What is curriculum?

The curriculum is the cornerstone of all education. The curriculum has many meanings. In this article professor, Claus Nygaard presents four definitions of curriculum and discusses their advantages and disadvantages.

Read on to get a clear understanding of the curriculum and its design implications. Learn how to design better academic programs with a strong alignment between teaching, learning, and assessment (TLA) activities.

In this article, I explore four different definitions of curriculum and its design implications.
1. Course curriculum
2. Clustered curriculum
3. Academic curriculum
4. University curriculum

A clear definition of the curriculum will help you design better academic programs in which there is an alignment of the teaching, learning, and assessment (TLA) activities taking place in your institution.

Answer 1 = course curriculum

The narrowest definition is the course curriculum.

Course curriculum refers to the curriculum for a specific course. It is a blueprint of all TLA activities. How is teaching designed? How is learning supposed to take place? How are the outcomes of teaching and learning assessed? TLA activities require TLA materials such as textbooks, exercises, tests, and exams. The course curriculum describes both TLA activities and TLA materials as it focuses on the micro-cosmos of the course.

Each course within the academic program has its curriculum. Each course curriculum, therefore, is not necessarily linked to other course curricula within the educational program.

As an example, a course curriculum could be designed for a Developmental Psychology course which is part of the academic program of Early Childhood Education. This could well be designed without integration with other course curricula in the educational program.

Bernstein (1975) distinguished between “curriculum as a collection” and “curriculum as integration”.

“Collection” refers to a curriculum as a collection of courses, which are not related, have firm disciplinary boundaries between them, and are taught in different ways.

“Integration” refers to the curriculum as a corresponding number of subjects, which are integrated and maybe multidisciplinary, and where the teaching methods are integrated across the disciplines.

Course curriculum mainly represents “curriculum as a collection”.

The course curriculum is often designed by faculty members who are also certified domain experts researching the subject of the course.

Its design often focuses on developing a syllabus, which is the manifestation of the TLA activities of the specific course. It also defines the learning goals of the course.

Some advantages of the course curriculum

  • It defines the learning goals of the course.
  • It is the blueprint that informs students about TLA activities.
  • It gives students a clear route to course completion.
  • It is designed by domain experts with deep knowledge of the course content.

Some disadvantages of the course curriculum

  • The broader picture of the academic program may be lost in the micro-cosmos of the particular course curriculum.
  • Links to other courses in the academic program may not be apparent to students (or teachers).
  • The responsibility to integrate learning points from each course often rests upon students, who most probably lack the big picture of the academic program because they experience it by semesters and do not know the sum of its parts.
  • Students may be disengaged if they do not identify with the course’s learning objectives or TLA activities.

Questions for reflection

  • What advantages and disadvantages do you experience from working with course curricula?
  • Do teachers and students experience the same kinds of advantages and disadvantages?
  • How do you scaffold student learning so their journey through the individual courses that make up the academic program becomes engaging, motivating and meaningful?


Answer 2 = clustered curriculum

Another definition is the clustered curriculum. It describes a cluster of TLA activities within the academic program. Here designers explicitly focus on scaffolding student learning as they design by clustering TLA activities that tie together several closely related courses within the academic program. For example, it could be the clustering of the curricula of political economy and public finance within a public policy program because the TLA activities have fruitful similarities. Clustering may occur if courses are based on the same methodology or philosophy of science.

Think of courses in your academic program which could be clustered due to similarities in teaching activities, such as:

  • Process-oriented teaching (Vermunt, 1995; Bolhuis, 2003).
  • Online teaching (Goodyear et al., 2001).
  • Entrepreneurial activities (Colette, 2013; Davis et al., 2016; Branch et al., 2017).

