Has semesterisation been a good thing?

The Trinity Education Project (semesterisation and modularisation in effect) is provoking a lot of debate at the moment. All of the other universities semesterised many years ago and it would be quite easy to simply characterise Trinity as a reactionary institution that drags its feet on everything. However, the longer I am in this line of work the more I value a slow and steady approach to reform because education is not a science, and plausibility, rather than real evidence, is often what drives change. Inquiry-based learning, for example, has an air of plausibility about it but most of what I have read over the years suggests very strongly that IBL is ineffective for novice learners and comes with a large opportunity cost. Likewise the idea of teaching generic problem-solving skills sounds like it could be worthwhile but, again, everything I have read suggests that the ability to problem-solve is inextricably linked with knowledge. If you don’t know much about an area you’re unlikely to be any good at solving problems in that area. This is one of the reasons why I hate the idea that “STEM” is a ‘thing’ as opposed to an abbreviation.

Anyway, my view is that the process of modularisation was a good one mainly because it provided us with an opportunity to review and update the content of our courses and to make sure that they had a logical structure. Furthermore, semesterisation (and modularisation) greatly enhanced student mobility – surely a good development.

But along with bringing about these structural changes, institutions began to emphasis continuous assessment, contact times were reduced across the board, and “independent learning” became a thing. All of this was aided by the development of learning environments like Moodle and Blackboard.

At this stage, it looks like the future of Irish higher education is likely to be one where every institution has two 12-week semesters during which students will complete a variety of continuous assessments, followed by a short study period of one or two weeks, followed by the exam period. During that period the student might have to sit between zero and six two-hour exams. It all seems very neat and certainly appeals to the many people in education who have what might be called a systemising mindset. (I have one myself.)

The question we have to ask is this: is this system inferior (in terms of student learning) to the old three-term system, with one set of final exams. This is a question that has never really been asked, perhaps because it’s unanswerable.

But I do think the forgetting curve is relevant to all of this. Under the current system, students tend to be very busy with CA during the term. The CAs should, in theory, assess learning outcomes that cannot be assessed by final exam but that is not always the case. CA is often used to incentivise study. However, throw in part-time work and commuting and you’ll find that very little time is left for actually studying the material that will be examined in the exam. The effect of this is that students end up studying for the exam in a relatively short, sharp burst and the forgetting curve tells us that they will forget the material they have studied very rapidly.

In contrast, in the old three-term system, students weren’t quite so busy with CA (but completed problem sets and the like if they were committed) and they had holiday periods (Christmas and, especially, Easter) to really build the foundations for the summer study period. Therefore, the committed student covered the content multiple times meaning that they were more likely to retain it and draw on it in future years of their course.

I realise there’s no going back but I believe we need to move away from using plausibility as our guide and to pay a lot more heed to modern developments in the science of learning.

My interest in all of this started when I read Daniel Willingham’s book “Why don’t students like School”. I think it’s a book that every aspiring teacher or lecturer should read. I’d also recommend “Seven Myths about Education” by the obviously very smart Daisy Christodoulou. You’d read that one in a weekend. It’s brilliant.


2 thoughts on “Has semesterisation been a good thing?

  1. To be honest we overestimate the value of higher education when done well and overestimate the damage when it is done badly. The quality of the learning experience is relatively unimportant to people’s lives. We in higher education need to get some perspective on the importance of what we do. The internet has made it even less relevant. People who want to learn can do so without universities. It is just a tool that allows kids to differentiate themselves from their peers to get a “start”. The fuss about the Trinity Education Project is trivial. much ado about nothing.


    1. No sure about that Brian. So many of my colleagues say the got into science because of an inspirational teacher or lecturer. And, it’s so much easier to learn when you have a good ‘teacher’ and a stimulating environment that when on your own, especially nowadays when its so much easier to just gawk at your phone. In any case, 4 years is 4 years and it would be a shame for anyone to spend a significant chunk of their life being bored and unengaged.


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