New teaching method mirrors workplace environment and encourages greater student engagement


22.02.2019

A new approach to undergraduate teaching, launched at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David’s Lampeter campus this year, has already seen an increase in student engagement and attainment. 

Errietta and Group of students

The engaged method of teaching, otherwise known as block teaching, was introduced across the University’s Humanities programmes in September and is already proving popular with students and staff alike.

According to its proponents, the block method encourages active learning on the part of students by providing intensive teaching of subjects in blocks throughout the academic year.  It aims to support the acquisition of academic knowledge and employability skills in equal measure.

Instead of studying three modules in each semester, students study one module intensively over a four-week period, typically for three hours per day on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday each week. The result is that students are immersed in a subject and are able to study in more depth, complete tasks in a way that typifies the workplace; work effectively to deadlines - together and independently - communicate well and develop confidence in their abilities to perform, collaborate and lead.  

Block Teaching 1

 

Dr Tristan Nash, senior lecturer in Philosophy saysPreviously students could be taking up to three modules at a time and this would mean that they would be trying to prepare for assessment for three different subjects at one time.  We felt that this was not the way to get the best from them”

“When we were delivering the old system it could be a week in between lectures which meant that it could be a week before we picked up those ideas again and those ideas could go cold. Now, we’re meeting the students the next day so we can offer additional tutorial and seminar support as well as additional reading for the next day. Students can really engage in the subject and then we can pick up the ideas the next day while they’re still fresh.

Archaeology and Heritage lecturer Quentin Drew says: “It helps both the very competent students as it provides an opportunity for them to get really involved and go in-depth into the blocks but also it helps students who, perhaps, have other distractions, other issues that their having to deal with.  We’re seeing much better engagement with the students because they have contact with us and with the group each day for those four weeks.  Their confidence in participating is also increasing.  Initially they might be a little bit reticent, but by the end of the block they are very much more part and parcel of all the activities that take place whether it be seminars, group discussions, so for student engagement, it is hugely beneficial”.

Tristan Nash continues: “The advantage with this way of teaching is that because you just teach this one group of students at a time you can really give your focus to that group of students.  You see those students for three hours a day for delivering lectures however you can be available for the rest of the day so that if they want tutorial support, if they want to discuss their essays you can be available to them to help support them.  So not only is it an immersive experience in terms of the lecturing, it’s also immersive beyond that.  The fact that there’s plenty of opportunity for one-to-one support, plenty of students to work together outside of the modules as well”.

Classics lecturer Dr Matthew Cobb, says: “I think it’s allowed much more opportunities for interaction and engagement not only amongst students but also with me, so it really is the type of teaching that requires much more interpersonal engagement with myself and the students, working in groups, team work, thinking collaboratively so it’s quite advantageous for developing future career skills for employment, where you’re going to need to do teamwork with loads of people and I think this is a great way of having a nice safe environment in which to do it, to feel confident and build up your skills”.

Dr Luci Attala, Senior Lecturer in Anthropology who was instrumental in developing the new delivery method says: “After quite a few years of teaching in higher education I recognised that there was a disconnect between what we were giving the students and what employers said the students needed once they had graduated. What we were providing was quite a passive service, where the student would listen to a lecture and then would be expected to produce a piece of work much later, which typically was an essay”. 

“Employers were saying, well that’s great because they can write, but we never need somebody to write an essay. They might be brilliant at that but what they’re not brilliant at doing is responding to the day to day activity of a workplace environment in which you might have to create a report quickly, you might have to work in a group, you might have to be able to think on your feet, you might have to show the evidence of your ability to research, you might have to create a variety of different documents - and certainly a 100% never write an essay!

“So it was in response to that along with my obsession with sustainability and trying to create graduates that will respond to the new conditions of the world and be able to respond fast and with confidence that we decided to start rethinking things”.

At first, Dr Atala introduced a module called “Materialities in Anthropology” in which the content was delivered through workshops, group work, research seminars and in which students were required to deliver complete lectures on a given topic.

And that worked really well” she says “the students were really motivated; they were really engaged. They took over and they taught me and I suddenly realised that if you give that to them, rather than keep them passive, if you allow them to be active and have a voice, they blossom, they come out of themselves”.

It was that experience that led to the introduction of the immersive teaching method across the Humanities and Performing Arts programmes at the University at the beginning of this academic year.  Students are not only developing in-depth knowledge of their specific subject areas; they’re also developing proficiency in a range of skills which are introduced as part of their modules, including creating a website, blogging, presenting a report, or delivering a photo essay, video or photography.  The aim is to ensure that they are acquiring a package of employability skills alongside their discipline.

We’ve created a series of intensive blocks to mimic the workplace, to keep everyone together as a research group or team for the month to work on maybe two or three ideas in-depth in that block” says Luci.  “So instead of a long thin module where you cover maybe 10 different subjects briefly, what you’ve got now is an intense block where you go deep into two or three topic areas and the students have to turn around their work fast just as they’d have to do in the workplace.  This is what the block system is trying to do – they’re working in a team just like the workplace. So when they go out they can genuinely say, not that I know about Anthropology, but yes I know how to do that, yes I wrote that, yes I worked with those people, yes I turned that around in a week and here’s the example”.

The seeds of change were first sown when a group of the University’s academic team visited the highly acclaimed Quest University in Canada as part of a series of reciprocal visits between the two universities.  Now in its second decade, Quest has developed a ground-breaking approach to post-compulsory education to enable students to gain universal skills while delving deep into topics they’re passionate about. 

