Tuesday, 7 May 2019


WP3 European Curriculum Design TOOLKIT

Disclaimer: This is an opinion piece by David Quin as part of the DESTIN capacity building project. The opinions expressed in this DESTIN toolkit are calculated to prompt project discussion, debate and development and are not in any way meant to be a reflection of IADT policy, Irish government policy or EU policy.

Programme Design TWO – Current (2019) trends in European Programme Design

These are some of the more current or up to date components and trends in a (so-called) ‘European’ Study Programmes. Some of these could be described as more ‘fashionable’ components and some may prove difficult to implement within your Institutional or National context. Your programme or institution may already have well-established best practice in some respects (for example in terms of CPD, Research, industry placement and dual-learning). However, a willingness to comply with some of the newer or less-familiar trends may help to make your programme more ‘recognisable’ to prospective international reviewers and potential international partners over the next decade.
The trends are presented here in no particular order of importance…

ECTS credit streamlining and rationalisation

HEIs are encouraged to consider some method for streamlining and rationalising the allocation of ECTS credits to modules within their study programmes. For example, some HEIs allocate credits in multiples of 5 (5 credits being the smallest possible module). The days of 1 credit modules are long gone. Splitting ECTS credits (eg having a module with 6.5 credits) is discouraged.

Fewer Modules

There has long been a movement towards the creation of fewer, larger modules in Study Programmes. The process starts when existing, similar or related modules in a study programme are aggregated together to form larger modules. Fewer, larger modules should permit less assessment and should allow students to relate diverse subjects and disciplines as part of their learning (synergy).
Another current trend is often to dictate a maximum number of modules in each Stage (or year) of study, with more module at early stages of a study programme, and much fewer, larger and more self-directed modules at the end of any Study Programme.

This table shows a current IADT Faculty schema for 4 year undergraduate study programmes. The idea would be that all undergraduate study programmes in the Faculty would comply with this modular structure, regardless of their study subject or discipline. Note that the schema proposes fewer modules in later years (Stage/Year One being 8 modules, Stage/Year Two being 7 modules, Stag/Year Three being 7 modules and Stage/Year Four being 4 modules).

Common Modules

Within a Department or Faculty, it is now often proposed that there should be opportunities for Study Programmes to ‘share’ common modules. Rather than have to teach common subjects independently in each Study Programme (for example Statistics, Ethics, Business Skills, Entrepreneurship, Research Skills, Academic Writing Skills), there may be possibilities to teach such subjects simultaneously, to multiple study programmes. An advantage of this approach is that it gets students from different study programmes learning together, thus helping to break down study programme ‘silos’. Without such an approach, the danger is that students (and lecturing staff) from a study programme actually never get the opportunity to work with students and lecturing staff from any other study programme.

Universal Design Principles in Programme Design and Assessment

'As Higher Education Institutions continue to work towards diversifying the student profile to reflect that of the general population, the design and delivery of teaching and learning must evolve to ensure an inclusive educational environment for all students. Inclusive assessment practices are those which are designed to engage all students, allowing equity of opportunity to succeed and demonstrate learning, reducing the need for individual adaptations for specific students. Our student population includes students from backgrounds of socio-economic disadvantage, students with disabilities, mature students, international students and students from many other diverse backgrounds and cultures.'

from 'NOV 2018 - Lisa Padden et al - call from Therese M - Inclusive Assessment  - Call for Submissions'

Continuous Professional Development

Formal, structured CPD (Continuous Professional Development) is being encouraged in Higher Education across Europe and will be a major focus for the EU Commission’s new (2021) Erasmus platform. Increasingly, Professional Development is seen as essential to HE lecturing staff, providing them with the up to date tools and methods to cope with their constantly changing role.