Consider courses in your academic program, which could be clustered due to similarities in learning activities such as:

  • Problem-based learning (Fogarty, 1998; Dean et al., 2002).
  • Inquiry-based learning (Healey, 2005).
  • Case-based learning (Mauffette-Leenders et al., 1997; Erskine et al., 1998; Branch et al., 2015).
  • Research-based learning (Olsen & Pedersen, 2003; Guerin et al., 2015).
  • Project-based learning (DeFillipi, 2001; Meier & Nygaard, 2008).
  • Blended learning (Mirriahi et al., 2015).

The definition of clustered curriculum coincides with this notion of curriculum as integration (Bernstein, 1975) and discourages designers from solely focusing on designing individual course curricula.

The clustered curriculum is typically designed by faculty members who work closely together within an academic discipline. The design phase deals with clustering TLA activities in the educational program (often according to an underlying philosophy of science or methodology).

Important design questions concerning the clustered curriculum

  • What is the ontology and epistemology inherent in this cluster of courses?
  • Which research methods are used within this cluster of courses?
  • How can different courses and TLA activities best be clustered to scaffold student learning?
  • What are the transferable skills that enable students to move from one cluster to the next within our academic program?
  • How do we best help students in their transition between clusters?

Such questions help curriculum designers identify clusters of courses based on student learning and progression. They thereby discuss possible routes for learning progression and support scaffold learning.

Some advantages of the clustered curriculum

  • Courses are not seen as isolated entities that make up the academic program.
  • Courses are clustered based on identified TLA activities (and philosophy of science and methodology).
  • Clustering of courses leads to more integrated learning as students are educated within clusters rather than individual courses.
  • Clustering is done by faculty who know the umbrella of courses within the academic program and understand how to integrate learning objectives and TLA activities from several courses.
  • The learning process is scaffolded within the clustered curriculum, and often the transformative steps from cluster to cluster are designed too.

Some disadvantages of the clustered curriculum

  • The clustering of courses based on TLA activities (and philosophy of science and methodology) may create an unhealthy polarity between the clusters of courses, i.e. “hard courses” and “soft courses”. In the academic discipline of business administration, hard coursed could be economics, finance, and statistics, and soft courses could be human resource management, organisation theory, and marketing.
  • Clustering courses may lead students to ‘choose sides’ based on their TLA preferences and thus focus more on their interest and disinterest when engaging.
  • Courses that do not fall into identified clusters may be seen as “outcasts” by faculty and students, possibly leading to disengagement.

Questions for reflection

  • What advantages and disadvantages do you experience from working with clustered curricula?
  • Do teachers and students experience the same kinds of advantages and disadvantages?
  • How do you scaffold student learning, so their journey through the clusters that make up the academic program becomes engaging, motivating and meaningful?

Answer 3 = academic curriculum

A third definition is an academic curriculum. It refers to what the student becomes after graduation. Think of a Master of Counselling and Psychotherapy, a Graduate Certificate in Health Economics or a Master of Business Law.

The academic curriculum holds a description of the student’s future profession and the knowledge and skills needed to master that profession. From a macro point of view, the academic curriculum describes the entire offering within the educational program. All TLA activities which occur within the different courses and course clusterings are woven together into one single academic curriculum for the academic program.

With the future profession of students in mind, all TLA activities are linked to the learning goals of the academic program, which usually focuses more on transferable skills and employability than does the individual course curriculum. As we design the academic curriculum, we are not particularly interested in deciding which textbooks students read during their study time. We are more interested in designing a curriculum of TLA activities that, as process and progression, scaffold students to become future professionals.

Often, the academic curriculum is designed by an internal governing body at the university, consisting of faculty with expertise in the academic discipline, administrators, current students, alumni, and current practitioners within relevant professions.

Important design questions about the academic curriculum

  • What characterises the future work life of our graduates?
  • What is the expected future need for our educational offering?
  • Which knowledge and skills are valuable for our graduates?
  • Which transferable skills have to be developed during the academic program?
  • What characterises the collective set of knowledge, skills and transferable skills our graduates must have to be competitive in the future job market?
  • Which learning objectives do we set for our students as they have to master a future profession?
  • Which learning objectives do our students set for themselves to become future professionals?
  • How do we teach students to develop an identity as future professionals?
  • What are our teaching and learning strategies which support students in fulfilling their learning objectives?

