Vision Setting 13 Minute Read

Program Mapping

Computer and books

We’ve discussed in detail elsewhere the process for developing course maps and why they’re beneficial––they promote and illustrate alignment between all of the core components of an online course: learning objectives, assessments, and instructional materials. With course maps in hand, program administrators can then develop a program map; this tool will help them analyze and adjust the alignment of courses within a degree program with greater ease and efficiency.

The Benefits of Program Mapping

Program mapping––also known as outcome mapping–uses predetermined artifacts or evidentiary support to determine how well each course within a degree program serves its appropriate role as a prerequisite and supports program outcomes. It also addresses in an appropriate order all competencies that a degree program claims students will master.

Implementing this process can help program administrators better plan, direct, and coordinate a particular degree program. They can use this method to identify the courses in a specific program and document when they’re offered to students. Examining program-related information in this manner can also reveal gaps in a program’s curriculum. In addition, program administrators seeking to create a foundation for larger initiatives (such as e-portfolio integration or a move to a competency-based education [CBE] format) may also find program mapping beneficial. Other possible benefits include advancing curriculum-related communication among faculty members, improving a program’s coherence, and increasing the likelihood that students will achieve program-level outcomes.

Both faculty and program administrators can use program mapping to align course-level outcomes with program outcomes, visualize a program’s organizational structure, determine how well each course allows students to meet program-level outcomes, and ultimately focus on student learning (Clark College, n.d.).

You can design a program map in different ways, but a typical format categorizes and organizes program particulars. You can choose from a variety of formats––for example, a mind map, matrix, or spreadsheet––during the design process. The layout you choose, however, should include a way to represent both program and course outcomes (Clark College, n.d.).

Supporting Program Mapping With Curriculum Mapping

After mapping the courses in a program, program administrators can then create a curriculum map for each course to see whether it meets program objectives. Curriculum mapping “focuses on teaching and aligns instruction with program outcomes” (Clark College, n.d., p. 1). More specifically, it examines offered courses and how they are taught. It also identifies “which courses address which program outcomes” (Jankowski, 2014, Slide 7).

Consider this scenario:

Jane is a dedicated program administrator who has just finished creating a program map for the English department’s graduate program. She’s diagrammed all of the courses currently offered by the school, deciding to use a matrix format. The first column lists all of the graduate program’s courses and each course’s objectives. She creates additional columns using the program-level outcomes as headings. Jane examines each course-level outcome and makes a mark in the appropriate intersecting cell if it supports the program-level outcome. This type of program map allows Jane to determine which courses successfully meet objectives and also identify gaps in the graduate program’s curriculum.

Jane identifies three courses that currently don’t support program-level outcomes. She decides to make a curriculum map for each of the three courses in order to examine the course components in greater depth. Jane considers the following questions before creating a curriculum map for each course: Is the course well organized? Does its instruction support the goals of the program? Does it allow students to satisfy academic expectations? Is this course necessary? Should the department remove it or add another course?

Jane determines that two of the courses need additional formative and summative assessments in order to better address the program’s objectives. She believes that the third course needs a completely new instructional plan integrating new content and up-to-date textbooks. The program and curriculum maps also show that there’s a hole in the curriculum; the graduate program could benefit from offering a new course that focuses on modern literature. Jane writes down her findings and e-mails her recommendations to the English department chair and the faculty members who teach the mapped courses.

The previous scenario demonstrates that curriculum mapping is a separate but large part of program mapping. If we view a program map as a skeleton, we can consider curriculum maps to be the muscles that support it. Do the courses help the program stand, or will they cause it to fall?

The Benefits of Curriculum Mapping

As we have seen, curriculum mapping allows program administrators to determine the strengths and weaknesses of a course. However, curriculum mapping is not just a comparison between course and program outcomes; this organizational tool also examines items such as formative and summative assessments, instructional materials, and the course’s instructional plan to see if they support or achieve program goals (Lease, 2016; Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). This process helps program administrators “identify and address academic gaps, redundancies, and misalignments for purposes of improving the overall coherence of a course of study and, by extension, its effectiveness” (“Curriculum Mapping,” 2013, para. 1).