Although Quest was the inspiration, UWTSD has adapted the immersive teaching style for the UK higher education context.  Dr Jeremy Smith, Dean of the Faculty says: “In 2012 a small group from Lampeter visited Quest University in Canada. We met their students, we interviewed their lecturers, we met their Provost and we were overawed by the fantastic style of teaching and experience that their students had at Quest.  It was a very rich experience.  Their students were motivated; they were energised, the tutors were energised and their results across Canada were extremely high.  So we took all that set of experiences and we came back to Lampeter to shape our own unique version.  We’ve been rolling it out over this academic year having previously planned it for a good two years and thus far the results are extremely encouraging”.

Dr Smith also believes that the benefits for students are three-fold:  It provides a very personalised learning experience as all the teaching is delivered in small groups which means that with some 20 in a group a whole range of teaching techniques and pedagogies that really focus on the individual student can be delivered.  Secondly, tutors and students work very closely together because the module last for four weeks and provides a real sense of collaboration and co-operation.  Students become engrossed in their subjects and their enthusiasm often translates into better grades.  Thirdly, contact time between students and lecturers is significantly higher than in the majority of universities which, according to Dr Smith, provides better value for tuition fees.  He says “The new system allows us to increase the contact hours so every module within each block is delivered with 48 hours of contact time.  That’s direct contact time, in class with a lecturer, not a postgraduate student, not a fill-in, not a supply teacher but a lecturer and/or a professor.  Around those 48 contact hours then a student will have every week a one-to-one tutorial and they’ll have every week a meeting with their personal tutor.  Now that again in terms of value added is immensely important for students.  It’s giving them really quality teaching experience; it’s giving them the opportunity to get the high marks, and high grades and it’s giving them value for money at the end of the day. So the system for us covers a whole range of real opportunities that we’ve embedded here at the heart of Lampeter.”

An added advantage of the new system is that because only one module is completed in each block they do not compete with other modules meaning that a range of additional activities can be offered, including field trips and placements.  Luci Attala says: “Anthropology students are going off for a month to Africa and other locations because they can without it impacting on their other modules.  So that’s worked brilliantly. And it also gives students the opportunity to give back to the community because in some of their block down time we are encouraging them to do voluntary work, to get involved in lots of not-for-profit projects, so that they can add that to their CV.  We have three different projects available to students of an international nature - one in Kenya which is a reforestation initiative about carbon re-absorption; one in Zimbabwe which is a Fair Trade farming project and another in Ruanda working with street children.”

And what about the impact on academic staff?  Archaeology and Heritage lecturer, Quentin Drew says “The teaching now is much more intensive.  We see the students in a condensed timeframe and rather than it being delivered on a weekly basis, we now see students every day so that has an impact on the way we teach in terms of what we can deliver, what we can cover so I can go into detail much more easily and retain the students’ attention and the way the students engage with the teaching, their attention is not distracted by a week’s separation”. 

Classics lecturer, Dr Errietta Bissa, adds:It’s immersive and that makes a big difference to the student. They can concentrate on one subject; we can concentrate on one subject but also the kind of things that we can do with the student and the things that students can do for themselves has changed.  For example, going for a field trip, being able to go a museum without having to put it on a Saturday, without having to make the students miss class for other modules but also the kind of activities that we can do.  For example, the class I’m teaching there is a session where we have a practical understanding of how the Greek Hoplite worked on the battle field.  I have been running this session for a number of years but having one hour versus three hours and just the previous day having explained the exercise makes a big difference because now I know that they will get it and we will have more time than simply 15 minutes between explanation, recap, actual exercise more recap and that makes such a big difference in how students understand the ancient world”.

And what about students?  Dr Bissa says that “It helps the overall student experience and I have seen students being not simply happy but actually eager to go into class, eager to do work outside of class because it’s not something that happens next week or in two weeks’ time, it’s right there tomorrow”.

Dr Katharina Zinn, Senior Lecturer in Egyptian Archaeology and Heritage adds “It’s much better suited to react to the needs of the students, so the ones who are really going ahead, where it’s the ideal module for them, you can feed them with more with what goes beyond that module, while you can help other student who have a difficulty with the particular topic”.

Block Teaching - Harry and Tamara

Tamara Bowie, 3rd year Classics student from Hastings, says: “The teaching is different but it seems to be working for the majority of the people here in Lampeter – so positives!  . . . We have more reading to do for classes as we have four lectures on the same topic a week.  It’s not the same situation as my previous years in uni where we’ve had an entire week between classes so now we’ve spent a lot more time in the library, working together in groups, in flats in homes etc working towards the next day’s activities. It’s definitely more intensive but we’re absolutely learning more.  We feel that we can engage more in classes we can have more discussion”.

Fellow student Harry Watkin, a second year Classical Studies student from Devon adds: “Initially I had my reservations about it but I’m actually a big fan of it.  It is a lot more work but I and others that I know have seen improved results and I found on average from the first assessment my marks have been higher overall.  We spend a lot more time in the library together.  It encourages us to work harder because there’s more content we have to cover in a shorter space of time so everyone gets into the library and chucks in together. . .Overall it’s been a great experience so far and, although I had reservations going in, I think it’s a great change”.

First year Anthropology with Applied Psychology student, Jess Evans says “The block system is great in many ways, in particular not having to sit exams. I know myself and many other students really struggle with exams and in my eyes they're not a particularly good test of a person's understanding of a subject.

“There is also a fair amount of flexibility with the block system, being able to reschedule is always handy . . . All in all I think the block system is great.” 

Susan Fullwood, a mature student from Halesowen in Birmingham says: “The block system was what sold Lampeter to me. The opportunity to study and immerse into one subject at a time seemed perfect, especially for me, an older student returning to education. And to be fair the lecturers and support has been fabulous; information and the module content has been intense, informative and concise. A further block advantage is the ability to see one’s progress, with assignments being completed and results being returned within a given time scale prior to taking the next scheduled module block.