There was a moment at Murphy’s Bar in Colorado Springs towards the end of 1968; a group of academics were having a conversation that would feel familiar to many in the sector now. There was an escalating feeling of frustration about how to manage multiple modules and demands, and they had come together to try to work out how to change the system.
One of them had read a book, published in 1966, by economist and management guru Peter F Drucker. Among the arguments for effective working was simply to do one thing at a time. That approach stuck with the faculty at Colorado College (CC). They recognised that the world was changing rapidly but that the higher education sector was still doing the same thing. They were happy to “try something zany”, as Ted Lindeman, emeritus professor of chemistry who graduated from CC in 1973, explained it to documentary film-makers, and so they started the Block Plan.
This was more than half a century ago, and if you happen to enjoy spending an evening watching documentaries on higher education, this scenario and more is the subject of 50 Years of the Block Plan 1970-2020.
- Block teaching: what it is, how to do it and why
- From conventional course to block scheduling: adapting resources for successful learning
- How block teaching supports students from under-represented groups
It can be argued that higher education is now in a similar position – conflicting pressures in workloads, rapid changes globally and a stagnant sector – so maybe it’s time that we all try something zany and head for the block.
How block planning supports community
Block delivery has become more familiar in the past few years, with big moves by Victoria University in Melbourne, the University of Suffolk and now with De Montfort University and the Education 2030 approach. Many of these initiatives have been in response to falling student retention and reduced engagement, with research showing that the block model can improve outcomes, attendance and retention. Changes inevitably bring about anxieties for colleagues across academic and professional services. Many concerns are about the change from traditional delivery models and how this might be perceived as compromising standards, although no research has found this to be the case.
There is an even greater benefit of the block approach, and this is the rapid creation of a stronger student community.
Research has shown that the networks students build in a block format are strong and quickly established. When students are in the same groups for the same module and nothing else, that is to be expected. The past couple of years have seen a dip in student well-being, with more than 25 per cent of students stating that they feel lonely often or always. Lots of work has been focused on improving student belonging, recognising that strong, early community can support retention. In the block approach, students are together for all the same classes rather than finding different people in different groups on different days.
As well as forming those strong peer networks, a block approach can build stronger relationships between students and lecturers. There are fewer opportunities for students to fall through the gaps if they’re in a closed group with academics for the duration of the block. Greater bonds are formed, enhancing student community and engagement.
Multiple subjects versus single focus
Much of the criticism of block is around the notion that students should be taught multiple subjects at one time and that delivery of one module at a time will reduce the student’s capacity for deep learning. The ability to juggle multiple subjects is seen as a core requirement for entering the workforce. That may have been the case when students did not have to juggle as much as they do now. With rises in tuition fees, the cost of living, caring responsibilities, students who are often managing more than one job and then at university, with societies, clubs, extracurricular activities and studies all demanding time, it can be argued that students are balancing more than they have ever had to. If we can allow students to focus on one subject, rather than juggling a few at a time, that can help their learning.
Studying one subject at a time is proving popular with students. Across our open days at De Montfort this year, we asked prospective students what they thought about learning one module at a time, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. On a 10-point scale, our approach achieved a mean average approval rating of 9.19, and 80 per cent of those surveyed said that they would pick a university implementing block teaching over one that stuck to a traditional multiple-module approach. It’s an exciting approach that is resonating with students, but the curriculum design and the pedagogies need to be right if we are to see student success.
Radical rethink of course design
A block approach does not always work for every type of student, nor within every discipline. It will also not work if there is a “lift, shift and squish” approach to the curriculum to condense delivery into a four-, six- or seven-week block. The curriculum must be reimagined. The degree needs to be thought of holistically rather than in discrete modules, where students struggle to see how their learning ties together. It requires a radical rethink of how we deliver and a need for dynamic pedagogies.
Many lessons can be learned from the 50 years of block in Colorado. That moment is here again when we need to change how we deliver courses to offer students a unique learning experience that can deliver the best outcomes, recognising that we need change in the sector and must be as agile and flexible as our students are. Building strong student communities to maximise the potential for our students is the aim and the block approach could be the way for many to see success.
Sarah Jones is associate pro vice-chancellor for education (transformation) at De Montfort University.
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