Centre for Teaching and Learning Resource: Curriculum Context

Author: CTL – Published January 2023

This phase in the DeLTA process examines the current context within which learning, teaching and assessment takes place.

This phase examines the current context within which learning, teaching and assessment needs to take place. SU’s approach to teaching and learning, as set out in the Teaching and Learning Policy, is learning-centred and digitally supported, and should underpin all teaching, learning and assessment activities.

Updated Round Delta Framework Graphic

This phase is about ensuring that your teaching practice is responsive to the context.  This is about yourself as a teacher, understanding your students, the SU environment, the national HE context, South Africa and beyond.

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Outcomes are the end goals of the learning process. They are formulated to describe the result of student learning at the end of the learning opportunities.  This is not about content but rather about the concepts and underlying principles of the field of study.

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Assessment is about how well your students achieve the intended learning outcomes.  This is not about them reporting back what you have taught them, but rather about how well they demonstrate their understanding of the key concepts and underlying principles of their field of study.

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Learning is about what the students do, not about what you do as the teacher.  Your role is to design learning opportunities that engage students and enable them to access disciplinary knowledge.

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This is where you consider whether you have achieved what you had set out to achieve with your module.

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This resource is for:

Even though the CTL acknowledges the importance of the co- and extra curriculum, we are focused on providing resources for the development of the formal curriculum and the teaching-learning-assessment opportunities of a specific module, as developed and taught by the lecturers in the SU classroom, that can help form the other curricula.

Any teaching academic can use this resource to enhance their understanding of the context that influences the curriculum and teaching-learning-assessment opportunities in their module. This resource is ideal for teaching academics who are planning a new module, or revising and adapting a current module.

What is curriculum?

The curriculum can be defined as all the planned learning opportunities offered to students by the educational institution and the experiences learners encounter when the curriculum is implemented (Print 1987:4). A broad take on what a curriculum is and how it can be defined within the higher education sector, has been advocated for in recent decades. Knight (2001:369) considers curriculum to be “a set of purposeful, intended experiences” and Kandiko and Blackmore (2012:26) expands the definition even further to include “the unstructured and spontaneous learning that takes place within and outside the formal academic environment”. Following this paradigm, researchers within the (higher) education sector often distinguish between the formal curriculum, nonformal or co-curriculum and hidden aspects of the curriculum or extra-curriculum.

Even though the CTL acknowledges the importance of the co- and extra curriculum, we are focused on providing resources for the development of the formal curriculum and the teaching-learning-assessment opportunities of a specific module, as developed and taught by the lecturers in the SU classroom, that can help form the other curricula. We subscribe to the five component definition of the formal curriculum, as utilised by Hicks (2018:9), namely:

  1. What is being learnt
  2. Why it is being learnt
  3. How it is being learnt 
  4. When and where it is being learnt
  5. The demonstration that learning is taking place

Hicks (2018:9-10) aims to ground this definition within the realm of the student experience and simultaneously incorporate the dynamic and emergent nature of teaching-learning-assessment in the higher education sector. This outlook prioritizes the “essential process of learning – and its facilitation” without limiting it to conventional, old-school teaching practices (Hicks 2018:10).


The formal curriculum is defined by Leask (2009:207) as the “sequenced programme of teaching and learning activities and experiences organised around defined content areas, topics, and resources, the objectives of which are assessed in various ways”. It is important to note that the curriculum not only functions on an institutional level, but it also plays out on different levels within the university structure – on programme level, course level, within certain learning units and even at the level of specific teaching and learning scenarios (Hicks 2018:16). In our context, the formal curriculum refers to all the learning content in a certain programme throughout the duration of the entire programme. The syllabus or module content, on the other hand, is the learning content that is linked to a certain module or course in a more limited time frame, for example over the span of one year (e.g. second year) or, more specifically, a term or semester within that year (e.g. Philosophy 214).

Which context(s)?

When planning and designing a curriculum one should be aware of the context within which teaching, learning and assessment will take place.

The context in which the curriculum is situated, can be organised on a macro, meso, micro and nano level (Van den Akker 2003:2). The macro level context includes the external stakeholders for example professional bodies, the industry and future employers. The higher education sector and its frameworks, as well as larger institutional goals also constitutes the macro context within which the curriculum for your module is nested. The meso level context refers to the degree or programme within which your module is positioned, as well as the departmental and disciplinary aspects that might affect the teaching-learning-assessment opportunities. On the micro level context one should consider the module guidelines, including outcomes, assessment and facilitation of learning (hybrid learning, blended learning, etc.) as well as your students with their needs and backgrounds. The nano level context is focused on you as a lecturer with your own strengths and weaknesses – a realistic overview of this level could help shape your career path in future.

