Designing Your Student’s Curriculum


You’re responsible for teaching your student or child a particular concept, but you’re finding that the curriculum (workbooks, internet resources, district-provided tools, etc.) isn’t meeting the needs completely. What do you do?

question-mark-358178_640Creating curriculum can be very stressful, especially if you have a limited amount of experience doing it. A cursory Google search yields an overwhelming number of links to sift through to determine what approaches are most likely to help you successfully develop more personalized instructional activities.

Developing content is a very time consuming and intricate skill, but if you need a few basic tools to help you identify ways to assist your student or child with new conceptual understandings, keep reading.

How can I design instructional materials that meet my student’s needs?

I’d like to offer you three areas (they have ample research to support, of course) that I address whenever I design coursework for my students, other people’s students, or educational organizations.

Area 1 – Relevance

  • Is the reading or activity interesting in any way to your student?
  • Would your student have selected the reading or topic for him/herself?
  • Have you clearly connected the task/skill’s applicability to your student’s current life?

Relevance is not just an education and research buzz word. In fact, it absolutely matters whether your student finds the curriculum intriguing, inviting, and indispensable. With the internet so readily available and Siri waiting to scour the web in search of immediate answers, we’ve lost the ability to require meaningful engagement on topics for which we cannot give explicit relevance. Mere engagement is simply not enough. Students will engage your content minimally to avoid punishment, but is that the type of engagement we want? Of course not. We prefer meaningful engagement – authentic interest and desire to complete the work. We want students to choose to do what we ask because they are confident that it is beneficial to their lives in more ways than, “I won’t get in trouble.” We want them to internalize our lessons and remember them two or twenty years from now.

Area 2 – Competency

  • Does the selected activity or reading take into account your student’s current ability level?
  • Will your student be able to demonstrate mastery in a time frame that best works for him/her?

Competency-based curriculum approaches allow a level of flexibility that traditional curriculum methods do not. More specifically, if you find that your student’s ability level suggests that more scaffolding or support is necessary before s/he can perform at the expected level, you will more likely find success with enrichment/intervention activities that are competency based. For students who exceed the expectation, competency-based curriculum activities afford them a chance to demonstrate the extent of their mastery without teachers’ or parents’ inadvertent limitations. The measures you choose should reflect levels of mastery. Usually, we use limitedproficient, and advanced mastery labels. Rubrics are a great way to ensure that your assessments are as objective as possible. They’re also a fabulous way to provide specific feedback to students so that they can identify how to enhance their conceptual understanding in the future.

Area 3 – Production

  • How will your student demonstrate his/her competence and learning?
  • Will your student be able to use an area of strength to best showcase learning?
  • Do(es) the assessment option(s) allow your student to focus on showing learning?

There should always be a variety of ways for students to show what they know. Yes, we understand that standardized tests do not allow for alternative assessments and personalized expression, but that does not mean we should avoid using other measures to assess student learning. Often times we select production methods that don’t allow students to give their full attention to demonstrating mastery. For example, a student who struggles with writing being required to use a timed essay to prove he understands rhetoric might perform better if he were able to demonstrate understanding through commercial ad creations and digital media–his strength. When we want to assess a specific skill, we can open up the production options to give students the best possible opportunity for success. Of course, we’d still work extensively to ensure that our students build their skill levels in problem areas, but we can develop curriculum that more readily represents real life tests of comprehension and ability. How frequently are adults writing timed essays at work versus creating presentations and digitized projects?


Time is an essential piece to designing effective, student-centered curriculum. It doesn’t hurt if students are involved in the development process either. However, I understand how strapped for time teachers and parents can be. Start with one lesson or unit at a time, and reflect on what’s there. If you were to answer the aforementioned questions for your selected activity, would you be able to revise it to more closely fit the needs of your student? More and more, we’re seeing that stringent fidelity to a traditional approach alienates various types of students, and that’s not what we wish to do. Instead, exploring paradigms that value student voice in curriculum and personalized instruction can help us avoid leaving out students who may not respond to the traditional methods of teaching.

Further Reading

Sullivan, S. C., & Downey, J. A. (2015). Shifting educational paradigms: From traditional to competency-based education for diverse learners. American Secondary Education43(3), 4-19.


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