Normed Topic Model

A model for analyzing MPP and MPA curricula

This page describes the model used in the Atlas to describe comparable units of learning.

Creating the curricular database – course titles and descriptions organized under 34 public policy and management subjects

The Atlas database of curricular content includes course titles (linked to course descriptions and, where available, to detailed course syllabi) for the course offerings in the 119 programs in the Programs database (those offering MPP, MPA and similarly named degrees) in 17 countries. Courses are assigned to one or other of 34 Subjects in public management. The names and descriptions of these subjects have been drawn from the names used for courses in MPP and MPA programs, the names for ministries in OECD governments, and the names of branches within international governmental organizations providing advice on public policy and management.

Identifying how much is taught – credit and course equivalencies, course-weeks, and potential hours of learning

Programs differ in the amount of instruction and study required for a degree and in the format of the units of instruction. The Atlas project addresses the issue of how much is taught through its table of Credit and Course Equivalencies based on estimates of the total hours of instruction associated with the instructional units used by each program. The one-semester-equivalent course (referred to in some North American universities as “3 credit hours”) is used as the standard unit of instruction, and is taken to be equivalent to 3 hours of instruction per week over 12 course-weeks. The number of one-semester-equivalent courses required to graduate for programs in the Atlas database varies between 10 and 20, with most in the range of 12 to 18.

The number of student hours of learning associated with a class, a course, or a program is greater than the number of hours of instruction because hours of learning includes the time spent in pre-reading, further reading and assignments associated with the in-class instruction. Hours of learning is defined for purposes of the Atlas project to be the sum of the hours of in-class instruction plus the hours of outside-class study. Although most programs do not specify the expected number of hours of outside-class study, those programs that do suggest an expectation of about 10 hours of instruction-plus-study in each course-week. Because the actual hours of learning by any student in any course-week will depend on the rigour of the syllabus, the expectations set by the instructor, and the motivation of the student, the adjective “potential” is used in the following identities used in the Atlas project:

1 course-week = 10 potential hours of learning
1 course = 12 course-weeks = 120 potential hours of learning

Identifying differences in the subject matter taught in different programs – 4 curricular attributes, the PEACO algorithm, and 12 curricular types

Programs differ in the subject matter of the courses they offer and the subject matter they include in required courses. In order to quantify these differences the Atlas project distinguishes the subjects (and thus the courses assigned to them) on four attributes: 1) domain (assigning each subject to one of four subject-matter domains); 2) policy/management orientation (designating each subject as policy-oriented or management-oriented); 3) math-econ intensity (designating each subject having or not having a high content of mathematics and/or economics); and 4) public/international affairs (designating each subject as archetypal public affairs, archetypal international affairs, or neither). For each program one can calculate the proportion of enrolment-adjusted course offerings (PEACO) in each subject. The PEACO Algorithm takes account of the difference between a required and an elective course by assuming that the probability of a typical student taking take a course is equal to the number of electives taken available divided by the number of elective courses offered. One can then compare the PEACO profiles of the programs along the four attributes of domain, policy/management orientation, math-econ intensity, and public/international affairs. The results for the first three plus the degree length (number of one-semester course equivalents required to graduate) are displayed in Curriculum Comparison Tables and in Program Rankings by Curricular Attributes. Programs with similarly quantified attributes have been grouped into 12 MPP/MPA Curricular Types (e.g., medium course requirement, policy-oriented, higher math-economics content), reproduced in Table 2. All 119 programs reviewed have been ranked and grouped in this way.

Identifying what is taught – CCU building blocks, derived learning outcomes, and normed topics

The Atlas project identifies what is taught by disaggregating this curricular content into discrete building blocks that can subsequently be aggregated into courses or modules. Each building block is associated with a discrete learning outcome with assessment questions derived from observed course materials, and each is intended to be teachable during a standard period of learning. The aggregate learning outcome for a course is thus the sum of the learning outcomes associated with the building blocks, supplemented where appropriate by learning outcomes associated with the integration and interaction of the building blocks.

The standardized size of building block is referred to as a Curricular Content Unit (CCU), where a CCU is a body of subject matter learnable by an average MPP or MPA student with 10 hours of instruction-plus-study, typically 3 hours of in-class instruction and 7 hours of outside-class study.

Each building block is given a topic name, a topic description, a learning outcome with associated assessment questions, a list of concepts to be learned and a list of readings to be completed. ‎These building blocks are called normed topics because their curricular content is normed to 1 CCU of subject matter. Each topic is assigned to a subject and a number of topics within a subject can be aggregated into a course (12 topics), module (6 topics), or half-module (3 topics).

Identifying what should be taught – international standards, 7 MPP/MPA core competencies, the 10-course core proposition, 120 normed core topics, and synthetic course outlines

The Atlas uses two sources to identify what should be taught: 1) the content calculated to be needed to acquire the require competencies associated with national or international standards (specifically, those by NA‎SPAA and UNDESA/IASIA, which are summarized in Tables 8 and 9); and 2) the content common to the required courses in respected MPP and MPA programs. The second source is crucial because it provides substantive detail, particularly on the economic and quantitative subjects where the international standards are expressed in very high-level terms. The two sources are used to identify 7 MPP/MPA Core Competencies and MPP/MPA Core Learning Outcomes. The content required to meet these core competencies and core learning outcomes is referred to as MPP/MPA core content.

The Atlas project proposes that the core content should be teachable in 10 reasonably demanding core courses. In other words, the core content in MPP and MPA programs could be taught in 10 one-semester courses provided that they are carefully designed and (the demanding part) provided that the total learning time is equivalent to the potential learning hours in 120 course-weeks, where there are10 learning hours (typically 3 hours of in-class instruction and 7 hours of outside-class study) in each course-week. This proposition is intended to strike a balance between two competing curricular demands: 1) devoting sufficient learning time to core content to meet the competency requirements of the international standards (which are substantiated by the content of required courses in highly regarded programs); and 2) leaving sufficient learning time in the curriculum for students to take advantage of the distinctive specialized and non-core course material offered in different programs. If programs were to devote 10 carefully designed courses to cover the core, there would still be room for specialized and elective courses (i.e., for 2 such courses in a 12-course program and for 8 such courses in an 18-course program).

The 10-course-core proposition means that the MPP/MPA core contains 120 CCUs of subject matter, where each CCU can be characterized by a core normed topic. The task of identifying what should be taught in MPP/MPA programs thus becomes the task of specifying 120 core normed topics (see Defining Core). These normed core topics have been aggregated into Atlas Courses that together would cover the MPP/MPA core.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 5 June 2016.

Image: Lean Systems Institute, at, accessed 15 January 2016.