The entire context at SU is formed by SU’s learning-centred approach to teaching, learning and assessment and it should inform all teaching, learning and assessment activities. The documents guiding and informing this approach, are the:

The macro level context refers to external stakeholders and SU’s ethos that inform the curriculum context.


The industry: Professional bodies and future employers

The influence of this section on the curriculum context is dependent on the discipline in which you are situated. In some faculties and disciplines, professional bodies are very involved in the governance and quality assurance of the programmes and degrees offered. In these cases, their guidelines and expectations play a significant role in the curriculum context. In disciplines where professional bodies aren’t as prominent, being mindful of other factors like industry practice and the needs of future industries and employers might be important.

The higher education sector

The higher education sector in South Africa is governed by the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) and it is responsible for determining the strategic direction and implementation of policies and projects in higher education and the Council for Higher Education helps it with these tasks. The South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) regulate, coordinate, develop and implement the National Qualifications Framework (NQF), which regulates qualifications and programmes on a national standard. All programmes offered at SU are approved by DHET, accredited by CHE and is registered by SAQA and this process is internally administered by the Centre for Academic Planning and Quality Assurance. More detail on SAQA’s NQF-levels are provided below.

SU: A learning-centered approach

The SU promotes a learning-centred approach to teaching, learning and assessment that is focused on learning as a partnership, where students are seen as co-creators of knowledge and learning environments. In a learning-centred approach, teaching activities facilitate access to knowledge and knowledge-building by actively engaging students in their own learning. To this end, SU should ensure that the learning-centred approach to teaching is integrated across the institution and that sufficient, suitable resources are available to support teaching and learning. The learning-centred approach is governed by the SU’s Teaching and Learning Policy as well as the Teaching and Learning Strategy.

SU: Graduate attributes

These are the core values that SU, as a creator of hope in Africa, aspires to foster in every graduate. The idea is that the graduate attributes should be kept in mind when developing the curriculum and should be enhanced through every aspect of the SU experience, in both the formal curriculum and co-curriculum. The current set of graduate attributes, as described in the SU Teaching and Learning Strategy (2017), is:

  • An enquiring mind
  • An engaged citizen
  • A dynamic professional
  • A well-rounded individual

Please note that the SU is in the process of compiling new attributes and this section might be amended in 2023.

The meso level context refers to the specific SU institutional policies, faculty requirements and disciplinary practices that inform the curriculum context.


Policies and strategies

On a meso level, policies and strategies help us navigate the complex context in which teaching, learning and assessment takes place.

The policies and strategies guiding and informing the SU learning-centred approach are: 

An important part of teaching-learing and assessment at SU is to enable staff and students to promote academic integrity and eliminate plagiarism. The two documents that shape this approach are the:

Because we teach, learn and assess within a learning-centred environment guided by the SU ethos, the SU’s plagiarism policy and plagiarism procedures should not be seen as policing documents, but as tools that can guide students on their learning journey. As a teaching academic, one has a great opportunity to reshape the narrative and focus on academic integrity instead of simply punishing plagiarism. Be sure to include discussions on the ethos of academic integrity within your module and see formative assessments as a time to shape students’ learning experiences.

Many of the other documents that govern our teaching, learning, and assessment may be faculty, discipline, and department specific and perhaps even differ within divisions of a department. Be sure to look at any faculty specific policies and strategies and stay up to date with the latest departmental decisions, disciplinary practice, and educational paradigms within your meso context.

Contact your CTL faculty advisor for more guidance in this matter.

The micro level refers to the more specific context that directly impacts your module. Give careful consideration to these factors, as it greatly influences the syllabus of your curriculum.


Module guidelines

Every module functions within certain guidelines that determine the level at which the content should be set and how much time the student should spend on the module. The specifics like module outcomes, assessment, and the constructive alignment will be addressed in the resources with these titles.

NQF levels

All of SU’s degree programmes are aligned with the National Qualifications Framework (NQF), as set by SAQA and governed by the CHE. SU’s academic offering ranges from NQF-levels 7 to 10:

  • NQF level 7: Bachelor’s Degree
  • NQF level 8: Honours Degree / Postgraduate Diploma
  • NQF level 9: Master’s Degree
  • NQF level 10: Doctoral Degree

For a graphic indicating all of the NQF levels and their governing bodies in more detail, click here.