In addition to providing “insight into curricular coherence and content emphasis,” a curriculum map also indicates areas of knowledge within a degree program (The Center for Educational Effectiveness, 2010, para. 1). It can function as a “road map for student progression to degree and articulates significant milestones in achieving learning outcomes” (e.g., taking qualifying or comprehensive exams, completing core courses, submitting a thesis or dissertation proposal, defending a thesis or dissertation, or participating in a practicum) (The Center for Educational Effectiveness, 2010, para. 3–4).

Getting Started

So then, how should you proceed once you’ve established the need for a curriculum map? There is no wrong way to create one––you should use a method and format that works for you. However, you should consider the following as part of the design process (Clark College, n.d.):

  • How do the courses and outcomes relate to one another?
  • How can you indicate that a course outcome supports a program outcome?
  • How can you identify whether course artifacts (e.g., submitted assignments or projects) and assessments demonstrate achievement of program outcomes?
  • Have you revised or removed course outcomes that do not support program outcomes?

To assist you in your mapping process, we’ve provided you with a Program Map Template. You should feel free to modify the template if doing so will help you meet the needs of your mapping project.

How to Create a Curriculum Map With the Provided Template

Step One

To help clarify program outcomes that support institutional values, complete the “Mission-Values-Goals-Outcomes” tab. Most of this information should be available on your institution’s website. In some instances, a department or program may not have a mission statement. In that case, you can delete those sections of the first tab from the template.

Step Two

Once you’ve completed the “Mission-Values-Goals-Outcomes” tab, move to the “Current Outcomes Alignment” tab. Begin completing this tab by locating the program learning outcomes (PLOs) and then adding them to the green section of the template. However, locating the PLOs may not be that cut and dry. If they’re not readily available to you, you can sometimes find this information on your school’s website, in course syllabi, or in your institution’s academic catalog. Occasionally, they don’t exist at all. Regarding this occurrence, you can find tips for how to deal with nonexistent PLOs in the next section of this article.

Step Three

The next step is to collect the information that you have on the courses in the program that you’re mapping.

If students should take courses in a preferred or required order, you should mirror that order when adding courses to the map. Otherwise, adding the courses in numerical order (according to the course number) is fine.

Curriculum maps typically focus on a program’s core curriculum, but there may be exceptions, such as when a course has prerequisites or a course from another department (or even another program) may satisfy program outcomes. For example, it would not be unusual for a graduate student in art history to take a graduate course offered by a foreign languages department. Even though the art history department may not offer a course in French translation, this interdepartmental course could still satisfy the art history program’s requirements and outcomes.

To designate a course that is part of the program’s core curriculum, use the column’s drop-down menu to place the correct label (in this case, “Core”) in the appropriate location in Column B.

Next, locate the course descriptions, which you can often find in your institution’s academic catalog or within course syllabi. When adding a course’s description, take a few minutes and compare the description between the catalog and the syllabus if possible. Should you notice any discrepancies between the two sources, make a note. Most accrediting bodies require consistent descriptions between syllabi and the catalog, as well as consistent descriptions between each instance of a course (between terms and between sections).

After adding the course descriptions, list the course-level learning objectives (or “macro objectives,” as we like to call them) or the instructional learning outcomes in the appropriate beige areas on the template. You can find these objectives in previously completed course maps (if available) or in the courses’ syllabi.

Once you’ve listed the course-level objectives, you’re ready to review these to ensure that they’re measurable and student-centered. If they aren’t, you should highlight them in blue (based on the key at the top of the template).

Step Four

It’s now time to see how well the course-level objectives align with the program-level objectives.  If a course-level objective seems to relate to a program-level objective, then put a check or mark (such as an “X”) in the appropriate place in the grid. There will be times that you must use your best judgment when determining the presence (or lack) of alignment. That’s okay––any mistakes or deficiencies can be fixed.

If course- and program-level objectives don’t seem to align, highlight the appropriate areas in red. If an (intersecting) area is already highlighted red, highlight it purple. You can see this information in the key at the top of the template.

