Block teaching: what it is, how to do it and why
With its short, intense courses, is block teaching the way to boost student success and engagement? John Weldon gives seven tips for switching to the block model and examples of what it offers university educators
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In essence, the block is a scheduling tool. Rather than teaching four subjects concurrently over 12 weeks, as per the semester model, you teach them one at a time, consecutively, over four weeks each.
What makes the block interesting is the way it acts as a catalyst for radical institution-level change. The switch from two to, effectively, eight or more mini semesters challenges every aspect of an institution’s operational practices. Higher education institutions are increasingly reaching for the block for this very reason – it allows them to reimagine and restructure to deliver the better outcomes demanded by students in what is an increasingly competitive market.
The classroom and the quality of teaching that takes place within it is where this renewed focus on student success is translated into action. But teaching on the block is not simply a case of crunching 12 weeks into four; it’s about rebuilding practice from the ground up, with the student at the centre of everything.
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Here are seven key considerations you’ll need to keep in mind if you’re going to teach on the block.
1. You are the university
One subject at a time means one teacher at a time. For the four weeks you have your students, you are likely to be their only contact with academia, so if you’re boring, ill-informed or unprepared, then, ipso facto, so is the university. It’s a lot of pressure, especially as most block classes run for about three hours, so you must be active and engaging. All the time. Every day. Preparation and planning are key.
2. No lectures
A flipped-classroom approach allows you to turn the classroom into a place of active exploration where students make, break and debate rather than sit and listen. You and your students only have four weeks together, so combine the flip with a social constructivist approach and create learning environments, tasks and assessments that empower your students to collaborate on the creation of their own knowledge and skills acquisition. Rather than lecturing on key topics, have your students research them and present their findings to the class, and you, for criticism and debate. If you make the discussion robust and challenge their findings, you give them a chance to be responsible for and to own their own learning.
3. Small class sizes
You can’t create better outcomes for your students if you don’t know them as individuals. The block works best when classes are small (no more than 30 is ideal) allowing educators to swiftly build the kind of effective relationship with each of their students that allows them to respond in real time to their needs.
4. Student-focused, backward design
Putting the student at the centre of everything means rethinking curriculum design. Rather than starting from what an academic wants to teach, block unit planning starts from a defined set of learning outcomes and builds back from there. Units become lean and targeted…
5. Team-based curriculum development
…and well-rounded and resourced. Rather than academics being solely responsible for curriculum development, on the block, they become part of a design team composed of colleagues, professional staff, librarians and learning designers, which builds into subjects the kind of support and enhancement mechanisms that allow academics and the wider university to respond to student needs immediately and effectively. Creating this kind of unit involves a surrendering of (some) academic autonomy. Not all academics will be comfortable with this, but it is crucial to the creation of student-focused learning environments.
6. Assessment and feedback
In the block model, assessment and learning are more closely integrated than in traditional teaching. Students often work on assessment pieces in class, where peers and educators can critique and provide feedback as learning happens (rather than afterwards). This assessment for learning is crucial to the success of the socially constructivist classroom. Further, all assessment and feedback are completed within the four weeks of a block, which means students are almost continually engaged in researching, producing and sharing work. This creates an ongoing informal feedback loop, as well as a formal one, meaning that both educators and students are aware, almost in the moment, of where a student is sitting in terms of grade and performance. And this allows for timely implementation of inbuilt support and enhancement mechanisms.
7. All subjects are created equal
One of the clearest benefits for block students is the lack of competing priorities. Working with only one set of ideas, problems and deadlines at a time means that a student can engage with, and is equally resourced and supported, in all subjects. This helps level the playing field for all students and close the gap between traditional and non-traditional students.
Block teaching is intense. It’s a sprint, in that it only goes for four weeks, but those three-hour classes can feel like marathons if you haven’t planned or prepared properly. It requires an open mind and willingness on the part of institutions and academics to relinquish control and tradition in order to seek out better outcomes for students.
The block is still a relatively new model of teaching, but as institutions work to shape the future of university pedagogy, it is increasingly at the fore in discussion and in research circles. The block may not be the way forward for every institution, but it does show us what is possible when students are truly the centre of everything we do.
John Weldon is associate professor and head of curriculum of First Year College at Victoria University, Australia. He is co-author, with Jay Daniel Thompson, of Content Production for Digital Media: An Introduction (Springer Nature, 2022).
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