How to Conduct an Archeological Dig and Write a Curricular Educational Priority

One of the very first steps one undertakes when developing a residential curriculum is crafting an educational priority. An educational priority is the basis upon which all other goals and outcomes are derived. Based in the mission, context, and values of your institution, an educational priority should provide a broad statement about what your division or department aims to teach. In many ways, the educational priority statement serves as a sort of “mission” for your curriculum–a short, bite-sized statement (or very brief paragraph) about what the curriculum is about and what students will learn.

Your educational priority statement should be situated within the context of your institution and be informed by insights and research into student learning and development. Before writing a priority statement, it is therefore important to conduct an audit, or archeological dig, to surface important characteristics and concepts that should be present and accounted for in the statement. As Siri Espy states, “Much like an archeological dig, your mission is to start with a set of bones and construct a skin that will fit. Ask yourself what an animal with all of your identified characteristics would look like, then set out to build one.” (p. 86)

During the audit and discovery phase of your dig, you should seek to collect information, documents, and statements that will form the basis and rationale for your educational priority. These data sources, outlined here, can be grouped into four categories:

Institutional Documents

Each educational priority is unique to every campus. As a part of the discovery process, key institutional documents can help narrow the scope of and provide focus to your educational priority statement. These key institutional documents can include items like mission statements, values statements, and honor codes. The liberal arts or general education requirements of an intuition can also be useful in suggesting synergies and areas of emphasis for a residential curriculum. Finally, the current goals and aspirations of the institution, often developed through strategic planning, can also guide the process ensuring that your educational priority is inline with current institutional needs and goals.

Institutional Culture and Assessments

Beyond the documents and espoused values of a department or institution, it is also important to investigate unique insights into the culture of a campus and examine prior assessments of its students. How is the institution portrayed in admissions materials? Are there key words, phrases, or concepts that are repeated regularly? Does the institution have a specific curricular focus? Do certain majors or academic subject areas dominate? Finally, how do students feel about their education and the campus climate? Looking at institution-wide assessments can help hone one’s view as to what a campus privileges academically and how well the institution achieves its goals in practice. Digging deeper, one may ask, what are the knowledge and skills one must possess in order to achieve the goals set by the institution?

Student Learning

In addition to looking at institution-level and student-level data, it is important to situate educational priorities into the broader context of student learning research and theory. Particularly prominent in many residential curricula is the work of Marcia Baxter Magolda and her work on learning partnerships. Other works that may be useful include some of the seminal documents on student learning in higher education. Staff familiarity with these foundational theories and philosophies is key to ensuring that the curriculum is grounded in research and best practice.

Student Characteristics and Data

Finally, when developing an educational priority, one should also look into specific student characteristics that may influence that priority. Are students of certain demographics represented or under-represented? How are these different student populations supported or not? Demographics can include characteristics like race, gender, or veteran status. They can also include family socio-economic status, first generation status, or urban/rural home geographies. To dig further into the experiences of your students some campus-wide instruments, such as the National Survey of Student Engagement or the CIRP Freshman Survey, can help. You may also have data collected through your campus’ retention efforts. Lastly, conducting your own original data gathering processes, such as through the use of student and staff focus groups, can help you hone, and test the salience of, your proposed educational priority.


One of the defining characteristics of a residential curriculum is that it is unique to each institution and situated in context. Although many institutions may find overlapping concepts in the formulation of their educational priority, they will nevertheless define and achieve these in different ways. Furthermore, an audit or archeological dig not only informs the educational priority, but also all of the subsequent cascading goals and outcomes which further define and hone your curriculum. Becoming familiar with the research and data that informs these can help guide staff and partners towards a greater understanding of the curriculum itself and lead to more successful implementations.

Key Questions

  • What documents, data, and information do you need to collect to begin developing your educational priority?
  • Who should be involved in your audit/dig process and how and when should they be involved?
  • How will you begin to bring all of this data together to justify and write your educational priority?
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