A number of metrics exist for quantifying the complexity of academic program curricula. Complexity in this case relates the extent to which the structure of a curriculum impacts a student's ability to progress through that curriculum towards graduation. The ability to quantify curricular complexity in this manner allows us to order programs according to their complexity, and to compare and contrast similar programs at different institutions according to their complexity measures. When sharing this type of information with faculty and program administrators, those at programs at the higher end of the complexity scale often speculate that high complexity implies a higher quality program. Which leads to the more general question, what does curricular complexity tell us about program quality? In cursory investigations of this conjecture, a surprising relationship emerged. Specifically, anecdotal review provided significant evidence to support the proposition that higher quality engineering programs have lower complexity curricula. It is worth noting that if this proposition is indeed true, then the contrapositive proposition is also true, namely that higher complexity curricula imply lower quality programs. In this study we collected sufficient data to determine the veracity of this proposition for undergraduate electrical engineering programs. Additional work is underway to validate this proposition for other engineering areas.
The methodology employed in this study involved partitioning a large set of undergraduate electrical engineering curricula into three categories (high, medium and low) according to their quality. The curricular complexity variance within and between these groups was then analyzed using ANOVA methodologies. Because program quality is a subjective measure, we used the 2018 U.S. News & World Report undergraduate program rankings as a proxy for quality. This ranking orders programs from 1-205, with formal ranking designation given to programs in the 1-177 range. The first group included schools in the top decile of the ranking, the medium group included schools from the fourth and fifth deciles, and the low group included those schools that were grouped together at the bottom of the list. The null hypothesis was that there are significant differences between the intragroup and intergroup curricular complexity measures. Our analysis found that with a low margin of error, and a 95% confidence interval, the null hypothesis should be accepted. Furthermore, the most significant difference was between the set of highly-ranked programs and the medium-ranked programs, with a less pronounced difference between the medium- and low-ranked programs.
The principle of Occam's razor is often applied to guide engineering designs towards the simplest and therefore best solutions. One of the most popular versions of this principle states, "Entities are not to be multiplied without necessity." We posit that this study indicates this principle applies to curricula. Namely, the simplest curriculum (in terms of complexity) that allows students to attain a program's learning outcomes yields the best student success outcomes and therefore the highest quality program.
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