Scientific Education


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2015-10-20 post date.

Students ride a merry go round between final and modular courses

Students ride a merry go round between final and modular courses

Some time in the late 80s, departments in my faculty received a letter from the dean instructing us to redesign our undergraduate courses, replacing outdated traditional degrees with modern, modular programmes. Up to that point, student achievement was based on finals, taken over an intensive few weeks in the third year. First- and second-year exams had to be passed to progress to the next year, but had little influence on the degree class obtained.
Modular systems promised a more even exam load, which would, so it was thought, be fairer and less stressful. They also offered greater flexibility. Nevertheless, as cynical academics, we assumed that the real reason for change was administrative convenience, including more control over staff, in belated recognition of practice elsewhere in the sector.
Most departments grumbled but did what they were told. My department, instead, wrote a letter explaining why making this change would be the end of civilisation as we knew it, or at least something close. Modular degrees, we argued, encourage superficial learning and lacked connection between the elements studied. We preferred to continue teaching for what was known as the University of London federal degree. Our students went to lectures at several different colleges, freeing academic time for weekly tutorials including, in the final year, one-to-one sessions. The tutorials were the highlight, and we couldn’t see how to continue them in the same way in a modular programme.

We had to argue the case, but eventually the dean was promoted into another role, someone else with less appetite for confrontation took over, and the issue died down. For the next 10 years or so, we were an anomaly: teaching for the finals system while other departments taught in course units. Of course, there were snags. The combination of lectures and tutorials left little space or teaching time for seminars. Getting major changes through the system was close to a life’s work. But still, the system worked well for us, and students who wanted to be taught some other way had plenty of options in other universities.
I don’t know if all good things do have to come to an end, but ours did, eventually. The problem was “quality assurance”. Our anomalous programme was governed by antique University of London regulations. After a sticky inspection from the Quality Assurance Agency, the University of London announced that it no longer had the resources to quality-assure the programme. And so it was over, just like that. Not because of allegations of failure of academic quality or of inadequate procedures, but because there was insufficient oversight of the robustness of our procedures. An academic parable for our times.

It was, though, a relief to change to a system that was compliant with standard regulations, rather than having to explain, twice a week, why some new ordinance could not apply to us. The department devised a new modular structure that had great flexibility, retained a small element of tutorials and seems to be popular with staff and students. Sorted. Except for one thing. The flexible and efficient modular system is now officially under attack, with educational theorists arguing that, to use the preferred term, it is not “fit for purpose”.
Instead of replacing the stress of final examinations, we have replicated it six times over: there are now critical deadlines twice a year. Even processing the applications for extenuating circumstances is the task of Hercules. Another problem is that students have very limited individual contact with experienced academic staff. But the main difficulty with the modular system is said to be that it encourages superficial learning and lacks connection between the elements studied. Hmmm.
Whatever the problems of the finals system, it, at its best, allowed sustained study and gave the undergraduate curriculum a cumulative feel and end point that is much harder to replicate in the world of modules. Maybe the finals system wasn’t so bad after all? A letter from the dean appears overdue.
Jonathan Wolff is dean of arts and humanities at University College London and professor of philosophy