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Modules – I'd get rid of them tomorrow

16 Jul 2021 | Dr Andy Grayson "Most problematic of all is the way they discourage students from doing that all-important, high-level thing we call 'synthesis'", says Dr Andy Grayson, Reader in Psychology, Nottingham Trent University

If you've been in the higher education business long enough to remember 'modularisation', chances are there are moments when you find yourself thinking, 'goodness me, I've been doing this for a long time.' Because modules have been with us for decades now. And while they help us keep track of stuff, they add little of any pedagogic value, and have had a damaging effect on assessment.

Not, that is, that I have anything against modules that operate within a genuine modular system. The Open University has run a wonderful degree structure since its inception, allowing students to mix and match their subjects, and emerge with inter-disciplinary ('Open') degrees, should they choose so to do. It's just that most mainstream HE providers in the UK offer modules within entirely programme-driven structures, such that the advantages and possibilities of modules are almost entirely unavailable to the student.

What's the point of modules?

In theory, modules allow students flexibility in their studies. Transfer between courses and institutions is enabled by this 'common currency', and there should be opportunities to pursue subjects that are not directly related to main programmes of studies. A foreign language. An introduction to archaeology. Poetry, perhaps. Trouble is, the programmes that students elect to study tend to be rather full. Sometimes this is due to professional, statutory and regulatory body (PSRB) requirements. But it is also often the result of how courses are designed. Six modules on this in term one, and six on that in term two. Students who elect to try things outwith that structure are relatively few and far between.

Yes, transfer of credits is readily enabled across courses and institutions. But again, there are only a small percentage of students for whom this ends up being relevant, and it is a moot point whether modularisation provides any real depth when it comes to matters of comparability, if one digs beneath the surface of module titles and credit ratings.

Silos of learning

The downsides of modules, from a learning and teaching point of view, are well known. Most problematic of all is the way they discourage students from doing that all-important, high-level thing we call 'synthesis'. Over the many years that I have been teaching in UK universities, I have come to regard the ability to 'synthesise' effectively as one of the key skills that we want from our students. Those who can take ideas from different domains and put them together in thoughtful and inventive ways stand out from the crowd and earn themselves good grades.

Modules push students in the wrong direction, in this regard. Their implicit, yet strong imperative is 'focus on developmental psychology in this bit and concentrate on social psychology in that bit'. Teaching teams may try to break free of that message. But every aspect of teaching preparation and delivery is structured by the fact that 'introduction to biological psychology' is taught and administered by one group, 'introduction to critical theory' by another. The whole infrastructure of our working lives—timetables, workloads, planning meetings, day-to-day interactions—is grounded in modularity.

Assessment

The area that interests me most in this regard is assessment. It's in this domain that modules have arguably done the most damage. Quite reasonably, when someone is asked to lead a module, they will take a view on how that unit of learning should be assessed. The problem is that if 12 module leaders all make individual decisions about this in parallel across a year of study, the overall assessment programme for students can become unbalanced and full of redundancy. Tasks are repeated, skills are assessed on multiple occasions, and from a student's perspective (bearing in mind that the student has come to study 'psychology', not PSYC101 through PSCY199) the diet of assessment may not make much sense. Indeed, over-assessment is a classic feature of modularity in HE.

One of the many causes of the problems that can be observed is the notion that for every 'credit' on a course there should be some sort of equivalence of assessment load. For example, it's not unusual to see, as standard, two pieces of summative assessment for each 20-credit module on a degree course. That can result in up to 24 pieces of assessment work across a typical 120-credit year. And many of those pieces of work will be testing the same skills, albeit in the context of different subject domains. They will also, as a rule, tend to test knowledge and understanding in each individual domain separately, rather than in ways that encourage joined-up thinking and synthesis.

Collective ownership

Of course, modules are here to stay, so this would be a pointless diatribe of a piece if I didn't have something to say about how these problems can be addressed. I'll focus on assessment in this regard. There are two key principles, which, if held to, can lead to effective mitigation of some of the assessment-related challenges that modules pose.

First is to recognise that modules are collectively owned by a course team, not by individuals. A module leader does not teach 'their' module. They run it on behalf of a course. Indeed, in my view, it's best to avoid the usual trap of referring to modules with a possessive, as if they are owned by an individual. Once that's been recognised it's a relatively straightforward step to establish the principle that it's not the module leader who should determine how 'their' module should be assessed. That is the job of the course team who should be deciding how the course as a whole is to be assessed. If a course team takes a step back from the modular structure and decides how it wants a student's assessment schedule to look across the academic year, it can ensure that it minimises redundancy, and maximises effectiveness. A diet of assessment that makes sense to each student can be designed.

While we are on the subject of collective ownership of learning and teaching, we might note that it also pays dividends to avoid the trap of any aspect thereof being owned by individuals. By this view, a module leader doesn't award 'their' grades or marks. They recommend a set of grades to the course team, which are then awarded at course level. Likewise, feedback to students should be given on behalf of the course, not as part of some private contract between an individual student and an individual marker. Your feedback to our students should be just as important to me as 'my' feedback to our students. When collective ownership is allowed to play out fully, there are many benefits.

Credit ratings ≠ assessment load

The second principle is also necessary if one is to take full advantage of the first, in this respect. Assessment load should not be determined by credit rating. It should be perfectly okay to have some modules very lightly assessed, if others need to be more heavily assessed. For example, in a research methods module we might want each student to undertake a relatively large amount of assessed work, with relatively high levels of feedback on their ongoing development.

In contrast, there are those modules in which we might need to ensure students have reached a minimum competence, and passed, by means of a relatively straightforward test of some sort. So long as the diet of assessment for the academic year as a whole is sensible, it really does not matter in the slightest if one 20 credit module (for example) has several pieces of summative assessment attached, while others have only one. We don't, for example, need to assess a student's writing skills, or their capacity to argue and evaluate on every single module that they study. For some modules, we can just aim to find out how much stuff they know!

Once a course team has fully assumed responsibility for designing the assessment schedule for each year of study as a whole and freed themselves from the artificial 'accounting' constraints of module credit ratings, they can enable themselves to make effective, strategic judgments about the pattern of assessment that each student on their course should experience. Repetition can be minimised, and, who knows, they might even be able to build in specific requirements for students to show evidence of synthesising learning from across different modules.

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