Smoother learning par for the course

November 10, 1995

Throughout higher education there has been a tide of development that favours the module as the basic unit of student learning rather than the more traditional course. Among the perceived benefits of this development are its greater capacity for students to take responsibility for their own learning and greater flexibility of provision in time and mode. In reality the apparent dichotomy of course and module is not total and many modular schemes seek to retain the benefits associated with a course-focused approach within some overarching framework.

For some years, however, the benefits of placing student learning within a course framework have been overlooked in the enthusiasm for flexibility and access which the new orthodoxy promises. It is perhaps time to restate the benefits of a course-based approach which may be laid alongside the benefits of modularity when making choices.

First, courses recognise more specifically that there are more stake-holders in a student's learning than just the student alone: the wider community, taxpayers, employers, past and future students. Defined course provision allows for a greater consideration and inclusion of these interests into higher education.

Second, a key feature of the concept of the course is that much learning is linear and best undertaken in a particular sequence - essentially from basic to advanced understanding. A key element of professional teacher input is the identification of this learning progression and its transmission to students through a course structure.

Course-based learning identifies this progression and recognises the importance of the transmission of experience about learning from one generation of academics to another. In many subject areas clearly defined progressive linear learning is seen as essential, particularly in those subjects involving steep academic gradients.

Third, many courses seek to ensure that differing parts of student learning support each other, recognising that different subjects can be linked and clustered either in terms of learning methodology, sources of material or particular issues. Politics, philosophy and economics together provide a holistic context for student learning and allow transference of common skills.

Higher education is not an isolated individual activity, it is a social experience, and course-based learning inducts students into an academic family and provides them with a basis for self-identification. Students emerge as graduate historians or physicists, clearly aware of their place and position in the social process of learning.

Learning is often more effective as a shared social process, and a course structure requires students to study blocks of learning together. Considerable benefits arise from the mutual support students give each other in the face of a common task. Such peer support takes place not just in formal learning situations but also in the coffee bar, the refectory and the student hostel.

The support that academic staff can give to students is also more effective in courses. Even in large numbers, some personal contact with individual students can be maintained. Course leaders and teams are concerned with, and have an understanding of, the totality of the student learning experience. Staff contact is likely to be more sustained and continuous over the student's whole learning programme when it is course based.

Courses not only place the relationship between students and academics at the heart of the learning experience but they provide a framework for academic management in terms of departments and faculties. They involve a decentralisation of academic power about student learning programmes, empower academic staff and require them to take responsibility for student learning. Institutional academic management founded on courses permits gradations of authority in the form of faculties and departments that exist uneasily in institutions fully modularised.

The course structure is extremely flexible for assessment purposes. Both term and mid-semester assessment is possible. Assessment arrangements founded on linear progression can avoid the dangers of over-assessment, because the course and not its constituent parts is the context for assessment.

Modularity is generating its own pressures for change within the higher education system. Semesterisation, the growth of professional student guidance, centralised academic structures and the abandonment of common standards founded on the work of external examiners are all issues consequent upon modularity. The expense and difficulties arising from these consequences could perhaps be avoided if there was a greater realisation of the benefits of course-based provision.

Anthony Berry is assistant director of Nene College, Northampton.

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