The difficulty of the module should be aligned with the NQF level on which it is taught, and learning should be staggered within that frame. For example, an honours module should be more difficult than a second-year module, because it is one NQF level higher and in a first-year module one should expect a little less form the student than you would in their second year. The syllabus should thus be compiled within the greater context of the module and programme in which it is situated and working with colleagues within your department to assure that the content builds on previous years or modules and links with future learning over the course of a student’s year and degree programme is crucial.

Credits and notional hours per module

All modules at SU also have credits linked to them. Credits are a measure of the learning time that it would take the average student to meet the prescribed outcomes. The South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) uses this credit system based on the idea that one credit equals ten notional hours of learning. The notional hours refer to all of the hours that students spend on the module, both in and out of the class, and it is stipulated as follows:

  • contact time (face-to-face)
  • time spent in other structured learning opportunities (e.g. online learning opportunities)
  • individual learning and preparation (self-study, time for completing assignments and research)
  • time spent in assessment processes for example tests and exams and time spent on preparation for these assessments.

Therefore 8 credits would equal 80 hours and 24 credits should translate to 240 hours spent on the entire module, everything included. Be sure to consider this factor when designing your teaching, learning and assessment opportunities within the module.

Module outcomes, assessments, etc.

Click on the following module guidelines for a resource on this topic:

The students

Within a learning-centred approach, the students’ position as partners in the learning environment and a co-creator of their own learning, is very important. Carefully consider the specific context of the group of students you will be teaching in general – not only the NQF-level of their qualification or their year group, but also how unique circumstances like the Covid-19 pandemic may mean that they may differ from previous years that you have taught.

On a nano level, there might also be students in your class who have specific learning needs and requirements. These students will identify themselves and, in many cases, the Disability Unit or other relevant support office from the SU will contact you at the beginning of the module to discuss a way forward. Students may have writing or time concessions, specific needs like enlarged learning material, or might use screen readers to help them work through the learning material. In some cases it might mean that you need to send the learning material through for brailing or to make it accessible to screen readers, or that a sign language interpreter might accompany a student with a hearing disability. Although it might sound daunting at first, the Disability Unit is available for assistance. If you have specific teaching, learning or assessment questions, feel free to contact the TLA-hub in your faculty or reach out to your CTL advisor.

One’s own disposition

Another important factor when considering the context within which the curriculum is situated, is being aware of one’s own strengths, weaknesses, limitations, and excellences. Students are acute observers and can tell if you are unprepared, uncomfortable, or not interested in your own module – and if you don’t enjoy it, they probably won’t learn well either. Carefully and honestly consider what you are good at, and what your future growth areas are. Try and create a learning environment in which all parties are comfortable, professional and engaged. The Reflection Resource would be able to help you with this process as well.

If you would like to grow more in certain teaching, learning and assessment areas, the Centre for Teaching and Learning offers a wide variety of professional learning opportunities, like the PREDAC programme, a short course or lunch hour talks on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, called Auxins.

How do I determine the curriculum context of my module?

According to Nicholls and Nicholls (1974:69) a situational analysis of the utmost importance when planning and designing a curriculum. Conduct a situational analysis to you help understand the context on a macro, meso, micro, and nano level. You can download a worksheet here.

Professional learning opportunities

The Centre for Teaching and Learning offers a variety of professional learning opportunities to support academics in their teaching role:

  • We offer a short course on Assessment
  • Teaching academics can join the yearly PREDAC programme to develop their teaching-learning-assessment skills
  • Attend Auxins (lunch hour talks on the scholarship of teaching and learning)
  • We offer a SoTL Short Course


  1. Hicks, O. 2018. Curriculum in higher education: Confusion, complexity and currency. HERDSA Review of higher Education [Online]: Available at: www.herdsa.org.au/herdsa-review-higher-education-vol-5/5-30. [2022, November 24].

  2. Kandiko, C.B. & Blackmore, P. 2012. Chapter 1. The networked curriculum. In P. Blackmore & C.B. Kandiko (Eds.), Strategic curriculum change: Global trends in universities. London: Routledge.

  3. Knight, P. 2001. Complexity and curriculum: A process approach to curriculummaking. Teaching in Higher Education, 6(3), pp. 368-381.

  4. Leask, Betty. 2009. Using formal and informal curricula to improve interactions between home and international students. Journal of Studies in International Education, 13(2), pp. 205-221.

  5. Nicholls. A and H. Nicholls. 1983. Developing a curriculum: A practical guide. London: George Allen and Unwin.

  6. Van den Akker, J. 2003. Curriculum perspectives: An introduction. In J. van den Akker, W. Kuiper & U. Hameyer (Eds.), Curriculum landscapes and trends.. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

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