The popular image of modular courses as incoherent "pick 'n' mix" programmes is unfounded, a national survey has concluded. Most modular systems set students on pre-determined paths rather than offering them unlimited choice.
An investigation by the Higher Education Quality Council discovered that the move towards modularity is gathering pace, with around 67 per cent of institutions now running modular schemes or in the process of setting them up.
While the first few years of introducing such schemes are "likely to be characterised by experimentation, mistakes and much learning", institutions tend to pay closer attention to the maintenance of academic standards as a result, it concludes.
The report, based on 12 institutions, says: "It is clear that modularity poses considerable challenges to academic practice in defining, evaluating and verifying academic standards at all levels in an institution.
"However, the opportunities for operating collective and consistent mechanisms for setting and evaluating academic standards, and for external scrutiny of those standards, are potentially greater in modularised provision than in traditional courses."
The move in modular systems towards more explicit statements on the intended results of learning, clear assessment criteria and increased use of coursework, means students are clearer about their objectives and are more likely to fulfil them, the report adds.
The study also unearthed wide variations in the kinds of modular schemes being run, and in marking practices across programmes and institutions. Universities and colleges are at different stages in the process of "going modular". Modularity tends to expose differences in the marking of assessed work in different subjects. The report says variations in marking practice are most noticeable at the top and bottom end of the scale, so that the threshold pass mark is one of the areas of greatest inconsistency in marking practice.
The report says: "Our understanding of academic standards in modular degrees is complicated by the range of approaches that institutions have adopted to modularisation and factors such as semesterisation and the rapid growth in the population and diversity of learners during a period of decreasing unit resources."
Understanding Academic Standards in Modular Frameworks, available from UCAS, Fulton House, Jessup Avenue, Cheltenham, price Pounds 10.