Home | Industry & Research | Five pitfalls of adopting the block mode of teaching, and strategies to overcome them: opinion

Five pitfalls of adopting the block mode of teaching, and strategies to overcome them: opinion

Block Mode of Teaching (BMT) is a model of teaching where subjects are offered in shorter periods of time.

In the traditional semester mode of teaching, four units are normally offered in a 12 week window. In the BMT usually one or two units are offered in a shorter window (eg, four or six weeks). Although application of BMT is not new to secondary education, the use of the BMT in the tertiary sector is still limited.

Victoria University has been one of the first Australian universities to adopt the BMT across both undergraduate and postgraduate courses. The university has reported phenomenal success after adopting this innovation, including higher pass rates and higher student grades.

BMT has been attributed to higher pass rates and grades among students, and to providing an opportunity for curriculum redesign and improvements.

However, some researchers have challenged this mode of teaching and called for more rigorous research to examine such innovations.

This article takes a step forward by presenting five pitfalls universities adopting BMT may face, and suggests a number of strategies to get around them.

Pitfall 1: Shorter memory retention by students

One of the pitfalls of adopting the BMT is that students are likely to encounter shorter memory retention due to the fact the subjects conclude in a shorter period, and in some cases the knowledge gained may not be repeatedly used over time.

According to Dr Sean Kang who is working on the cognitive psychology of learning and memory: “We remember things because they either stand out, they relate to and can easily be integrated in our existing knowledge base, or it’s something we retrieve, recount or use repeatedly over time.”

Suggested strategy:

  • Present the key lessons of the day in such a way that they stand out, using real life examples and scenarios students can relate to.
  • Always present at the beginning of each class the key concepts learnt in the previous sessions.
  • Reinforce the key concepts learnt in a subject in the following relevant subjects.

Pitfall 2: Students less able to see how their subjects are inter-related

Although not always the case, in the BMT normally one unit is offered at a time. This creates another pitfall as students may fail to see the inter-relation between the subjects and view the subjects as separate 'islands'.

Suggested strategy:

  • Offer two units at a time (rather than one unit), in a relatively longer period of time, and preferably try to offer in the same block a pair of units with more inter-relation.
  • Run course/program level inductions which demonstrate to the students how the subjects underlying a course/program are inter-related.
  • Design inter-related units in a way that they always refer back to one another.

Pitfall 3: Pressure on teaching staff

The BMT creates pressure for teaching staff as they have to cover all the material at a reasonable quality standard under time constraints, ensuring students don’t feel rushed.

To do this, teaching staff not only need to possess good knowledge of the subject, but also need to have excellent time management and communication skills.

Suggested strategy:

  • To avoid overloading the teaching staff, allocating fair teaching load for teaching blocked subjects, and giving them enough time for subject preparation and professional development.

Pitfall 4: Students facing challenge of keeping up with the subject

As blocked subjects are offered in an intensive period, students face the challenge of keeping up with the topics. If a student, for example, fails to understand a key concept on which following concepts are built and is reluctant to ask a question about it, s/he is in trouble.

The situation is exacerbated in the case of slow learners, where they may find that by the time they get to understand a particular concept, the class has already moved to the next.

Suggested strategy:

  • Ensure all students have understood a specific key concept before moving to the next. They can do that by asking if anyone has any question or would like them to repeat the explanation of the concept.
  • By designing short quizzes which test students’ learning of the key concepts taught on the day.

Pitfall 5: Students burn-out

Having to study a unit in an intensive mode, especially if there is no break between the blocks, may contribute to student burn-out.

Although studying one unit at a time creates a fantastic opportunity for students to focus all their attention to one subject, it may exhaust students if the load is not proportionally distributed throughout the block, or if too much content load is allocated to a specific subject.

Suggested strategy:

  • Research undertaken by the author and colleagues suggested the following three factors which can help to alleviate this situation, namely: careful designing of the subjects, providing timely feedback and student support, and having quality teaching staff in place.
  • Ensuring the subject’s load is proportionally distributed throughout the block.
  • Offering two units (preferably inter-related ones) at a time, in a longer block.
  • Another useful strategy here could be for teaching staff to warn students early in the block about their study load, and present students with tips to manage their load and time.

Dr Amir Ghapanchi is a senior lecturer and program chair in the College of Engineering and Science at Victoria University.

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