Step Five

The next step is to put together your thoughts on how well things align and to identify where you think some changes or modifications may be necessary. While you should certainly frame your suggestions based on the reason for the mapping, look to see where you have a lot of red and purple on the map. Write down where these colors occur. In your notes, also indicate learning objectives that aren’t student-centered or measurable; these will also need modification.

It can sometimes be helpful to create a separate Word document to summarize or list your findings. If you aren’t a program administrator and find inadequacies while helping with mapping, you can also choose to just write out your thoughts and suggestions in an e-mail to the appropriate party. Getting a second opinion on a map is beneficial; having someone else review the objectives’ alignment may expose previously missed problems. If necessary, suggest holding a meeting with faculty or other administrators to discuss and problem-solve deficient maps (course, curriculum, or program). This is especially important when a map reveals that there are many areas of concern that need attention.

Different schools will have different processes that individuals must follow in order to update items on a list of suggested changes. For some schools, updating may be a fairly quick process. For others, it may take a long time to make any changes. If it looks as though one or two courses at your institution will need several big changes in order to improve alignment between course- and program-level objectives, it may be worthwhile to discuss postponing the development of those courses until after any possible changes have been completed.

Common Problems and Potential Ways to Resolve Them

“I Don’t Have Program Learning Outcomes (PLOs).”

In this situation, either these outcomes don’t exist or you can’t find a way to access them. First, make sure that you’ve done your due diligence to find them. Did you check your institution’s website? Did you reach out to the appropriate program chair? Did you review your institution’s academic catalog? If you’ve done so and still can’t locate any PLOs, go ahead and add the courses’ information and then look for common themes shared among the program’s courses. At that point, you can attempt to identify and suggest some program-level outcomes. Use these suggestions as a starting point for creating the missing objectives.

“There Are LOTS of PLOs.”

Sometimes a program will have an excessively large amount of PLOs. You may even ask yourself, “Is this okay? Should I say something?” Rest assured, if you feel as though a program has too many PLOs, you’re probably right. Make a note if this issue arises. Most programs really don’t need more than eight to nine PLOs. Look for PLOs that only align to one or two course objectives across the entire program. You can also look for ways to combine PLOs in order to reflect an overarching goal instead of a minute detail. Remember: If you feel overwhelmed, a student will probably feel the same way.

“Nothing Seems to Align.”

This happens, and honestly, this is why mapping is important. It may be that a program has changed and evolved over time and the PLOs were never updated. It may be that things were just poorly written from the very beginning. If this happens to you, don’t assume that you’re mapping incorrectly––a lack of alignment indicates that a problem exists within a program’s curriculum. Remember: If you can’t see the alignment, a student probably won’t either.

The Map Is Done. Now What?

After you have finished your map, you may wonder what else you should do with it. First, you should consider showing course writers and educators within the program your map so that they can see how their class fits into the bigger picture for students. You should also consider sharing the map with your professional peers. If others know the big picture for the program, they can communicate it accurately to students.


Targeted use of program and curriculum mapping can benefit schools that want to develop and offer coherent and effective degree programs. Program mapping focuses on the organizational structure of a program’s core courses and examines the alignment of course- and program-level outcomes. Curriculum mapping provides a more in-depth view of course components––including the content, instructional plan, activities, and assessments––and determines how well they support program objectives. Both types of maps are beneficial because they identify areas within a course or program that need development or specialization. However, program administrators should avoid mapping for the sake of mapping. A program (or curriculum) map should have a purpose: helping one improve an educational program so that it achieves objectives at every level.


The Center for Educational Effectiveness. (2010, March). Curriculum mapping. Retrieved from the University of Delaware website:

Clark College. (n.d.). Outcome mapping. Retrieved from

Curriculum mapping. (2013, November 18). In The glossary of education reform. Retrieved from

Jankowski, N. (2014, September 12). Mapping learning outcomes: What you map is what you see [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment website:

Lease, L. (2016, August 3). 5 steps for curriculum mapping. Retrieved from

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (Expanded 2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD. Retrieved from

Posted June 29, 2018
Author Robin Zahrndt and Katherine Gentzel
Categories Vision Setting