students, our assessment practices. We already know the things they’re going to struggle with. So we’re going to build in those things automatically, and not leave it up to a student staff member to decide, based off this nebulous idea of what their residents need.

Now, that doesn’t mean that in a curricular approach, that student staff members don’t have some agency, and there might not be some things that maybe emerge on a floor that have a particular need that’s beyond what we would expect. But we know generally all of our students need alcohol education. All of our students might struggle with academic coursework and need help at some point.

So if we can make that consistent, our gen ed requirements, so to speak, but still allow a little agency for an RA to say, hey, I’m noticing a lot of my students are struggling with disordered eating. That’s not something that we go too heavily into the curriculum, or not to the extent that I need. So I’m going to do a little bit extra in that space to address that particular need. That makes total sense, and is completely germane with a curricular approach.

But the idea that we should just wholesale put that burden on student staff members is something that differentiates a curricular approach from a program model.

Now, in those program models, I mentioned the categories, social, multicultural, educational. Those are so broad. Those could encompass so many things. And likewise, when I said, let’s look at what we want, all students need, a curricular approach is going to be really narrow about, here’s the exact things that I want students to be able to achieve.

And the nice thing about that is, if we’re able to set those, then we can actually measure them with assessment. Versus if we have more of a hodgepodge, different people doing different things approach in a program model, our assessment is never set up to be effective.

How do you do that? It’s going to be such small groups. Those groups will change year over year. It’ll vary by RA. There’s really no ability to draw any kind of conclusions for that, or use data for continuous improvement.

And so that’s kind of the approach that I want you to start thinking about in terms of, what is a curricular approach mindset?

Now, I’ll leave you with one kind of analogy or example. And I have to give credit, I believe it was Keith Edwards, Kathleen Gardner that came up with this. I’m not a hundred percent sure, but I know that they’ve used it in the past.

So I want to call them out as two pretty awesome scholars in this space. And one of the examples that they give is to say, think about this like a buffet. Now, imagine that you’re going to a buffet. Any type of buffet you want, a multi-cuisine type. So not just a Chinese food buffet, but just anything. Golden Corral. Maybe something a little bit better than Golden Corral, but any kind of buffet that you want.

Now, when most people approach a buffet, what are they going to go for? They’re going to go for the quote-unquote, “good stuff.” I’m going to get the home-style stuff, with the mashed potatoes with a lot of butter, or some fried chicken, or I’m going to go for those crab legs. Or, I’m even going to check out the dessert table at the beginning of the meal. Let’s check out that chocolate fountain.
The approach that people normally do when they get to a buffet is they go towards the good stuff. The stuff that’s not necessarily nutritious for us, probably high in fat, probably things that aren’t really what your dietician would recommend that you take. But you go towards this stuff, and you can eat as much of it as you want.

That approach is very similar to how we sometimes put out our programs and services in our department. Hey, residents, here is your buffet. Now, they’re going to go towards the fun stuff. That’s the equivalent of the not necessarily nutritious, but good in moderation and great stuff like that. They’re going to go towards the concerts, they’re going to go towards, oh, let’s watch a movie.
Those things should be a part of any student’s college experience. But if that is the only thing that they’re eating, then they’re eating an unbalanced menu.

When you go to the buffet, you don’t often think through, all right, I’m going to take my plate, now I’ve added a protein. I do need to get some vegetables in there. Let me make sure I’m going through this food pyramid and creating this nice balanced meal on my plate.

That is not a normal approach, or a common approach, maybe I should say, to a buffet experience. And if we bring that to our programming, the broccoli of the buffet are our educational interventions. Are those educational programs. This is why you need to bribe folks to go to those educational programs with pizza or other things, which is the bad end of the buffet.

And so what we need to do is, rather than put out this buffet, is to better think about it like a sequenced menu. A chef may put together a multi-course menu, and they’re going to take us on a journey.

So first, you’re going to eat this, which we’ll prep your palette to then eat that. And then we will finish it up with this, and we’re going to kind of balance this whole thing. If you think about a curricular approach, it is more like that multi-course menu that’s been designed than it is like the buffet, which is more like our program model.

And that is a very different way of thinking than we thought in the past. And so whether you are embarking on your curricular journey from the start right now, or even if you’re already in the thick of it, these are the types of things that you need to constantly be thinking about.

I’ve been on the faculty of the institute on the curricular approach for well over a decade at this point, and I can tell you that I did not start off truly appreciating the thinking that goes along with this model, the mindset change, the things I had to wrap my brain around.

The ways that, the further I went into it, the more I realized, oh, this is related to how we staff and how we structure those experiences. And it’s related to how I lead as a supervisor. And it’s a mindset experience that you have to go through.

This is why curricular approaches often take a long time to develop. And even when you do develop them, they’re never truly done. Because you’ll have new folks joining the organization that you need to then bring into this mindset. You need to set up things that curate, take care of, enhance, improve that kind of culture that’s going to support this type of thinking.

In many ways, I think it leads us towards places we need to go in terms of looking at ourselves as a profession. In terms of overworking our staff, thinking smartly about our work, focusing on the things that are most important, letting go of the things that are not. This curricular approach mindset, if you really truly embrace it, can change the way that you think about your work.

So I wanted to thank you for joining us for a little bit of a special episode, episode of Res Ed Chat. Special, maybe a little bit different than normal. How about let’s go with that. In that, you just had me today talking a little bit about curricular approaches.

But I wanted to address this because I know a lot of folks will be attending the institute in the coming month, and maybe even coming years if you’re listening to this later. But hopefully this gives you an idea as to the mindset that you need to be approaching a curricular approach with.
Now, if you want to delve deeper into these topics, I will include this in the show notes for this episode. But there is, I mentioned,, which is kind of the catchall page that I maintain in order to keep track of all the scholarship, and gray literature, and academic literature that’s out there. Videos, et cetera. You’ll be able to find that in the show notes, as well as a copy of the video that we either listened to or watched earlier.

But the other thing I want to put in a plug for is the institute itself. You can learn about all sorts of things related to a curricular approach through writing, through scholarship, through books, et cetera. But the institute really makes it real, and allows you the chance to learn from other institutions.

Although the principles are universal, each institution will put their own slight spin on it, or look at it a little bit differently. And I think there’s a lot of benefit to learning from how other schools do it, and what their unique struggles were. But I hope this at least sets you off on your journey.
And of course, if at any point you have any questions or just want to chat through it, I’m happy to do that. You can reach out to me. So I want to say thank you for joining us for this episode of Res Ed Chat. I hope to see you at the upcoming institute in Long Beach, California. Otherwise, have a great rest of your week, everyone.

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