Students choke on bite-sized learning

October 4, 2002

Huddersfield University is ditching 'fashionable' modularisation for traditional year-long courses. Is this the start of a semesterisation backlash? Alison Utley reports

Three years into its search for a way to improve student learning, one university has, in its own words, opted for the big bang. Huddersfield University is abandoning semesters to return to traditional year-long courses. It hopes this will mark a return to common sense in undergraduate teaching.

The U-turn has been driven by pro vice-chancellor Brendan Evans, who is convinced that the rush to embrace semesterisation was a serious mistake. "I think the experts have been proved wrong," he said.

"Far from being student-led, semesterisation and modularisation were producer-led and have turned out to be inimical to students' needs."

It is a surprise that the return to tradition has started at Huddersfield, arguably the very kind of institution that semesterisation was designed to support, but it comes amid much soul-searching about the organisation of the academic year throughout the sector.

Although individual criticism of the so-called "new enlightenment" has been aired, in particular anxieties about the dumbing-down of the degree, few institutions are ready to call it a day.

"An awful lot of people are going to be watching us very carefully indeed over the next 12 months," Professor Evans said. "Some other institutions are certainly putting their toe in the water and there are signs of a gradual erosion."

The University of Glamorgan is also part of the shift. It is in the process of replacing its pair of 15-week semesters with a return to a three-term year after concerns about over-assessment damaging student performance. Fans of the traditional system are hoping more will follow.

The advent of the semester came hand in hand with the modular degree, which gained popularity as higher education expanded in the 1980s as a means of coping with students from diverse backgrounds. The idea originated in the US, and pioneering work at the Open University and Stirling University, among others, showed how degrees could be obtained by credit accumulation.

Oxford Brookes University was one of the first of the 1992 group to propose a coherent university-wide modular structure. Eventually more than three-quarters of UK universities scrapped the three-term year in favour of two semesters, usually lasting 15 weeks each.

Despite initial concerns, the perceived advantages were given a hard sell and soon caught on. Modular schemes, in which students pick small building blocks of study, were said to offer students greater choice, more control and flexibility.

Bite-sized chunks were thought likely to appeal to students put off by intensive degree schemes. And as more institutions became involved in credit accumulation and transfer, it was envisaged that growing numbers of students would make use of the portability of their credits and move between universities, a prediction that has not been borne out.

But the linking of, typically, ten credit modules with semesters gave students credit for achievements obtained much more quickly than before, and as assessments were more spread out - at the end of each semester - exam stress was expected to be reduced.

Not so, according to Professor Evans, who said there was a strong correlation between first-year dropouts and Christmas exams. "Our experience tells us that students are just getting to grips with difficult concepts when exams begin to loom and they stop learning due to anxiety. Giving exams so early in the programme means students have not had a chance to acquire confidence or study skills. And if students have domestic responsibilities at Christmas, too, they are liable to just leave. It doesn't make any sense."

The bunching of assignments at the end of the semester was identified as a primary weakness. The short semester did not provide time for formative or diagnostic assessment, which had virtually disappeared.

Huddersfield was also concerned about the inclination of students to attend only lectures related to assessed work. To cope with the pressure of assessment, students were either deferring or being referred, putting pressure on staff who were having to mark significant numbers of resits in September.

Despite the drawbacks, Huddersfield has not dropped semesterisation on a whim. A review began three years ago and Professor Evans stressed the amount of thought and effort that had gone into challenging the status quo.

"We have debated this long and hard but it has become clear that year-long modules enable students to make connections and acquire the necessary depth of knowledge that they simply cannot achieve between September and November. Knowledge has a gestation period."

Staff and students were consulted fully, he said, and support for the change was almost unanimous. Of 12,000 students, just 20 expressed initial reservations, and despite an exceptionally busy summer getting new programmes ready, staff are behind the changes. So could this be the start of a growing trend?

Judging by the letters of support Huddersfield has received, semesterisation has few backers. A Liverpool University critic writes:

"Year-long modules and end-of-session assessment should enable students to achieve a firmer grasp of the material they are studying and a more reflective and deeper understanding of their subject."

Another, from the University of Central Lancashire, says it is to be greatly regretted that so much time and effort has been wasted on semesterisation "when virtually all the disadvantages now realised were identified from the outset, but disregarded for presumably reasons of political correctness. It is good to see the centrality of learning being taken seriously again."

A letter from De Montfort University asks: "How did communities of well-qualified and experienced people in numerous universities set up a system of semesterisation that was more difficult for students (too many things to pass, dire penalties on failure) and disliked by academics. This is what happens in managed organisations rather than those run on the former traditional lines."

Andy Hannan of Plymouth University's faculty of the arts and education believes Huddersfield's move is the beginning of a significant shift. Plymouth is preparing to go back to a three-term year from 2003.

"Universities are worried about the over-assessment and compartmentalisation of knowledge that results from modularisation and semesterisation," he said.

"One of the driving forces may be the need to cut down on the amount of time spent on marking in the light of research assessment exercise demands and high student numbers. Another could be the desire to better integrate the student experience, particularly the acquisition of key skills."

Professor Hannan said students had not made the most of the range of choices afforded by modularisation, perhaps because of the way lecturers had guided them, or perhaps because of inconveniences such as timetable clashes or the need to travel between campuses in order to take different modules.

Another detractor is Bob Brecher, reader in moral philosophy at Brighton University. "Huddersfield's decision is a recognition of the enormous damage that the ill-conceived drive to imitate the worst of the American university system has done to the UK over the past ten years and more," he said.

"In reinstating students' intellectual development as a central principle and genuine staff-student contact as pivotal to real learning, Huddersfield has shown a welcome readiness to admit that modularisation was a mistake."

Universities in the old sector are also beginning to air concerns about modularity. Simon Renton, a historian at University College London, is running a conference in December called "What is to be done about modularity?".

He said: "We take the view here that there are a number of core elements that all history graduates should be familiar with. Unless students have a framework of important events, they are unlikely to be able to understand causation so we do have compulsory core elements to ensure students have a coherent programme of study.

"But as students are now being treated more and more as customers, they must have choice, and this is where some universities are foundering. I believe there is a case for rolling back semesterisation in some of the new universities and preventing its progression any further in the old ones."

Professor Evans of Huddersfield agreed: "Semesterisation was a fashion, a paradigm change that shifted the way people viewed the world and it suited policy-makers, who believed there would be greater productivity to drive the expansion of the early 1990s. Sad to say, it has not been successful. That penny has now dropped."

But Colin Bell, principal of Stirling University, said he was a convert. He heads an institution that has had two 15-week semesters starting in September and February since its foundation.

Institutions could suffer from "imperfect semesterisation where you still feel the structure of terms underneath", he said. But Stirling students sit exams before Christmas, with progression in the second semester dependent on their performance. Stirling also has a second student intake in February.

"It really is terribly flexible here and students move around," Professor Bell said. "The downside is that we have to provide a lot of support, but the upside is that we are very close to our students and know what they are doing."

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