To block or not to block? How time affects learning in higher education

From intensive block plans to open-ended study programmes, the ideal length for a unit of study is under interrogation. Jason M. Lodge considers the evidence

Jason M. Lodge's avatar
13 Oct 2022
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Online learning, distance learning and forms of intensive study have challenged the notion that higher education must occur in a particular time or space. The drift from standard 12- to 15-week teaching periods of on-campus lectures, tutorials and labs has dramatically accelerated in the past two years.

Much has been written about the changes in the spaces of study. One only needs to look at the vast literature comparing on-campus learning with distance or online learning or debates about the ongoing suitability of the lecture theatre to see how much thinking has been devoted to changing study spaces. Apart from discussions about shorter-form credentials, the same cannot be said for study time in standard degree programmes, with notable exceptions.

Shifting length of units of study

One innovation that has received a lot of attention in recent years is the “block model” intensive approach to module/unit/subject delivery. This model comes in various forms. Most centre around a shortened period of intense study of one unit at a time. This time span is often four to six weeks, although even shorter, often residential, offerings of one to three weeks of contact time also exist.

In the block model implemented in Victoria University (VU) in Australia, students complete one unit of study at a time over a four-week period. This intensive study version is reported as being more satisfying for students and leading to improvements in student retention and success compared with more traditional offerings.

At the opposite end of the scale, there are online providers and other higher education institutions that are beginning to offer open-ended programmes of study. These offerings allow students to complete their studies at whatever pace they choose. Rather than being held over shorter time frames than traditional higher education, these offerings can be extended almost indefinitely.

How long should a unit of study take?

The question that emerges from all these variations in the time spans is: what is the ideal length of time that a unit of study should take to complete? The answer partly depends on policy settings. In Australia, for example, there are requirements for a certain “volume of learning” that converts what is in essence a full-time study load into the number of hours per unit across a degree programme per academic year.

For simplicity, let’s say that students are expected to undertake eight standard units of study (or equivalent) per year for a full-time load. Let’s also say that each of those units is made up of 150 hours of study to meet the volume-of-learning requirements (in reality, it is a bit more complicated than this). A traditional semester model would have students study four of these units at a time for 13 weeks over two semesters plus exams. This roughly converts to 10 hours per week per unit, or 40 hours per week total, that is, full time.

Is this the best way to offer these units of study? The data emerging from block offerings such as those at VU suggest not. Other factors are at play here, though. For instance, as per the example above, students study for 26 weeks or half the year. That leaves student progress stalled and teaching spaces empty for half the calendar year. Intensive block models can run almost year-round.

These other factors have led some institutions to move to other arrangements such as a trimester model. One example is the 3+ model at UNSW Sydney, which is structured around three 10-week trimesters per year. This structure could be described as a compromise between the traditional and intensive approaches.

Foundational research on learning over time

With all the variations in offering, from residentials to blocks to trimesters to open-ended study periods, what does the research evidence suggest is best? The short answer is that we simply don’t know. Foundational research in educational and experimental psychology provides some clues, though.

Results from studies in these fields suggest that distributing or spacing learning out over time is more effective than cramming. The results of other studies suggest that interleaving or mixing up topics of study is better than studying one thing at a time.

However, these spaced-practice and interleaving effects are found under very specific laboratory conditions, often during a single study session. It is difficult to translate these findings to questions about entire units of study that can take 100-plus hours to complete. It is entirely possible that interleaving and spacing don’t extrapolate to the real context of study at a higher education institution at all.

To block or not to block?

With the difficulty of translating the basic research on study timing to real contexts, the question about the best length of time for a unit of study to be completed remains open. The evidence about different periods of time is mixed. The VU block model seems to work well for students. Data from a range of sources suggest that some other variations away from the traditional semester model have not been as well received by staff and students at other institutions. There is also little to no sense of the implications of these changes on long-term learning and transfer of knowledge across and beyond a programme of study.

As it stands, there is insufficient evidence to say with any authority what the ideal length of a unit of study offering should be. Undoubtedly, part of the answer will be related to the individual circumstances of each student and what pattern of study will fit best with their lives and priorities. Questions also linger about the length of programmes and units of study being tested by the emergence of shorter form credentials.

Beyond that, though, there isn’t even any compelling reason that a unit of study should be spread out over 12 to 15 weeks or that it should be studied concurrently with one to three others. Much more needs to be done to determine what is the ideal length and mix of units for maximising student learning in degree programmes. There isn’t much to suggest that what has traditionally been offered is in any way ideal in the first place.

Jason M. Lodge is associate professor in the School of Education and academic lead – student learning in the Institute for Teaching and Learning Innovation at the University of Queensland.

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For more information on this topic, see our collection What is block teaching?.


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