‘Block teaching’ guru laments ‘resistance’ to education research

Schedule reform refusal points to deeper problem, pioneer tells conference

June 5, 2019
David Helfand

The widespread rejection of “block teaching” models gives academics troubling proof that they warmly embrace research except when it comes to improving their own pedagogical methods, according to one leading advocate of the approach.

Initial evidence from Australia is suggesting strong academic gains from block teaching, in which students take a series of month-long courses with no other classes at the same time.

Although such findings are relatively early, the lack of attention to them is telling, David Helfand, a former president of Quest University in British Columbia, told the Times Higher Education Teaching Excellence Summit.

Quest, just 12 years old, has always used the approach. But comparative data from Victoria University in Melbourne, which switched to a block system in 2017, show broad increases in student success rates, especially among traditionally underserved populations.

Professor Helfand, a Columbia University astronomy professor who took a long-term leave to help found Quest, expressed frustration that such clear indications of value often don’t attract more serious consideration across academia.

He cited the similar experiences of Carl Wieman, the Nobel prizewinning physicist who has spent years trying to persuade his scientific colleagues to heed research showing that students do better with various types of project-centred teaching methods.

“It has always astonished me, for 42 years I’ve been in academia,” Professor Helfand told the audience at Western University in Ontario, “that academics, who value research over everything else, whose data of their own is precious to them, completely ignore all data related to teaching.”

Criticisms of block teaching from within academia include a possible lack of time to read books, the threat of an extended student absence producing a failing grade, and the temptation for students to “cram” their studies.

Professor Helfand suggested that such fears reflect existing biases, often taking the form of lecturers suggesting that block teaching might be suitable for fields – other than their own – that apparently have less basic material to cover.

The results from Victoria University show overall student pass rates using block systems rose 7.9 percentage points to 84 per cent between 2017 and 2018, with even greater gains among students from Indigenous, non-English-speaking and low-income backgrounds.

Those numbers reflect the reality that the human brain best concentrates on a single topic, Professor Helfand said. “If one focuses on one thing at a time,” he said, “it’s remarkable the depth you can get to in four weeks.”

One critic, Jason Lodge, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Queensland, has argued that research instead shows that students benefit from learning over a long period and studying multiple subjects at a time.

Yet in an article criticising block systems, Dr Lodge acknowledged that the model may not actually represent “a form of cramming” and that the results from Victoria “certainly look promising”. Universities, however, should study the question further before making such major risky changes, he said.

Participants at the THE summit suggested greater kinship with Professor Helfand and his plea for a faster pace of change.

Block systems may offer “a lot of advantages” for college students, said Julie McMullin, the vice-provost for international affairs at Western University. “But because we’re in institutions that have had such long histories and are used to doing things the same way for a long time,” Professor McMullin said after Professor Helfand’s presentation, “it’s just a very difficult structure to break through.”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Scholars ‘ignore’ data on better teaching practice

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Reader's comments (1)

The late Sir Eric Ashby, Master of Clare College Cambridge wrote many years ago “All over the country groups of scholars who would not make a decision on the shape of a leaf or the derivation of a word without painstakingly assembling the evidence, [nevertheless] make decisions about admission policy, staff-student ratios, content of courses and similar issues, based on dubious assumptions, scrappy data and mere hunch.” (quoted in Brown, R. (2005) ‘Education, Education, Education - but will government policies produce an ‘excellent education system?’ Higher Education Review Vol 38 no.1.

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