Studying curriculum design in European Studies

 By Johan Adriaensen & Caterina Pozzi

Curriculum design is the backbone of programmes in Higher Education and the framework within which all teaching and learning take place. Surprisingly, there is relatively little comparative research on curriculum designs within the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, in particular when it comes to broad fields such as European Studies.

Sure, there has been some debate on what a European Studies curriculum should constitute. During the 2000s in particular, scholars such as Craig Calhoun, and Philomena Murray and Chris Rumford asked whether there is (or should be) such a thing as a core curriculum in European Studies.  At policy level, there have also been some attempts to flesh out standards in European Studies, as exemplified by the 2008 Tuning document. Yet, to our knowledge, there has been no thorough attempt to systematically compare European Studies programmes’ characteristics across a large number of cases. This is where our ongoing research project comes in. We – that is, the two of us, but also Patrick Bijsmans and Afke Groen – set out to construct a comprehensive comparative database mapping the variation in curriculum design. In our exercise, we focus on (1) the teaching of skills, practical experience and employability; (2) the degree of interdisciplinarity; and (3) the flexibility and coherence of the programme.

Our study targets undergraduate programmes offered by member institutions of the most relevant scientific associations: APSA, ECPR and UACES. Beyond European Studies, we also codify data on programmes in Politics and International Relations. We are currently still in the process of coding, but our initial experiences made abundantly clear why there was a lack of existing comparative studies. Notwithstanding the language barriers, availability and navigability of university websites, or the time-intensive nature of manual coding, we would like to draw your attention to three pertinent challenges we encountered:

First, the main hurdle in our coding exercise concerns the flexibility of the programmes offered, more specifically the availability of elective courses. While some programmes offer mostly compulsory tracks with a limited set of electives (e.g. in Belgium, France, Germany and Italy), others present a substantial array of courses for students to pick from. This is particularly the case for the U.S. and Eastern European programmes, whose major-minor structure has led us to re-think and re-organise our data several times. For many of these programmes, it is near impossible to detect a common curriculum that all students share. Any ideas that help us code such flexible programmes without losing too much information (e.g. if we only code the courses that are followed by all students of the programme) or inflating our dataset (e.g. by coding every combination of major-minor as a separate programme) are particularly welcomed.

A second challenge relates to the interpretation of course names and course content. Some course names or topics did not fit well with our (rigid) coding scheme. Both in terms of disciplinary boundaries, assessment methods or skills training, we were forced to categorise courses in ‘boxes’. We introduced some flexibility in our coding by allowing for multiple categories to be applicable. An interdisciplinary course like International Political Economy can thus classified as a course in international relations, politics and economics. Still, in other cases the information provided (often only the course title) was insufficient to apply any type of classification.

This heightens the third challenge we encountered: achieving inter-coder reliability. If there is room for interpretation, the scope for a different classification increases. We worked on the project with four colleagues. In our collective coding sessions, it was common to have lengthy discussions on how to classify a specific course and its assessment method. We tried to resolve this issue through continuously updating our codebook, but a proper test of intercoder reliability remains necessary. We welcome any volunteer wishing to code a few curricula with the help of our codebook to establish intercoder reliability more objectively.

While these challenges help explain the lack of prior research; it also strengthens our resolve. The project’s ambition to create a comprehensive database not only facilitates much needed academic research. It also promises to be a useful resource for educational reform, in particular in light of challenges such as an increasingly diverse and international student body and the constantly changing object of study in European Studies. Moreover, it can be a helpful tool to strengthen the profile of the offered programmes in an increasingly crowded market for higher education.

We look forward to continuing working on the project and aim to present our first findings at this year’s European Teaching & Learning Conference in Amsterdam and the 2020 annual UACES conference in Belfast (COVID-19 permitting). Meanwhile, we will keep you posted through Twitter and blogposts. And please leave a comment below if you have questions or thoughts that can help us in our future endeavours!

About the authors

Johan Adriaensen is assistant professor at Maastricht University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. One of his research interest concerns teaching and learning, in particular skills and methods teaching and curriculum design. Johan teaches in the faculty’s BA and MA programmes in the field of European Studies.

Caterina Pozzi is a student of the Maastricht University’s MA in European Studies. In addition, she is a research assistant in a curriculum design research project by Johan, Patrick Bijsmans and Afke Groen. Caterina will graduate in summer 2020 with a MA thesis on Cybersecurity in Europe.