‘Block teaching’ model ripe for copycats

Teaching experts watching success of Victoria University experiment closely

June 4, 2018
Block heads
Source: Reuters

More universities are expected to consider adopting Sweden’s “block teaching” system after a pilot at an Australian institution exceeded expectations.

Melbourne’s Victoria University has said that it will roll out across all undergraduate year groups the model of making students focus on one topic at a time for four weeks, rather than the traditional Australian approach of juggling four subjects at once, after first-year students who tried it recorded better pass and retention rates than their counterparts from earlier cohorts.

At Victoria, full-time students complete eight intensive blocks per academic year, working in groups of about 30.

Vice-chancellor Peter Dawkins said that the approach had effectively halved failure rates among this year’s cohort of commencing students. Subject pass rates, which averaged 72 per cent last year, increased to 90 per cent for the first four-week block and 85 per cent for the second.

By the end of the third block, first-year retention stood at 89 per cent compared with the usual level of about 80 per cent.

Andrew Dempster, a higher education consultant at Canberra-based Proofpoint Advisory, said that other institutions would be watching closely.

“Universities are genuinely interested in redesigning the way they offer education, to be more focused on how students want to learn,” he said.

But Mr Dempster, a former head of corporate affairs at Swinburne University of Technology, said that the biggest challenge would be securing staff support.

“Universities tend to be fairly conservative places. It’s difficult to get people to sign on and give something genuinely new a try,” he said.

The block system has long featured in Sweden, where many universities teach just one or two subjects at a time. Malmö University, for example, offers sequential units of five weeks each.

Quest University, a small private institution in British Columbia, introduced the approach more than a decade ago. Other colleges in Canada, as well as US institutions in Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky and Tennessee, have followed suit, offering blocks of between three and a half and eight weeks.

At Victoria, students have three three-hour taught sessions each week, alongside “complementary activities” such as presentations, practicals and workshops on literacy and numeracy.

Professor Dawkins said that the reform was well suited to the institution’s base of disadvantaged and first-in-family students, easing what could be a “bewildering” transition from school and helping to alleviate doubts about university during the crucial first few months.

He added that the approach ensured that students got real-time feedback on their progress, with results provided every month or so, and enabled staff to monitor them closely and discourage dropouts.

Annabelle Goonasekera, a first-year psychology student at Victoria, said that the single-subject focus helped students cope with work responsibilities as well as the rigours of university. “If you’re studying multiple subjects, it’s easy to procrastinate and get lost or to drown in the content,” she said.

Ms Goonasekera said that the block approach made it easier for students to catch up if they fell behind, or to switch into different disciplines if courses proved not to their liking. A classmate had been able to transfer instantly into teaching – a shift that would normally require her to wait until at least the next semester.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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