A well-designed curriculum provides the foundations for student mental wellbeing.

Designing an academic curriculum involves deciding what to teach (and assess) and how best to teach (and assess) your students. In a well-structured curriculum, these core curriculum decisions are made to ensure that:

  • There is ‘alignment’ between the curriculum elements – within and across year levels
  • Curriculum materials and learning experiences are optimally organised and sequenced
  • Planned learning activities promote deep learning and student engagement
  • Planned assessment encourages desired behaviours and informs learning

When curriculum elements are aligned, learning is optimally sequenced, and student engagement and progress are fostered, students have a sound foundation for both learning and mental wellbeing.

How might the elements of good curriculum design support student mental wellbeing? (You can review these elements in 1.3 Wellbeing essentials)

A.  Close alignment of curriculum elements
Most university curricula comprise several common components: learning objectives, syllabus, teaching methods, learning activities and assessment. How these components are designed and how they fit together (or not) affects how students learn and their motivation for learning.

At the degree program level, a well-designed curriculum consists of a series of individual subjects that are horizontally and vertically well-aligned. Horizontally alignment means that subjects complement and reinforce other subjects taught in the same year of a program, and vertical alignment refers to clear connections ‘downward’ to subjects or educational experiences in earlier years, and ‘upward’ to subjects that will be undertaken in subsequent years (Angelo, 2012, p.97).

Good curriculum design also consists of well-aligned elements within the curriculum – that is, a close linkage of explicit learning objectives (or intended learning outcomes), with teaching and learning activities and assessment. John Bigg’s ‘Constructive Alignment’ provides a useful framework for designing subject curriculum based on the principle of curriculum alignment and a constructivist theory of learning (e.g., Biggs, 2003). In a nutshell, this theory posits that students learn best by actively constructing their own learning and building on their existing knowledge (see READ MORE: Constructive Alignment in Brief, in right-hand panel).

Developing and communicating clear and explicit learning outcomes helps students set goals for their learning which can enhance their motivation and engagement in the learning process. Engaging in learning activities and assessment tasks that are well-aligned to the learning outcomes helps students to feel autonomous because they understand that these activities contribute to their goals. Developing the knowledge and skills to achieve those goals in turn supports students’ sense of competence.
B. Purposeful organisation and sequencing of content
Having highly structured initial experiences of achievement and growth, especially in first year, can help build student confidence, and promote motivation and a sense of purpose. These early structured experiences also help make subsequent, more complex and less-structured learning experiences more fruitful because students are more likely to persist and invest effort when they have a strong self of self-efficacy (Ramsden, 2003).

Increasingly educators are paying attention to designing curriculum so that students develop a strong understanding of ‘threshold concepts’ – the significant concepts in a subject that are reflective of and essential to the way of thinking in a discipline (Meyer & Land, 2003). Organising content and materials to help build and consolidate students’ grasp of threshold concepts and skills provides students with a solid foundation for complex learning and ‘mastery’ of the subject (see READ MORE: Threshold Concepts in Brief, in right-hand panel).

When topics and materials are addressed to students’ interests, goals and capabilities, and are organised in a way to build and consolidate students’ understanding and skills in the subject, students develop confidence in their ability to learn effectively, which in turn motivates them to tackle more complex tasks and challenges. These experiences of competence help maintain positive task persistence and engagement.
C.  A variety of engaging learning activities
Deep learning is fostered by activities that:

  • Encourage students to build on prior learning – i.e., what they already know
  • Provide authentic, ‘real-world’ learning experiences
  • Enable students to make meaning of their experiences and understand their world
  • Are relevant to students’ goals, interests and values
  • Enable students to apply knowledge and practice/rehearse skills
  • Promote peer interaction and social engagement
  • Help students spend their independent study time (outside of class) productively
  • Provide opportunities for students to self-monitor and evaluate their learning
Fostering student engagement by offering a variety of learning activities can support the five mental health essentials (M-BRAC). When activities are designed to build on prior learning and give opportunities for students to practise skills and receive feedback, students’ experiences of competence are supported. When activities encourage regular peer interaction and collaborative learning, this promotes positive relationships among students and may help students to feel a greater sense of belonging to the social group. If activities are authentic and relevant to students’ goals, interests or values, students are more likely to be autonomously motivated to learn. Students’ sense of autonomy is also supported when they are enabled to use their strengths and preferred modes of learning and variety in learning activities ensures this opportunity for all students.
D. A focus on assessment for learning
That is, students’ understanding of what they need to do to improve their work which in turn enhances students’ responsibility for, and control over, their own learning (Nicols, 2007).

Assessment has a powerful influence on students’ learning. For many students it defines the curriculum and indicates the kind of intellectual work that is valued (Maclellan, 2004). Assessment has multiple (sometimes conflicting) purposes, but in general, the aim of university assessment is to:

  • Guide and encourage effective approaches to learning;
  • Validly and reliably measure expected learning outcomes; and
  • Define and protect academic standards (McInnis et al., 2003).

Well-designed assessment will provide a variety of options for students to demonstrate their learning across the subject.

The quality of feedback students receive has a powerful effect on their confidence and motivation to learn and persist when they face challenges. While constructive, informative feedback that carefully explains how the work can be improved and why the changes are important can foster students’ sense of competence and motivation, receiving no feedback, uninformative feedback (‘good work’, ‘incorrect’, ‘not what the question asked for’) or overly negative feedback (‘next time, read the textbook before writing your assignment’, ‘this is unintelligible’) can undermine student motivation.

In addition, when assessment tasks build students’ understanding of what the assessor wants and why this encourages the development of learner self-regulation and, hence, a sense of autonomy. Students’ sense of autonomy is also fostered when assessment incorporates self-review or enables students to make meaningful choices in how they approach tasks.