Monthly Archives: October 2018

The biggest problem in higher education

When I was engineering student in UCD every day was pretty much the same: lectures in the morning, labs in the afternoon. Our weekly contact time was up around the 30 hour mark. That seems like a lot – and it is – but what we had was structure. There was never a temptation to say, “feck it, I’ll just head home”, because if you did you’d miss too much.

Part of the whole modularisation and semesterisation project was to reduce content and hence to reduce contact time. This was consistent with a lot of modern thinking in education, namely that content is less important than it used to be (Google and all that) and that students need to spend more time developing “skills” like independent learning.

However, this shift to a contact-light approach has had some unanticipated consequences. With the cuts in education funding and the increase in student numbers, student timetables tend to be sub-optimal to say the least. Students often find that they have large gaps between lectures and if the next lecture is late in the afternoon, the temptation is to just head home. (For example, I have a class today at 11am and the next lecture for that class is at 4pm – on a Friday.) It is likely that the notes will be posted on Moodle or Blackboard anyway. If the gap between lectures is small, the natural inclination is to convince yourself that there isn’t enough time to do ‘proper’ study and just spend a bit of time on your smartphone instead.

A few years ago the Irish Survey of Student Engagement asked students how much independent learning they did. What was revealed was that most students did far less study than they were (technically) required to do. For me that was one of the most important findings of that study but for some reason the question has been removed from later versions of the survey.

The lack of structure in the student day is a major barrier to student engagement and in my view it is one of the biggest problems in higher education today. The only solution to this problem is more space and more staff. So it’s not going to be fixed any time soon.

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Thoughts on semesterisation

Most Irish universities are now modularised and semesterised. Modularisation was largely an exercise in repackaging but there are good reasons to believe that semesterisation has fundamentally changed the way students learn and not, perhaps, for the better.

There is plenty of evidence in the cognitive science and education literature that we retain content in our long term memory only if we revisit it multiple times. We rapidly forget that which we only study once.

Under the current semesterised system, students typically have 12 weeks of contact and 1 to 2 weeks of exam preparation time. Furthermore, continuous assessment is increasingly becoming a feature of the majority of modules. And finally, many modules are taught in ‘blocks’ by more than one lecturer – often to suit our increasingly busy schedules.

In that sort of learning environment, one in which students are constantly meeting deadlines and in which they are ‘jumping’ from one topic to the next, and not always in the ideal order, it is hard to imagine that students are really spending much time revisiting content in an organised and effective way throughout the semester. In fact it is very likely that most students revisit content for the first time in the couple of weeks before the examination. This may be enough for them to pass but because they have studied the material only once in an intense burst of cramming, they will rapidly forget it. And hence when we ask a question in class, the answer to which requires knowledge acquired in the previous semester, we are often met with blank faces.

In contrast, in the pre-semesterised era, there were fewer CA deadlines for students and, most importantly of all, the extended Easter break provided students with the time to really lay the foundations for the intense pre-exam study period. In theory at least, this meant that students’ retained content for longer and were in a better position to draw on that knowledge in future years.

We made the transition from the year-long to the semesterised system without ever thinking seriously about how that might affect student learning. People who opposed the semesterised approach (I wasn’t one of them) were portrayed as reactionaries. Now that we have a far better understanding of how people learn, it is worth having another look at semesterisation. I’m not suggesting that we should turn back the clock – that’s never going to happen – but we need to think very carefully about how we organise our semesters and how we teach to ensure that students revisit material multiple times.