Curriculum mapping in nurse practitioner education: Meeting NTF standards is one of many benefits

  • Nov. 17, 2023
APEA Staff
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Imagine that you are planning a road trip. You’ve packed your bags, put together the perfect playlist, and placed your travel snacks within arm’s reach. It’s time to go! You get in your car and load the destination address into your navigation app, only to discover that the drive will take you twice as long as expected — and the route involves multiple tolls and detours. If you had planned ahead for the intricacies of the trip, you could have adjusted your timetable and perhaps identified a route that would have fewer costs and slowdowns.

This scenario is a lot like curriculum mapping, an undertaking that requires detailed planning and effort, but produces long-term benefits. Simply defined, curriculum mapping is a method of identifying the connections between the expected outcomes of an academic program and the specific courses in which learning takes place. It is used at all levels of education, and it is receiving more attention in nurse practitioner programs as a result of requirements in the 2022 National Task Force Standards for Quality Nurse Practitioner Education (NTF Standards).

Benefits of curriculum mapping for faculty in NP education programs

In a nurse practitioner education program, curriculum mapping helps faculty identify and correct redundancies and omissions of content and activities. The process encompasses a review of courses, activities, and exams, as well as an analysis of relationships among curricular components and the flow of courses and content. Curriculum mapping can help NP academic programs meet Standards III and IV of the NTF Standards, sections that focus on curriculum quality and outcomes.

The 2022 NTF Standards (6th edition) are an update to educational criteria published in 2016 (NTF Standards 5th edition). The task force that develops the standards is facilitated by the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties (NONPF) and the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN). The 2022 standards emphasize more measures of competency and outcomes and increase the number of clinical hours required for NP students to complete an academic program. Read an overview the 2022 NTF Standards in this article on The NP Insider.

Of note, three entities — NONPF, AACN and the NTF task force — have identified expected competencies for NPs. These documents are interrelated and have an overarching goal to assure the development of high-quality nurses at all education levels:

  • In 2017, NONPF established core competencies specifically for the NP role. These were updated in 2022. Find them here.
  • In 2021, AACN established essential competencies for nursing education (The Essentials: Core Competencies in Professional Nursing Education). Find a crosswalk between the AACN Essentials nursing competencies and the NONPF core competencies here.
  • In 2022, the National Task Force on Quality Nurse Practitioner Education established standards for NP education programs that include competencies. Find the standards here.

The demonstration of student competencies and program outcomes is a key requirement across the three competency documents. Curriculum mapping is valuable to faculty because it is an evidence-based tool for demonstrating the effectiveness of a program’s learning strategies and can help meet these requirements.

“Curriculum mapping provides a bird's eye view of how everything is connected, from your learning objectives and your courses to the individual module objectives and assignments, and then up to the program outcomes,” said Lindsey Luther, DNP, APRN, FNP-C, CNE, a nurse practitioner education specialist for APEA.

Citing the analogy of the road map for a long trip, she emphasized the importance of taking a methodical approach. “Planning your breaks and stops helps you break the trip into manageable pieces,” Dr. Luther said. “If you have a curriculum map that links your teaching methods with learning outcomes, you can focus on what you’re teaching in a particular module and know that it will move your students toward the desired outcomes.”

Curriculum mapping is most effective when pauses for analysis and reflection are built into the process. “Using that road map analogy, an example for NP programs is to determine how many diagnoses you need to cover in cardiovascular. This will help you determine how many hours you need to spend on that section,” said Kathy Baldridge, DNP, FNP-BC, FAANP, the nurse practitioner education specialist lead for APEA. “And based on that, you then determine your stopping point and your assessment method for the cardiovascular material. Then you can go to the next body system.

“Those are the ‘legs of your trip,’ and you're mapping it according to exactly what you're going to cover and how you're going to assess student learning of what you covered,” Dr. Baldridge continued. “Ultimately you evaluate whether you have met the competencies for that section, but you’ve achieved that progress through manageable, bite-sized portions.”

What does curriculum mapping achieve?

  • It links learning outcomes with the learning activities used to teach the material and the assessments used to ensure students have learned.
  • It identifies gaps in instruction and assessment.
  • It ensures that students are receiving equivalent education across semesters and terms
  • Improves resource selection and prevents curriculum drift as resources are updated or changed.
  • It provides evidence that competencies are being met.
  • It allows differentiation of instruction while still meeting learning outcomes.
  • It produces evidence that can be used to evaluate program quality.

How to begin curriculum mapping in an NP academic program

Curriculum mapping may feel intimidating at first, but Dr. Baldridge and Dr. Luther advise that it doesn’t take long to get comfortable when the process is pursued in small segments and incorporates teamwork.

Dr. Baldridge recommends first turning to past program data. Use that as a starting point for mapping. “Unless it's a new program, someone before you has documented information. Go back and look at those evaluations. What did the students think was missing? What weaknesses were identified in the cohort report for any assessments that were given? This information will determine how you need to reroute your ‘mapping’ to fill in the gaps.”

When past data are unavailable or not informative for new mapping, Dr. Luther recommends two things right out of the gate: Work on one course module at a time, and don’t fly solo — involve a team.

“It is not quick, and you should start with the smallest chunk of a course that you can,” Dr. Luther said. “Get that one module lined up so that your learning objectives for it match your learning activities and lead you to the formative assessment for that module. Once you've done that, move on to the other modules.”