Asking such questions forces curriculum designers to focus on the academic program as an integrated entity, not a collection of courses, which Bernstein (1975) termed “curriculum as integration”.

Some advantages of the academic curriculum

  • The learning goals are defined with the future profession of students in mind.
  • The academic curriculum is centred around the transferable skills and employability of students.
  • With an academic curriculum in place, all TLA activities of individual courses and clusters of courses have an overarching learning strategy for the educational program to link to.
  • We explicitly work with “curriculum as integration” as we tie the offerings of each course to the learning goals of the overall academic curriculum.
  • Students’ learning process is scaffolded to a more significant extent than is the case with the course curriculum and clustered curriculum because the identity of students as future professionals is a unifying and highly relevant theme for students.
  • The academic curriculum calls for constructive alignment (Biggs, 1996) across the entire educational offering within the academic program.

Some disadvantages of the academic curriculum

  • Students and faculty may experience the academic curriculum to be too macro focused and thus distanced from the everyday TLA activities.
  • Designing an academic curriculum opens up a more complex, time-consuming, and political curriculum design process because of the need to align learning objectives and TLA activities of multiple clusters and individual courses with the academic curriculum.

Questions for reflection

  • What advantages and disadvantages do you experience from working with academic curricula?
  • Do teachers and students experience the same kinds of advantages and disadvantages?
  • How do you succeed in defining the overarching academic curriculum, which governs clustered and course curricula, without compromising the everyday TLA activities?

Answer 4 = university curriculum

The fourth definition is the university curriculum. It describes how the university organises its TLA activities. Think of the certain brand a university has developed to which all its academic curricula relate.

Harvard Business School in Boston, MA, U.S.A., is well known for practising the Case Study Method. Aalborg University in Denmark is well known for practising the Problem by Learning Method. The Open University in Milton Keynes, U.K., is well known for practising the Distance Learning Method.

The university curriculum includes all curricular activities and extra-curricular activities such as sports, culture, and social life (even alumni activities), all of which play an essential role in student engagement (Entwistle, 1987; Healey et al., 2014). Extra-curricular activities are not course-based or credit-based activities, and they are not related directly to the educational offerings. The social life and identity of students are seen to be essential for their learning process (Nygaard & Serrano, 2010). Extra-curricular activities, therefore, are taken into consideration when the curriculum is designed. Usually, the university curriculum has a much more holistic understanding of student learning than has, for example, the course curriculum.

Naturally, the university curriculum is designed by an internal governing body that consists of faculty, administrators, management, members of the board, advisory board, etc.

The university curriculum – because it is the umbrella governing all TLA activities – must be very explicit in its formulations. In my view, the university curriculum has to contain a variety of essential strategies to which all TLA activities at the university must relate.

The university curriculum contains several strategies.

  • The quality strategy (Nygaard & Kristensen, 2010).
  • The learning strategy (Biggs, 1996; Ramsden, 1998; Nygaard & Bramming, 2008).
  • The e-learning strategy (Nygaard, 2015; Salmon, 2005; Sharpe et al., 2006).
  • The assessment strategy (Nygaard & Belluigi, 2011).
  • The branding strategy (Nygaard, 2008).
  • The student engagement strategy (Nygaard et al., 2013; Healey et al., 2014).
  • The strategy for developing student culture (Löfvall & Nygaard, 2013).

As a whole, the university curriculum comprises the most critical brand equity of the university because it clearly defines the ambitions, the role, the practices, and the outcomes of the university.

Important design questions concerning the university curriculum

  • What is our university known for?
  • What characterises our university brand?
  • What is the role of technology in our TLA activities?
  • What is the role of society in shaping our TLA activities?
  • What is the life of our students like?
  • Which extra-curricular activities govern the engagement and identity of our students?

