The view that modular courses examined at the end of a semester lead to lower levels of educational attainment ("Students choke on bite-sized learning" and Leading article, THES , October 4) is supported by our research findings.
Our study involved first-year psychology undergraduates. When students' memory of a six-week introductory course, consisting of three one-hour lectures a week, was assessed in the last lecture, those students who performed well did so because they remembered more. They recalled what the lecturer had said, what featured in overheads, passages they had read, as well as discussions with other students.
When the same course was again assessed before the summer examinations seven months later, the same students outperformed their colleagues because they knew more. They knew what concepts meant, who had proposed what theory and why. They had conceptual knowledge. Memories of what the lecturer said, or presented, or of what has been read rapidly fade and become distorted. Conceptual knowledge that is acquired on degree courses lasts for years, even a lifetime, a fact we established in a previous Economic and Social Research Council project.
The aim of higher education is to instil in students conceptual knowledge of the discipline rather than fragmented memories of learning episodes.
Our research indicates that learning must be sustained over a comparatively lengthy period and occur in regular spaced episodes to achieve this. It is regrettable that higher education institutions, which are themselves naturally occurring experiments in learning, seem unable either to conduct the appropriate research or to take heed of research findings that could provide a more informed basis for reforms that would improve quality.
Martin A. Conway
Psychology department chair
University of Durham