After all the modules in a course are mapped, the team should return to the course objectives to determine if the information matches up. “Part of what happens when you start mapping is you realize there are a lot of holes,” Dr. Luther said. “When you find those holes, you often may have to go to your curriculum committee and discuss how you can adjust learning resources or course formats. Work with your faculty and curriculum committee to make adjustments until you close those gaps. Tackle things one at a time and make it a team sport until everyone is so good at it that they can start looking at other courses.”

Dr. Luther emphasized that the process is iterative. “Just get started and keep circling back over and over again until you've got it down.”

NONPF has developed a curriculum mapping template for BSN-to-DNP programs, available to NONPF members here. AACN has published curriculum mapping tools aligned with the AACN Essentials, located here.

Demonstrating student learning and competency with curriculum mapping

Measures of competency and learning take many forms, and faculty should not limit their resources to assessments alone.

“What the NTFs really want us to focus on is adult learning,” Dr. Baldridge said. “What are the ways you're going to assess that students are learning what they need to learn? It may be developing a care plan so that you can see what their thought processes are. Or it could be discussion boards. These provide good insight into how students respond to a question, and how they respond to their colleagues. Are they using ethical practices? It gives you a way to kind of get inside their head without necessarily delivering a multiple choice test.”

Measures of competency and learning must reflect the learner and their circumstances, the NP educators advised. “Sometimes the appropriateness of an assessment measure is about fit,” Dr. Luther noted. “How well does the assignment fit the skills or competencies you want to assess, and can you offer choices in how students demonstrate their knowledge? Adults learn better when we give them agency over the ways they are demonstrating what they know.”

In education, student learning is often demonstrated via a product. “Whether it's a presentation, a paper, a test, or a simulation, the product only matters if it demonstrates the learning,” Dr. Luther said. “If we have the ability to assess things in multiple ways, there's no reason we can't allow people to do things differently and still get to that same learning objective.”

Dr. Baldridge echoed this point. “A key part of curriculum mapping is having a variety of assessments and mapping out exactly what skill you're looking for and what competency it relates to,” she said.

Preventing curriculum drift with curriculum mapping techniques

Another benefit of curriculum mapping is that it can prevent curriculum drift, Dr. Luther said. One way drift occurs is when content featured in a module becomes out of date or inaccessible (e.g., a broken url link to a research article).

“Having a curriculum map helps faculty select something that's going to replace that material and still meet the exact objectives that the document had met before. Whereas without a map, faculty may pick an item that resembles the first piece of content most closely. And over time, what a faculty member teaches in a particular year will not be the same as what another faculty member teaches,” Dr. Luther said.

“The result is that two students can take the same course at different times or in different semesters, but the courses have little resemblance to each other.” She continued. “This is common when faculty aren’t aware of what they have the freedom to change within the curriculum materials. If you're going to create a curriculum map, show it to everyone on the team and make sure they know what they're allowed to change and what they're not allowed to change.”

Using curriculum maps as support for accreditation renewal

Another benefit of developing curriculum maps is that they can be used as supporting documentation during reaccreditation.

“They provide evidence about all the ways your students are meeting established competencies,” Dr. Luther said. “Mapping also allows you to track changes so that you can show how you've revised courses to better meet your learning objectives. You can do this based on feedback from students or faculty, or based on gaps you've corrected over time.”

Commercially available online resources are available to assist in the extensive record keeping and organization required for reaccreditation. Program Manager, a platform designed specifically for nursing programs by ATI Nursing Education, contains an Accreditation Management module that combines curricula, assessment data, and evaluations within a single digital platform. Using this data, an NP academic program can build and support a Systematic Evaluation Plan for real-time improvement based on reporting.

Why you should start curriculum mapping now

When is the best time to start curriculum mapping? Dr. Baldridge likens this query to wondering about the best time to plant a tree.

“The best time would have been 20 years ago, but the next best time is now! Competency-based education for advanced practice providers is here to stay,” she said. “The old way of having a checklist of tasks or a one-and-done experience or demonstration is no longer appropriate.”

She recommended that faculty begin now to replace former ways of competency assessment with new learning experiences (e.g., integrative, experiential, self-aware, assessment, etc.) that reflect competency-based learning.

“Paradigm shifts do not happen overnight,” Dr. Baldridge said. “It takes time to create a major change in what we think or believe, and resistance is inevitable.”

The process can seem daunting, but it feels more doable when it’s broken into steps.

“The first step in curriculum mapping is being brave enough to get curious. You don’t have to dive in headfirst — just dip a toe in the water by reviewing a single unit or module of a course,” Dr. Luther said. She recommends choosing a course you have taught before and will be teaching again in the next 3-12 months.

“Do not try to map or change a course that is already in progress,” she emphasized. “With practice, you’ll become more familiar with the process, and you’ll start to see tangible improvements in your teaching and assessments.”

Curriculum mapping an entire program requires patience and dedication, usually over years, Dr. Luther said. “Make sure you have a good team in place to support the initiative. If you have questions along the way, APEA is here to support you.”

Additional Resources & Reading

APEA curriculum and resource consultation: Email

ATI Nursing Education. Program Manager Accreditation Management module.

Neville-Norton, M., Cantwell, S. (2019). Curriculum mapping in nursing education: A case study for collaborative curriculum design and program quality assurance. Teaching and Learning in Nursing.

Watermark Insights. The why behind curriculum mapping.


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APEA Staff