Q&A: One Nurse Educator’s Experience with Concept-Based Curriculum

student reading on digital device

When and where were you first involved with a transition from a traditional curriculum to a concept-based model?

I was working for Clarkson College, a health professions school in Omaha, Nebraska. The nursing program was the first to move to a concept-based curriculum (CBC). Planning for the transition took place from 2007 to 2011, and it was implemented in the fall of 2011.

Why did Clarkson College decide to move to a CBC?

The decision was based on research on where learning was going — in colleges and in health care — and where learning was already at in lower levels like elementary and high school. All facets of education were incorporating concept-based teaching, so we knew students would be familiar with this style and needed to be prepared for them. Also, at the time, we could see it would further the growth of critical thinking skills and allow for a more holistic view of the patient.

What is the most valuable thing you’ve learned during your experience with moving to a CBC?

Be flexible. Most faculty members that are making this transition were not taught this way. Conceptual learning can be a foreign concept that you really have to be open to. Also, don’t feel that you need to reinvent the wheel. Look at what you’re doing already, look at where you have a lot of content saturation, and where can you pull back and look at the bigger picture. It’s a better use of your time, and you won’t feel so overwhelmed. You will have more time for students and the entire experience will be much more engaging.

What suggestions would you offer other faculty who are trying to make this transition?

Take baby steps. Take a good look at what you already have, as far as activities, PowerPoint® presentations, etc. To begin with, we went through the CBC guidelines and tried to pare them down because it’s very easy to try to incorporate every concept that’s out there. This will lead you from content saturation to concept saturation, and you haven’t achieved anything. We tried to focus on the real things that students are going to see in the healthcare setting on a regular basis. We wanted them to be able to connect the dots and take what we teach and be able to apply it to real-world situations.

How did conceptual learning change your teaching style?

I was a lot more relaxed and felt much more engaged because it was less “sit down, open up your brain, and let me pour the knowledge in.” It was a lot more collaborative, so it became “what have you learned, where do you need me?” Our classroom time was time for me to say “what doesn’t make sense? Where do you need my facilitation?” I was able to see where individual students were struggling and where the larger group was having difficulty. This enabled us to stop and review lessons together.

What were some of the obstacles that came with the new curriculum and how did you overcome them?

Before we implemented, the biggest obstacle was everybody agreeing on what concepts were the most important, what we were going to teach, and what we were going to let go of. Every educator has their wheelhouse, and so we had to be objective about looking at what was most important for the students and not what our specialties were as teachers. From the student perspective, it was, “I’m paying money and having to teach myself. What am I paying you for if I am having to do all this?” My biggest advice with that is to make sure there is a clear explanation of what concept-based learning truly is for the students so they are knowledgeable going into it.

What did you feel was the greatest benefit to both faculty and students after transitioning to this new framework?

Students definitely develop critical thinking skills much sooner. With content saturation, there was such a focus on Bloom’s Taxonomy and “right now they have to do knowledge, and then they will do application-style learning, and then they will do this.” However, if you’re teaching in a true concept-based curriculum, you’re incorporating many levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy within each concept and within each learning activity. If you do it effectively, their critical thinking skills develop a lot earlier so that when they graduate they are much more refined.

Do you think this has worked for your students? Do they have a better grasp of nursing practice?

Absolutely. We are seeing a lot of good things and getting a lot of good feedback from our clinical partners.

What are some specific successes you’ve encountered with the new curriculum?

Personally, I feel like I have a lot more time to meet with students one-on-one in my office because I’m not constantly prepping lectures and reviewing content. I know Clarkson College as a whole saw an increase in board rates. The last time I was aware of it, they were at a 92-94% pass rate, which is above national average and one of the highest in Nebraska.

Last parting words of advice?

Faculty need to be flexible, be adaptable, be objective. It’s very easy for educators to get very passionate about what they teach and be almost territorial about it. You have to let that go because when you’re teaching in a concept-based curriculum, everyone is teaching some aspect of each concept. If it’s done effectively, it becomes “what are you going to teach, and where can I pick up where you left off and build on it, and where can I lay a foundation for the next semester.”