Navigating Learning Landscapes: The Power of Curriculum Mapping Pt.1

(MIRIAM) While I enjoy a good philosophical conversation about learning, in my heart I’m a practitioner. I’ve always been interested in the practical side of instructional or learning experience design. So I’m excited that our next two articles are focusing on one of the most important tools we use in the learning and development business; curriculum mapping.  Dr. Jerry Zandstra is with me today to dig into this topic.


(MT) How did we even get to the topic of a curriculum map and how would you define it for this article?

JZ:I think early in our business, the technology was still very limiting. Traditional elearning was really the only option and it wasn’t much better than a step above a narrated PowerPoint.So when a client came to us, the request was simple, can you please make an elearning module, unfortunately, usually around an hour in length, and we would. We used to call these course conversions too because there was no prior elearning. Most of the time we were converting previous instructor-led training (ILT) into elearning. 

MT: I remember those days, but help me understand where you are going with this. . . 

JZ: Certainly! Over the years, organizations have built up many versions of eLearning content, and the technology is greatly improved. So they need a way to create a roadmap of sorts. They need a way to align all their content to business and learning objectives and determine where gaps and redundancies are. They also need a way to develop more blended learning making use of the advances in technology from microlearning, animations or job aids, to full blown augmented (AR) or virtual reality (VR) content.

MT:That makes sense. Just to clarify then, what is a simple definition of a curriculum map?

JZ:A curriculum map creates a scope and sequence for content that is tightly aligned to business and learning outcomes. 

And perhaps a longer definition is this: 

It’s a flexible tool that provides visual alignment, order, and structure for long-range planning. It allows instructional designers to have a big picture perspective and helps them flesh out objectives and outcomes. 

MT: What does it look like?

JZ:I believe we have a graphic that will be added to this article but I’ll just share a simple visual explanation here. 

The main topics you want to explore and make sure you have the answers for are:

  • Organizational Goals
  • Business Outcomes
  • Stakeholders
  • Organization Values
  • Learning Cultures
  • Learners
  • Topics/Objectives

Then essentially as you work your way through these topics, you need to decide what is priority and where the risks are. What is interesting is that this tool helps the learning team take a step back and consider how the current topics and objectives are aligned to the organization and business goals. Then as you dig into the actual topics it becomes very clear where there are gaps or redundancies.

Curriculum Mapping

MT: I know we briefly talked about this already but why would you use a curriculum map? 

JZ: Sure, there are multiple situations where you would want to create a curriculum map. 

The most typical situation is when a large program, such as leadership skills, sales, or product training etc. needs to be overhauled. Perhaps, the program needs to be updated or things need to be combined. 

A company merger is another situation where curriculum mapping is helpful. Typically there are two sets of learning materials being combined and there will be a lot of redundancy.

MT: What is the purpose of a curriculum mapping session and how would that be structured?

JZ: Right, if you haven’t already noticed, a huge part of curriculum mapping is building consensus. To start then, a session would be composed of key stakeholders and at least two instructional designers.We love to do them in person but in the world we live in now, typically these are vILT sessions. 

We also like to fill these in visually. We’ll have one instructional designer leading the session and one filling in a graphic organizer. We have used a spreadsheet in the past but typically we like to use something like a Miro board or other tool that is similar.

MT: If you lived in a perfect world, what would the ideal conditions be for delivering a curriculum mapping session?

JZ: Yeah one thing we didn’t realize until we had led several of these sessions is that we’re asking our stakeholders and ourselves really to operate using higher order thinking skills which is mentally taxing. Setting aside a whole day for this is not a good idea, there is only so much a brain can handle when operating higher order. I would say 2 hours at the most. So, best practice is a few hour session led by 2 learning professionals and a small group of stakeholders using a visual organizer. This set up gives us the best conditions to analyze. 

MT: Well I asked the perfect world question so let me go in the opposite direction, have you ever seen a session go poorly and why do you think that was? 

JZ: Yeah I think there are probably two different cases where things can go poorly. One we had control over and one we really didn’t.

Before we ever schedule and host a curriculum mapping session, we send our stakeholders a questionnaire and request source material if at all possible. This helps them understand the scope of the session, gather the materials and stakeholders, and come prepared. When we first started, we didn’t do this weassumed our clients understood what was needed. We realized we didn’t do a good job of educating them. So, while our sessions didn’t necessarily go poorly, we definitely weren’t as productive as we could have been. This was the situation within our control and the adjustments we made really helped.

The second situation is one that we don’t have a lot of control over. As I mentioned before, much of the purpose of curriculum mapping is building consensus. Every so often, we’ll work with a group that can not find consensus. Usually it’s because of external factors to the curriculum we’re working on. In that case, we rely on the project sponsor to pause things until the team can reach internal agreement and then we move forward. 

Miriam-You’ve really piqued my interest Jerry and I can’t wait to continue this interview digging into the particulars of the curriculum map. I look forward to hearing more.
Jerry-It was my pleasure to talk through it from a 10,00 foot view and I promise we’ll dig into the particulars next.