Overcoming the Perfect Storm in Higher Education: Curriculum Design and Multiple Mode Deliveries for Today’s Learners

Tornado, wind and lightening represent perfect storm

Declining numbers of traditional-age high school graduates, changing student demographics, pandemic unpredictability, and struggles with student retention are creating what can be termed a “perfect storm” in higher education. Faculty and administration have been exploring all possible tools to attract students and help them stay on a curriculum path so they can graduate within a reasonable time.

Many sources show that students are looking for time flexibility in course scheduling, and clarity in course content and its delivery. It is also important for students to see logical connectivity among courses while following program curricula, and for curriculum designers to think far beyond traditional methods of teaching and learning.

It has been noted that engineering students in particular are not responding to the traditional mathematics curriculum. Therefore, faculty and administration have been exploring all possible tools to attract students and help them stay on a curriculum path so they can graduate within a reasonable time.

Three strategies have emerged as the most effective ways to make a difference:

  1. Creating numerous scheduling choices for students to stay on a curriculum path;
  2. Redesigning the curriculum with logical connectivity among sequential courses (e.g., a course contextualization, linked courses, integrated model); and
  3. Developing a wide spectrum of delivery modes to accommodate learners’ preferences and schedules.

Strategy 1: Scheduling choices

It has become imperative to recognize and understand what current and future students want and to develop innovative opportunities to increase student access to degree and certificate programs that are flexible in time and location. One approach is to create numerous scheduling options varied in time, sequential course arrangements, and delivery options. Understanding that students represent different levels of preparation and learning styles, we diversified our course schedule in many directions to create accelerated sequences of different general education courses offering flexible pathways to graduation.

This was the most efficient way to utilize students’ time. For example, all degrees require at least two writing and two social science courses. As a result, during the traditional 16-week semester, two-course sequences were offered in an alternative eight-week “fast and furious” format with both courses offered back-to-back in the same time slot and at the same place so students would not experience changes in their schedule and habits in the middle of the semester.

Strategy 2: Redesigning the curriculum

Today, a major goal of education is the ability to find suitable work at suitable pay upon graduation. Therefore, preparing students for the workforce is a major consideration in curriculum design, but it is not enough to ensure degree completion. Students need to be engaged and persistent in order to remain motivated and therefore succeed. According to Davis, “Most students respond positively to a well- organized course taught by an enthusiastic instructor who has a genuine interest in students and their learning” (2009, p. 31). However, enthusiasm and expertise are not enough; faculty must also be prepared to help students meet their needs. There are two factors that must be considered when designing curriculum: what to teach and how to teach it. We have applied these factors in redesigning the curriculum for the sequence Technical Mathematics I-IV as an example of motivating students through “What to teach.” Our redesigned sequence conveys the fact that the courses are discrete and sequenced, as well as the fact that there is scaffolding in the content.

Changes have therefore been made at the department level with two directions in mind: a) smooth connection between all courses in the sequence; and b) including repeated review blocks with material of increasing complexity in each course in order to maintain students’ algebraic skills, which usually disappear very fast if not practiced. Thus, teaching goes in two directions— forward with new material and backward with spiral repetition. When courses are logically structured and have overlapping parts, students gain knowledge and confidence with understanding why they must take several mathematics courses to complete their prescribed curricula. As a result, students develop their own self-motivation.

Strategy 3: Developing a wide spectrum of delivery mode

The Open Education Database indicates that nearly three million students are currently enrolled in fully online programs and six million are taking at least one online course as part of their degree. Students who are balancing studies with work, as well as other aspects of their personal lives, can benefit from having options in alternative delivery modes, especially when one of those options includes online delivery. It is particularly true in the current situation including uncertainty with COVID-19 development, where many students are searching for, or are forced to use, alternative delivery modes.

The curriculum of any online program must be carefully considered and developed with not only pedagogical, but also esthetic and psychological proficiency.

Our continued work led to the realization that all three strategies could be implemented together to help address the challenge of guiding students through a curriculum path to degree completion despite the barriers that are common among students enrolled at a public state university. Providing choices in scheduling courses (strategy 1), redesigning the curriculum to offer flexible pathways to graduation (strategy 2), and offering students options in delivery modes (strategy 3) increase the likelihood of student success, allowing us to find a way out of and therefore escape the “perfect storm” that higher education finds itself in today.

Join Irina Chernikova in her live, online seminar, Overcoming STEM Challenges When Designing Curriculum and Online Delivery, on Tuesday, September 15 at 1:00 PM Central.

Irina Chernikova earned her PhD in applied mathematics in 1985. She has been teaching at the University of Akron for over 20 years and teaches the department’s wide variety of mathematics course—from college algebra to differential equation and statistics. She serves as the department’s lead faculty and has received the department’s Outstanding Teacher Award three times. Dr. Chernikova also served as department chair.


Davis, B. G. (2009). Tools for teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Open Education Database. 10 advantages to taking online classes. Retrieved from http://oedb.org/ilibrarian/10-advantages-to-taking-online-classes/