Students embrace block teaching but some staff still unconvinced

UK universities that have made the switch to different teaching model say it boosts student retention and recruitment but staff burnout is real risk

四月 17, 2024
Source: iStock/SVproduction

Introducing “block teaching” has proved popular with students and has helped boost attainment and retention but staff have tended to be less enthusiastic, according to university leaders who have made the switch.

Early evidence from De Montfort University, which implemented a model whereby students study just one course per seven-week block in 2022, showed nine in 10 students said it helped with their work-life balance, the university’s pro vice-chancellor for education and equalities, Susan Orr, told Times Higher Education’s Digital Universities UK event.

Nine in 10 students also said that the promise of being taught “on the block” had been an important determining factor in their deciding to go to De Montfort over other options, she added.

There was also evidence that students’ sense of belonging has gone up and they reported it easier to make friends, which Professor Orr said had been part of the motivation for the change, especially for the generation that started university directly after the pandemic.

Other benefits included a 6 per cent reduction in failure rates and a 16 per cent improvement in retention, but the transition had not all been plain sailing, especially as it was introduced in just an eight-month period, Professor Orr told the event at the University of Exeter.

“I’m not saying it is easy, or that every academic loves it,” she said. “There are still challenges. We wanted a bigger increase in attendance, that has not materialised, so there is lots of work to do.

“So far we are getting very positive feedback from students and most of our staff are on board but clearly there are some staff who have found it a very difficult transition.”

She said the university had “not yet cracked” how to balance block teaching responsibilities with research and a promise of offering staff “micro-sabbaticals” – being given a whole block off to pursue a research project – had rarely been delivered in practice yet, and it was not clear whether this would fit with many research staff’s needs anyway.

Other issues included working with outside partners such as the NHS to organise placements for healthcare students, which meant these courses were permitted to vary from the block structure.  

Debby Cotton, the dean of the doctoral college at Plymouth Marjon University, who has also worked at the University of Plymouth, said both institutions have introduced some form of block teaching in recent years including an “intensive” introductory module for students starting university. She agreed that it brought both benefits and challenges.

Students at Plymouth reported receiving feedback on work quicker and that this was more useful to them, Dr Cotton said. Students also said it made it easier to get to know their peers and tutors.

Attainment in the block teaching module was higher than in the “traditional” modules and men showed more of an improvement than women, she continued.

There was no corresponding closing of the attainment gap between domestic and international students and disabled and non-disabled students but “it did not get worse”, which had been one of the worries going into the project, according to Dr Cotton.

Given only some modules were taught “on the block”, this model presented issues with students having to transition into a second mode of teaching and those arriving late or missing a long period through illness found it hard to catch up, she said. 

“Workload issues were a real challenge, especially if only one person was taking the lead in running the module, that could lead to real burnout,” she added.

Staff in departments such as English literature were most wary of the change, Dr Cotton said, given the need to read books in a short period. The changes were also unpopular among languages academics.

She said she was not convinced the teaching method will be rolled out further at either institution, or in the wider sector.

Joanne Dennison, associate dean for learner skills development at QA Higher Education that operates block timetabling by condensing teaching on to certain days of the week, said this was likely to be a model with wider appeal for the sector.



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Reader's comments (5)

Glad I am not a student now as I would have found studying fewer things at once pretty boring. I used to find that there was considerable excitement in having different topics to deal with.
Imagine studying engineering by block. 7 weeks solid of maths. Then another 7 weeks solid of maths. Then 7 weeks of Electrical + Electronics. Then 7 weeks of Mechanics and Structures... I'd find it demoralising.
This literally makes no sense, at the research end it's all about multi disciplinary work and integrating diverse themes to work together to find new answers and at the teaching they are homogenising it all into blocks or "silos"
Block teaching can work if it is done over a week, not 7 weeks. I have taught under such a system where the block teaching was done from Monday to Wednesday per module, with a break of 3 weeks, before returning for another week of teaching the module. Thursday and Fridays were for ethics, and co-curricular classes. Class attendance was brilliant, students and staff engaged. It is how the block teaching is designed that is the problem, not the idea of block teaching itself.
This is also unworkable for performing arts courses. Would students be expected to dance for 6 hours a day for a 7 week block, 6 hours of singing for the next block, etc.?