Revisions aim to develop a wider view of the world

Pair trial overhaul of undergraduate curriculums' formulation and delivery. Hannah Fearn writes

January 28, 2010

A series of modules are being tested that could pave the way for a radical overhaul of teaching and learning at King's College London and the University of Warwick.

The two universities are trialling new ways of teaching as part of a pilot programme that will inform discussions over the future of their undergraduate curriculums.

The one-year project, funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, explores how universities can change the way they work without major investment.

Paul Blackmore, deputy vice-principal (education) at King's, said the aim was to "see how we can review the undergraduate curriculum in ways we can afford to deliver".

After studying how universities around the world are revising their undergraduate programmes, King's and Warwick established working groups based on five strands they hope to embed in the curriculum: academic literacy, community engagement, "global connectedness", interdisciplinary work, and a research-rich environment.

The groups then devised trial modules that could be delivered alongside the existing university curriculums - 15 of which are now being run at King's.

Questions being asked during the pilot project included how the modules should be funded, whether they should bear an academic credit, and whether it was possible to deliver them within the existing curriculum, Professor Blackmore said.

One of the modules intended to enrich the research environment aims to teach science undergraduates to approach practical classes in the laboratory as research.

The course, led by Stuart Knight, lecturer in biochemistry at King's, gets students involved in designing the projects they undertake rather than leaving them to passively complete assignments given to them by lecturers.

Lab assistants, who are often postgraduate students, are also being encouraged to help undergraduates think through problems rather than give straight answers to questions.

"It's a subtle difference, but it's an important one," Dr Knight said.

The groups will report in June and the findings are to be presented in September.


The University of Southampton has joined a growing number of institutions that are considering introducing a broader undergraduate curriculum.

Don Nutbeam, who joined as vice-chancellor from the University of Sydney last September, is consulting on changes to Southampton's 265 undergraduate degree courses.

In a recent speech, he criticised the "ever more specialised" programmes.

"Disappointingly, students who wish to study across disciplines and engage in the type of broad-based education that could be offered at a comprehensive university will find a range of structural obstacles and disincentives confronting them," he said.

Professor Nutbeam also criticised A levels for being too narrow.

As further evidence of the need for change, he cited the National Student Forum's 2009 report, which said that students want "courses that are flexible yet structured".

And he argued that employers value graduates who have "soft skills" such as communication, teamwork and abstract reasoning in addition to specialised knowledge.

"I am keen to explore ways in which the university can better cater for those students with talent but no fixed career direction," Professor Nutbeam said.

He suggested that people should be able to study across disciplines within broadly defined themes such as natural sciences, humanities and social sciences.

The vice-chancellor has already set up a project to examine how all Southampton students could be given the opportunity to learn a second language.

A final decision on his strategic proposals, which include plans for more research across the disciplines, will be made early next month.

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