Asking such broad questions forces curriculum designers to take a more integrated perspective on student learning by expanding curriculum design beyond choices of textbooks, learning management systems, and assessment methods. The university curriculum stresses that student learning is complex and social. Working explicitly with the university curriculum elevates students from recipients of knowledge to learning partners.

Some advantages of the university curriculum

  • Important strategic choices are made and communicated, which help shape the university’s brand.
  • The university curriculum governs all TLA activities at the university and makes possible the development of coherent teaching and learning culture.
  • Students are seen as partners in a life-changing endeavour that goes beyond the planned educational offerings of the academic program itself.
  • Students become engaged in university life on a deeper level than just courses; they take on an increasing number of social and professional activities at the university.

Some disadvantages of the university curriculum

  • With all its strategies, the university curriculum may distract faculty and students from the core learning activities.
  • For instructors, it can be challenging to situate their courses and educational offerings to the much more comprehensive university policy.

Questions for reflection

  • What advantages and disadvantages do you experience from working with university curricula?
  • Do teachers and students experience the same kinds of advantages and disadvantages?
  • How do you work to integrate the multiple strategies of the university curriculum with the everyday practices of the academic curriculum, its’ clusters and individual courses?
  • How do you avoid creating an unhealthy gap between strategic and political issues at the management level and the TLA activities at the operational level?

Curriculum Design Tips

In my experience, most universities focus mainly on designing course curricula. That is a shame because the micro-focus of optimising TLA activities within individual courses has – as I presented above – several disadvantages for both student engagement and learning.

Step 1: university curriculum design

My advice is that the university formulates an overall curriculum strategy, where the university curriculum is the natural starting point for all curriculum design activities. The strategies mentioned above (quality, learning, e-learning, assessment, branding, engagement, culture) will help brand the university and, at the same time, be an essential guide for designers of curricula.

These strategies have to be grounded in the everyday practices of the different academic disciplines at the university. Therefore, the university curriculum (and its strategy) must be designed through an inclusive, bottom-up process involving faculty and students from different academic faculties. Ownership and transformative practice are nurtured through active involvement in the curriculum design process, which is vital if the university curriculum has to be implemented and create a unique culture of teaching, learning, and assessment.

Step 2: academic curriculum design

Once the university curriculum is in place – and not before – faculty start designing the academic curricula for the educational programs. The academic curriculum will explicitly refer to the university curriculum and use the university brand to its advantage. If the university is known for particular teaching practice, research methodology or innovative use of technology, the academic program will draw on that in its formulation of TLA activities. Most importantly, the academic curriculum will focus on the future profession of students and help students understand how the educational content and related TLA activities enable them to develop professional identities.

Step 3: clustered curriculum design

Once the academic curriculum is designed, it is time to identify clusters of courses. Here designers cluster the courses within the educational program based on a philosophy of science, methodology, and TLA activities. Courses that rest on the same ground are clustered. It enables designers to identify the knowledge and skills needed within each cluster and scaffold students’ transformative learning route through the identified clusters. This helps students see the big picture of their education.

Step 4: course curriculum design

The final curriculum design step deals with the design of course curricula. Each course can now be designed in detail with the clustered curriculum design completed. Being part of an identified cluster of courses, the course curriculum design process naturally relates to the other courses in the academic program. Why is this course in that cluster? What does this course have in common with other courses in the cluster? How do we teach, learn, and assess in this course? Why is it similar or different from other courses? Now such questions become apparent to answer, and by doing so, the course curriculum and its TLA activities are reflected and related to the learning journey of students. Following the course becomes more inspiring and engaging for students as they understand how it relates to other courses and, ultimately, their transformation into future professionals.

I wish you all the best with your curriculum design.

About the Author

Claus Nygaard is Professor and Executive director at the Institute for Learning in Higher Education and Executive Director at cph:learning in Denmark. He can be contacted at this e-mail: info@lihe.info


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