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By Professor Peter Goodhew, Director of the UK Centre for Materials Education

"The pressure of highly-specified courses narrows the approach to learning. University courses are now dictated by such strict and specific guidelines that there is no room to devise new, stimulating ways of approaching a subject. The twin pressures - ever-tightening unit costs and highly prescriptive QA regimes - are incompatible with high quality university education."

Auriol Stevens (recent editor of The Higher) in RSA Journal October 2002 p22.

Over the last ten years many, perhaps most, of our degree programmes in materials science and engineering have been both modularised and semesterised. This has meant that, in most cases, each topic has been packaged as a module which has been both delivered and examined within a single semester. The size of the module is not always the same - universities have chosen models with six, eight, ten or twelve modules per year (or in terms of a 120-credit year, 20, 15, 12 or 10 credit points per module, and then there are half-modules…).

The advantages of such a system are simple to discern: Students can easily transfer credit from one institution or programme to another. They can accumulate credit at a steady rate and know that they are progressing satisfactorily. They get feedback, which could be formative, at frequent intervals. These reasons seemed persuasive to universities and most have now put in place a module/semester system. Modularisation must indeed be the best thing since sliced bread. However a few institutions held out against the trend and we are now beginning to see a swing back in the other direction. Most recently Huddersfield University announced that it was renouncing semesters entirely.

What then are the arguments against modules and semesters? From the educational point of view it seems that there are many.

  • Over-examining: We read a lot about the large number of exams enjoyed by students through their school career. A modularised degree programme typically adds twenty to thirty more. In my own Department we set about a dozen exams for each year, approximately half in each semester. It is hard to believe that we need more than 30 exams to discriminate between strong and weaker graduates or to test that they reach a threshold level of engineering competence - particularly since these must be the only motives for setting these exams, since we do not help the students to use them as a formative experience (they are all at the end of "completed" modules).

  • Surface learning: Since each module typically lasts only 12 or so weeks within a 15-week semester there is little chance that complex concepts have time to be absorbed or integrated into the whole engineering way of thinking. Modularisation encourages pigeon-holing of knowledge and actively discourages the transfer of ideas from one area of the discipline to another. These, however, are among the skills we most prize in an engineer.

  • Length of unbroken study. Most modules are taught over 12 continuous weeks. This is stressful for both staff and students - it is no accident that schools have half term breaks. Some university programmes have responded by creating "reading weeks" or "test weeks" half way through each semester.

  • Encroachment on vacations: On a purely practical level the longer semesters are hard to fit into the UK year without seriously limiting the length of the Christmas and Easter vacations. This might not appear to be important until you consider the earning power of debt-ridden students in these periods and the expense of trips home at the most expensive times for overseas (e.g. EU) students. It also means too frequently that lectures continue right up to, say, Christmas and then revision and/or exams begin immediately after the break. Not, I believe, an ideal arrangement for study, library access, consultation with academic staff or anything.

  • Straightjacket on programme design: The most serious problem is in the future. I increasingly believe that we must strive to create an individual programme for each student. At first sight this is exactly what modularisation offers - often dismissively described as leading to "pick and mix" degrees. However the reality is quite different and results in the inhibition of the individualisation of programmes. Ask yourself how to introduce a new element into a programme when you can only use a unit size of 10 credits (or 12, or whatever your local currency is). Ask how you can offer additional support material to students with academic gaps in certain areas while dealing with a system which tells you that 120 credits is what each year has to be, that every module has to be assessed and that if you introduce an additional module you must drop an equivalent one out. Ask how you can tailor your first year mathematics modules to offer different topics to those students who have taken different sets of modules at A2 or AS level (and there are many different module combinations on offer).

There are, I am sure, inventive ways round most of these problems - after all we are engineers. However Occam's razor, which should be deployed far more often, suggests that we go for the simplest solution. I will assert that this is the re-establishment of the academic year as the major unit for learning purposes. Over a period of eight to nine months there is plenty of opportunity for assimilation, reflection, cross-fertilisation. The longer period also absorbs problems more easily - a week of flu or ten days of boy-friend trouble do not have such an effect on a year as they do on a 12-week semester. At a stroke the examining load is halved. Add the condition that although a successful year might still conveniently contribute 120 credit points, there is absolutely no need for each study element to carry the same number of credits, nor for the student to only study units worth 120 credits, and you have re-introduced sensible flexibility. Without, I would say, removing any educational value.

Most of us don't like sliced bread anyway, so the equation of modules and semesters with steam-baked slices of doubtful nutritional value and negligible taste seems quite fair. Can I suggest a return to home-made bread with flavour, in slices you cut yourself to the thickness you prefer?

Peter Goodhew, October 2002


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This area of the website contains articles intended to stimulate debate amongst the Materials community. Some of the articles are deliberately provocative. Please feel free to express your own opinion, or suggest other topics for discussion, by contacting the UK Centre for Materials Education.


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