Block to the future: why block scheduling has taken so long to catch on

Block teaching has been around since the mid-noughties, but those short-lived early trials were ahead of the curve. Simon Thomson and Carl Flattery explore why block planning might finally be having its day

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Leeds Beckett University,

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University of Manchester

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29 Jul 2022
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How block teaching supports students from under-represented groups

4 minute read
Illustration of student career development and Lego

Let’s cast our minds back 15 years or so to a time when we were all much younger and the idea of a pandemic was a largely fictional narrative played out in films and books. What was the same as now, though, was the higher education sector’s commitment to making our curriculum (particularly undergraduate) as accessible as possible. This was often referred to as “widening participation” and a government-monitored expectation to improve the outcomes of students who may come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

When you design curricula with non-traditional learners in mind, it gets you thinking about their experience of learning from their very first day, and this includes the structure of the courses and how to support the transition into university for many who may be first-generation university students.

Evolution of block teaching

The proposal for block teaching was that in the first year of study, instead of the usual four (15-credit) modules being taught simultaneously over a 15-week semester, we would teach two modules at a time over seven weeks (with a feedback week to help transition into the next block).

This was to be trialled by one school at Leeds Beckett University (then Leeds Metropolitan), and the rationale for the experiment was:

  • to transition students into their higher education experience (they had to focus on only two modules at any one time)
  • to reduce the assessment load at key points in the academic calendar (completing summative assessment for two modules in the same period is less burdensome than for four)
  • to deepen learning through a focus on two modules
  • to provide opportunities for synoptic assessment between modules (much easier to achieve with two modules than with four)
  • to have early indication of student attainment and engagement in order to improve support for student progression into the second year of study
  • to enhance employability and student engagement through fast-paced real-world experiences.

Points of failure

Block scheduling’s initial aims all sound perfectly achievable – and in fact much of this proved to be the case – but the mode didn’t gain enough traction to stick. Why not (bearing in mind this was 15-plus years ago)?

Lack of institutional preparedness

First, block teaching didn’t catch on because it was incredibly burdensome and administratively challenging to run in isolation. Institutional systems and processes were very much geared towards the 15-week-semester delivery model. Timetabling, room booking, the course approval process, virtual learning environment (VLE) module set-up and general administrative support were all organised to fit with the traditional model (after all, most university departments were still using it).

Less time for student adjustment or absence

Second, while the aim of seven-week blocks was to alleviate pressure on students, in some ways it increased it. A 15-week module offers a sense of easing into topics and subject areas, especially if the first few weeks of your first year are a mixture of socialising and studying (and more of the former than the latter). In a block course, however, if you were late starting a module or missed too many sessions (including because of illness), after only a couple of weeks of non-engagement, you were already 35 per cent behind. That’s a lot to catch up on and not a great place to feel you are in.

Less time for reflection

Third, although the number of teaching hours is the same as in a 15-week delivery, the fact that a module has been compacted into seven weeks means less time for reflection and discussion, and where ideas are being nurtured and developed into a meaningful output, it can feel a bit rushed. One observation was that some assessment submission also felt hurried.

Delayed ratification

Fourth, if a student failed a module, this wouldn’t be ratified until the exam boards at the end of the semester (to fit with an institution-wide process) so the student would have that hanging over them for another seven weeks while studying two more modules. Related to this is the fact that if a student had to resubmit for a block-one module, they would have probably forgotten a lot of the teaching by the end of block two, and so resubmission felt more challenging.

Uneven staff buy-in

Finally, enthusiasm for the idea among the staff was mixed. Even for those who were excited about the idea, the application and experience were clunky. This wasn’t helped by the fact that it was only the first-year students working within block delivery – other levels were still on a traditional semester, leaving staff to navigate mixed-up calendars and clashing deadlines. While some topics lent themselves well to intensive delivery, others missed the longer time needed for digestion, reflection and independent study. There was no flex in the system to allow these topics the time they needed.

Why now? Block today and in the future

Times have changed, and university systems and processes are generally better now, but are they flexible enough to manage a mixed delivery type (block and semester)? It’s an important consideration because working against a system not designed for what you want can be frustrating and exhausting. If your whole institution is moving to block delivery, that seems more likely to succeed (bearing in mind other challenges identified above) but every person and every process has to be aligned to this approach for it to feel worthwhile.

Did we achieve what we set out to do? In some ways, yes. We definitely identified some students much earlier in the course who were at risk and less likely to proceed, and were able either to put support in place to help them or, if necessary, advise them to move to a different course.

We also saw good examples of synoptic assessment across paired modules in a block, something that is possible across four modules but is much easier to achieve across two. In some ways, the focus of attention on only two modules at once did deepen the week-by-week learning, but sometimes it was to the detriment of retaining that learning for the longer term.

Five keys to block teaching success

For block teaching to succeed, it’s important to consider:

  1. Structure It’s more than a curriculum design decision; it needs systems, people and processes to be aligned.
  2. Assessment Don’t use the same assessment for a seven-week block as you would for a 15-week module. The learning will be different and so should the assessment task.
  3. Commitment It’s an all-or-nothing, whole-course initiative or not at all. Having a mix of block and standard modules in a programme may feel disjointed to learners, and it’s exhausting for staff teaching both simultaneously.
  4. Flexibility Be willing to negotiate. Some topics fit neatly into blocks; others need more time. This may mean delivering parts one and two over two blocks.
  5. Engagement For students, block modules need to be achievable and easy to navigate. For staff, benefits need to be clear and to outweigh any workload required in the transition.

So, in summary, our experience of block teaching is a bit of a mixed bag. In reality, we were probably ahead of our time (and certainly ahead of the institutional infrastructure needed to make it succeed) and so it didn’t really get a fair deal.

It hasn’t disappeared completely. Acorns were planted, and where students were keen to engage with topics in a hothouse environment, these were offered as extracurricular employability activities, such as a recording studio challenge, artist-in-residence and songwriting residential, and so remnants of the block model remain.

It’s a bit like podcasting. It had a slow start in the early noughties but is now a multibillion-dollar industry, mainly because of improved systems and processes for creating and listening to podcasts. So perhaps now is the time for block teaching to shake up the status quo a bit and reimagine undergraduate curriculum design for a more flexible post-pandemic learning experience.

Carl Flattery is principal lecturer in music and a member of the Centre for Learning and Teaching at Leeds Beckett University. Simon Thomson is professor of hybrid learning at the University of Manchester.

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