4 Guidelines to Decide Which Courses to Include in a Program Map

4 Guidelines to Decide Which Courses to Include in a Program Map

Overwhelming numbers of course options can make it difficult to decide which courses to include in a program map. Prioritize courses based on factors such as courses with proven student success, courses that promote student exploration, and courses that help student gauge program fit.

To streamline course offerings into program maps, clear and informed decisions must be made about which courses to include and which courses to leave out. This process can be challenging since at some institutions students can be required to “select a dozen courses from a mixed bag of 162 approved courses to meet general education requirement[s],” according to a study by Kansas State University professors Terry U. O'Banion and Cindy Miles. At larger institutions the number of approved courses can climb upwards of 200. 

General education is a priority for most educational institutions and is foundational to every program map. Yet O-Banion and Miles found that, “The ideals that colleges described for their general education programs rarely translate to cohesive, integrated bodies of knowledge.” Consequently, a clear framework and solid guidelines are key for building program maps that highlight general education and program requirements.

Start building your program map with non-negotiable courses

Begin by assembling your program map with the most stringent accreditation and transfer requirements. During this process, move from the most stringent requirements to the least stringent ones in your evaluation.
Additionally, review recommendations made by local employers and industry councils to further inform which courses to include in your program map. Guidance from any advisory boards you may have and existing completion requirements at your institution also need to be considered as you build out the non-negotiables of your program map. 

Opt for courses that are proven to promote student success 

Institutions often make choosing courses difficult for students by using vague language around requirements. Examples from one study found language used such as: 

  • “Choose one course from List A. Choose two courses from Lists B and C.”
  • “Select any two courses from the following disciplines: anthropology, economics, geography, history, political science, psychology, social science, sociology.”

However, ambiguous language in course recommendations fails to guide students in choosing the best courses. Review course completion rates of courses as well as transcripts of alumni that successfully completed their programs to identify courses that promote student success. Additionally, analyze DFW rates and the number of attempts it took students to successfully complete a course to gather information on which courses to include or leave out of your program map.

Student with a notebook

Allow time for student exploration by including courses that are eligible for credit in other programs

While students often declare a program of study early in their academic career, many ultimately end up switching to a different program of study. Consequently, institutions should plan for and expect students to change programs within a meta-major or to change majors entirely when you are creating your program map.  

A study by Xianglei Chen found that nearly 70% of community college students in STEM programs leave their programs. In the same study, Chen found that half of the students changed majors and half left without completing any degree track. Other studies suggest that while the attrition rate is lower for some majors, closer to 50%, this isn’t an uncommon occurrence. 

“Something like guided pathways is essential. Students need to take courses that readily transfer,” says Dr. Brent Knight, President of Lansing Community College. In the first term of your program map, include courses that can be easily transferred to other programs. For example, evaluate which courses for programs within the same meta-major can be easily transferred between programs. 

Structuring your program map in this way gives students optimal flexibility as they progress through their first year at an institution. With these flexible credits, students can switch programs without unnecessary penalties and delays. 

Help students gauge program fit quickly with early exposure to program concepts 

Prioritize early exposure to program courses in program maps to help students assess early on if they are in the right program for them. The Center for Community College Student Engagement’s 2020 National Report identified this as a key practice and noted institutions should offer, “career exploration in the first academic term supported by detailed information about careers and salaries that can result from each program and credential.” 

Students who are immersed in program-specific courses early on can gauge if they are a fit for their chosen program and career path. This prevents students from spending additional time working towards a degree they are note prepared to commit to or do not have a lasting interest in. For example, introduce students to program concepts in programs such as nursing and health sciences programs where extensive pre-reqs need to be completed before a student can apply and be accepted into a program. 

The Roadmap to Guided Pathways Program Maps

Implementing guided pathways and putting students on the path to program completion is no small feat. Institutions don't have to tackle guided pathways alone though.

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