Recognition of Prior Learning

‘The validation of learning outcomes, whether from formal education or non-formal or informal learning, acquired before requesting validation (Council Recommendation 2012/C 398/01).’
Study programmes are encouraged to consider formal, fair and transparent mechanisms through which students can apply for entry into the study programme having learned in alternative places, ways or pathways (for example through industry work experience or through the completion of study programmes in other Institutions, other countries etc.).

Exit Awards

Study programmes are increasingly encouraged to consider awarding so-called ‘exit awards’ or ‘embedded awards’ through their programmes. These are formal mechanisms by which a student can leave a study programme early (eg having completed two or three years of a four year programme), with a formal (lower level) award. For example, an undergraduate studying on an Irish 4-year ‘level 8’ BA Hons programme might be awarded a level 7 (BA Ordinary Level) award, having successfully completed three years of the level 8 programme.

Lifelong Learning

‘All learning activity undertaken throughout life, with the aim of improving knowledge, skills and competences within a personal, civic, social and/or employment-related perspective (Communication (2001) 678).

Programmes and services contributing to lifelong learning within the higher education sector may include mainstream programmes, continuing education, evening classes, specific programmes for part-time learners, access to libraries/higher education institution resources, distance learning, training courses, targeted guidance and counselling services among other actions and initiatives
HEIs and programme teams are encouraged to remember that in the 21st Century many potential students will not be the standard young, single, middle class cohort who are just emerging from secondary schools. Increasingly, our students will come from more complex and diverse backgrounds and contexts. Students may be older, they may have work and life commitments (including families of their own) and they may find it difficult or impossible to study in our current, conventional full-time contexts. To facilitate the education of such diverse cohorts, we may need to consider mechanisms such as short programmes, part-time programmes, distance learning, e-learning and the use of innovative pedagogies.


Despite the success of the various Erasmus initiatives, students and staff at many HEIs are still struggling with internationalisation and mobility. Students too often face poor study and living conditions when they travel abroad and serious obstacles when they return home to their HEIs. Too few lecturing and support staff are internationally mobile and many have no comprehension of the value of internationalisation. Many National HE contexts and HEIs have no incentivisation processes for staff mobility or for international work. Despite this, all HEIs in Europe will have Internationalisation as a strategic target, even if many HEIs are merely encouraging such efforts, rather than supporting or resourcing them.
Internationalisation and Mobility continue to be increasingly encouraged in Higher Education across Europe and will also be a major focus for the EU Commission’s new (2021) Erasmus platforms. The Commission are especially interested in Interdisciplinary potentials and will demand that HEIs from diverse backgrounds work together, rather than the current discipline-based HEI collaborations.


Even at undergraduate level, many progressive HEIs encourage their staff to conduct Action Research with their students. Most undergraduate students learn Research Methods as part of their study programmes, regardless of discipline. Increasingly, such research initiatives will be encouraged to have an interdisciplinary perspective.

Problem Based Learning

Problem-based or project-based learning can be defined as the learning that results from the process of working towards the understanding of a resolution of a problem. A key characteristic of problem-based learning is that students experience the problem at the start of the learning process before other curriculum inputs. This motivates them to gain new knowledge through independent study, constructing knowledge together in tutorials and learning from other curriculum inputs. The four key characteristics of PBL are:
1) The problem
2) The PBL tutorial
3) The PBL process
4) Learning
(taken from AISHE - Full-Book-A-New-Model-Of-Problem-Based-Learning - Terry Barrett 2017)
Increasingly, undergraduate programmes are being encouraged to change their traditional discipline or subject-based teaching (where each subject is taught and learned independently of any other subject) to a model where multiple subjects or disciplines are learned together, through problem-based projects.


