Program-level design: 10 practical strategies for ‘keeping it real’

Program-level design helps to provide students with a coherent learning pathway, and ensures what they experience is more than a ‘collection of individual units’.

One Macquarie program that has successfully implemented program-level design is the Doctor of Physiotherapy. We talked to Associate Professor Mark Hancock about his Department’s experience of maintaining a program-based design over the last 5 years.

What strategies helped you to maintain your program-based approach and ‘keep it real’?

target icon 1. Conference Week 

We induct students into the program as soon as they start with us. In fact, their very first week is a ‘conference week’ where they get to know the program and what lies ahead. Lectures or tutorials during that week do not belong to a particular unit. Instead, they focus on the ‘big picture’, and the key issues that would be relevant for all the units across the program. It helps to emphasize to our students that we are not about individual units, but about the program as a whole.

target icon 2. One Sentence framework   

We have a framework that describes what students are learning in every particular Session in one sentence. We take this framework seriously and keep referring to it whenever we want to introduce a change. For example, when a convenor has an idea about a specific change, they need to align this change with our framework and show how it will fit into the program. It’s not to imply that we are static and do not welcome change – quite the opposite. Our teachers feel that they can put forward ideas for improvement, as long as they consider how what they propose will affect the program.

target icon 3. Mapping assessments across units

We compile all of our assessments in a table that shows assessment types and their date, and we review this table before each Session. This exercise helps us to identify timing issues and clashing assessments. For example, if we identify multiple assessments have been planned for a single week, we can discuss whether that is ideal or if a change would be better. We discuss it as a program team and usually someone would be able to move an assessment to another week so that we can spread the workload for students.

target icon 4. One assessment for multiple units

We have programmatic assessments (one assessment that assesses multiple units).

We find that using one piece of assessment for multiple units really helps to ‘keep it real’ in terms of the program-level design. For example, at the end of our first Session we use case studies to assess the content of multiple units. It gives our students a clear message that they can’t just think about one unit of study: this is a program, and they need to pull knowledge from different areas. Some of the assessment questions may relate to one of their units, some to the other, and convenors allocate marks for their respective units. It’s authentic (real-life) and it shows our students how individual units integrate together.

target icon 5. Inducting new staff into a ‘program culture’

When we have new staff members, we induct them into the program, not just into individual units of study. We sit down and go through the key principles of our program. It has been very helpful for promoting a ‘program culture’ in our Department, and communicating that our priority is the program and coherent student experience.

target icon 6. Session Coordinators

Another important thing that we have and others could implement is having Session Coordinators. We assign  staff members to be responsible for a Session and it becomes their job to consider program-level design issues. They engage with what’s working in a particular Session and what’s not. It involves them in the big picture, and gives them an opportunity take a program-level perspective.

target icon 7. Feedback from student representatives

We meet with the student representatives usually in the middle of the Session to get a sense of how everything is going; what do they like; what’s working, what’s not working. We try and ask them about the whole program before we explore individual units. It helps us to get students’ feedback on our program and adjust accordingly.

target icon 8. Shared teaching resources

We have a shared drive, and all of our learning and teaching content sits on it. We use an  identical file structure for all units, which allows us to share resources and design our units efficiently. For example, if you went into our ‘teaching folder’ you would find each Session and the units taught in that session. Within each unit , you’d find the same 4-5 folders, e.g tutorials, lectures, assessments, resources, so if I can’t remember what is being taught in another unit, in 1 minute I can easily find exactly what they’ve taught, and modify my own unit accordingly. That makes a big difference. You can also see how other units have structured their delivery – wherever possible we aim to be consistent to improve the student experience.

target icon 9. Shared iLearn template

In addition to the Shared resources, we also use the same template for our iLearn spaces. It helps us not only to create a sense of a program, but also saves us a lot of time. As a convenor, I do not need to reinvent the wheel every time and spend my time thinking about the best way to arrange my online unit.

target icon 10. Common language

We also strive to use similar terminology across different units, to avoid unnecessary confusion for our students. For example, in our field the terms ‘coordination’, ‘dexterity’ and ‘motor control’ are sometimes used interchangeably. We aim to use one term as consistently as possible across units to describe the same concept. We have created short 1-2 page summary documents on key topics relevant to the whole program to enhance consistency across units.  Designing common assignments and knowing what colleagues are doing in their units helps us to be consistent in our terminology, which, ultimately, translates in a better learning experience for our students.

Interested in program-based design?

Read this post on (almost) all you need to know about program-based design. 

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