‘Block teaching’ model rolled out as pass rates soar

Melbourne university reports improved student achievement and retention

May 29, 2018
Source: iStock

An Australian university is to extend its Swedish-inspired “block teaching” model after it was credited with boosting student achievement.

Melbourne’s Victoria University said that first-year students who had focused on one subject at a time for four weeks rather than the traditional Australian approach of juggling four subjects at once had recorded better pass and retention rates than their counterparts from earlier years. In a pilot, full-time students completed eight of these intensive blocks per academic year, working in groups of about 30.

Peter Dawkins, Victoria’s vice-chancellor, said that the approach would now be rolled out across all of the university’s year groups over the next three years.

Under the model, 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 focused approach and smaller classes had promoted “deeper learning” and helped students to feel more engaged.

“The teacher and the class get to know each other well,” he said. “Classmates get to know each other. There’s a sense of belonging which dramatically changes an experience that can be bewildering for students, particularly those first-in-family to go to university.”

Professor 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. Professor Dawkins said that the results had been “remarkable”.

“We’ve been exploring the feasibility of sending it into the second, third and fourth years and have concluded that we can do it,” he said.

Professor Dawkins said that the extra costs of smaller classes had been offset by savings from being able to reduce attrition, rationalise timetables and admit new students every four weeks. Some 140 students had joined the university halfway through the semester – a bonus for an institution previously only able to enrol students twice a year.

Consequently, Victoria expects the extension of the scheme to be a “cost-neutral exercise” at worst. Professor Dawkins said that, if student numbers and retention increased, the approach would boost revenue.

Victoria struggled for market share under the demand-driven higher education system that operated from 2012 until 2017. The university recorded a deficit last year, and a state auditor-general’s report last week highlighted its “declining financial results and student numbers”.

The auditor-general said that VU needed to “address its short-term liquidity” and “review key aspects of operations to ensure viability in the long term”.

Professor Dawkins said that restructuring and course rationalisation last year had consumed resources and cut student numbers. “But that was done to make our teaching and learning offer improve for this year,” he said.

“It’s set us up for productivity improvements which enabled us to budget a small surplus this year, and we’ve ended up attracting and keeping more students. The kinds of things the auditor-general said we needed to do are what we were doing last year.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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