Study Programmes are no longer encouraged to work in disciplinary silos. Rather, students from specific disciplines are encouraged to learn with and to work with students from other programmes and disciplines.
‘The chief executive of the Higher Education Authority (HEA), Dr Graham Love, has recently urged third level colleges to place emphasis on interdisciplinary learning. He believes that students and researchers should work more closely with those operating in other disciplines. He said this was vital to help resolve global and local challenges. In a recent speech, Dr Love asked: “How is our higher education system addressing the big issues of today and tomorrow?… The answers will not be found in a single discipline but through co-operation among many disciplines. The lawyer working with the scientist; the engineer with the artist; the historian with the medic; the psychologist with the geologist.”’ Irish Independent May 24, 2018


True Semesterisation is generally encouraged in HEIs in order to facilitate compatibility with potential international partners and collaborators. An absence of Semesterisation can make it difficult or impossible for students to study at your HEI for less than a full study year.

Formal Work Placement – Dual Learning

‘Learning delivered by a university, college or other training provider in the workplace, normally under the supervision of a person from the same company as well as a professional teacher from outside the company (Scottish Funding Council, 2015).’
HEIs are encouraged to create opportunities within all study programmes for formal work placement or engagement with industry partners. Such placements should ideally be in enterprises which are relevant to the students. Placement works best if students are given the opportunity to do real work and the HEI is often expected to have some ‘duty of care’ responsibilities over the students and their placements (often including insurance provision and/or health and safety compliance). Finally, placement works best if the HEIs have formal mechanisms for the assessment of work-placement learning. Industry partners may be involved in the assessment process.

Graduate Attributes

It is increasingly common for HEIs to develop overarching Graduate Attributes. Each study programme in the HEI must then build components into their student learning which will allow their successful graduates to achieve the HEI’s intended Graduate Attributes. Graduate Attributes should be taken into account as each study programme develops its Programme Learning Outcomes.

Innovative Pedagogies

The use of Innovative Pedagogies is being encouraged in Higher Education across Europe and will be a major focus for the EU Commission’s new (2021) Erasmus platforms. Innovative Pedagogies include new pedagogical approaches and the use of new technology (such as AI, e-learning platforms, simulations and VR). Innovative Curriculum is a more recent term, asking whether new study programme areas, strands and themes can be developed. Can old areas of academic research and learning be stranded together to create whole new study fields for the 21st Century?


A little bit of disambiguation here!

In international higher education, sustainability refers to 'education in sustainable development', with students learning how to develop Our World in a Big Picture ethical, ecological and sustainable manner. HEIs too will often examine their own processes, practices and procedures, with a view to doing their business in a more ethical, ecological and sustainable way (for example, can your university do business without using paper, or using much less paper etc).

However, when university Heads of Faculty speak about sustainability, they frequently tie the term with 'viability'. 'Viability and sustainability' usually refers to study programmes - are those programmes viable (do they make good business sense for the university)? Can applicant numbers be sustained for those programmes over five years, ten years of a study programme life cycle.

University Efficiency

So-called ‘university efficiency’ is being encouraged in Higher Education across Europe and will also be a major focus for the EU Commission’s new (2021) Erasmus platforms. Fundamentally, this will continue the trends of the past decade, asking HEIs to provide educational access to increasing numbers of students, and to students from new and different demographic, social, cultural and economic backgrounds, whilst finding ongoing efficiencies in the provision of staffing and resources.

Gender Balance, Diversity and Inclusion

Over the next few years, all HEIs will be expected to have well-developed policies, processes and cultures of Gender Balance, Diversity and Inclusion for both students and staff. It will be impossible for many EU HEIs and universities to collaborate with partner institutions or universities who are unwilling or unable to comply with such GDBI processes.

The EU Commission's Glossary of Higher Education Terminology

UCD Programme Design Dialogue Tool 2017

This document contains tools which can be adapted for programme and module revision and design.

UCD Universal Design for Curriculum Design – Case Studies from UCD – 2017

An excellent Universal Design approach to Curriculum Design.

ISBN: 9781910963128
Padden, Lisa, O’Connor, John and Barrett, Terry (Eds) (2017). Universal Design for Curriculum Design: Case Studies from University College Dublin. Dublin: Access and Lifelong Learning University College Dublin


The 2009 IADT Quality Manual (119 pages)



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