In this post, the Teaching and Learning Centre’s Dr Ellis Saxey considers how the structure of a course can impact on student learning.
When I taught undergraduate students, at the end of my seminars, one of my departing students would often say goodbye, and add: ‘I didn’t do the reading for this week, but I will now – it sounds really interesting.’
I was always both pleased – I’d fostered enthusiasm for the topic – and disappointed – the student had missed an opportunity to deeply engage. The chances of them returning to this week’s texts seemed slim, as next week’s reading would take all their time.
Initially, I saw this as a problem for individual students. But I came to see it also as a symptom of poor course design. Each week was walled off from the others. Students could ‘opt out’ of one week without significant loss. There was little before the seminar to contextualise that week’s material, or incentivise students to engage with it. Once that seminar had ended, students weren’t required to reconsider that material (until the assessment, and sometimes not even then). My under-prepared student wouldn’t be required to revisit this topic, but neither would my other students.
The module I was teaching wasn’t uniquely weak; many university modules follow a similar model, encouraged by a fixed grid of timetabling. In most universities, each term or semester has a consistent weekly cycle of contact hours. If there are structurally unusual events, they tend to occur at the start or end of the academic year, such as fresher’s induction. Linkoping University’s induction week for Gender Studies includes multiple lectures and seminars, skills sessions and a campus tour. The more ambitious three-week ‘Block Course’ at the start of undergraduate studies at Prescott College is a deep dive into a single topic, often involving fieldwork.
There are pragmatic reasons for keeping a steady term-time pattern. Spaces need to be booked; courses must cooperate and not create bottlenecks or conflicts for students. But does the weekly timetable encourage good learning and teaching?
When we learn shapes how we learn
This regularised timetable impacts heavily on course design. Weeks are equally sized, and academics select and hone their material to fit. There’s little scope for flexibility – for instance, immersing students at some points during a course.
It becomes hard to think outside the norm of covering a separate topic or a new text in every week. In some disciplines, there’s a necessary progression of ideas, but in other disciplines these weeks can become quite isolated from one another. This can be exacerbated by courses with changing lecturers; students benefit from hearing leading researchers, but the class or seminar has to work hard to create a coherent whole. As my opening anecdote shows, a course with less coherence lectures affects student motivation, as students can treat the disconnected weeks with very different levels of preparation.
The topic-per-week system also potentially affects students’ ability to apply tools or concepts to new areas. They explore one concept in one or two key examples, and then move on to a new concept. Something broad-ranging becomes indelibly associated with one place, time, text or case study.
Even where it would be possible to introduce flexibility into the ‘topic per week’ system, academics can be reluctant. When more time is available, it’s appealing to introduce new material into a course, rather than return to a previous topic; we choose the former, despite knowing that returning and revising can strongly promote learning. Jerome Bruner advanced the idea of the spiral curriculum: key questions and themes are encountered at different stages, with growing levels of complexity. Most programmes follow this model implicitly, but in their explicit schedules are much more linear.
Reading week is a key chance for students to consolidate and draw connections, and many LSE departments have made the most of this, offering additional office hours or developmental workshops. In many institutions, though, there are no scheduled contact hours, and little guidance is provided as to how students could consolidate their learning.
What’s the alternative?
How could we structure our courses differently? Research on alternative timetabling often relates to the pressures of scarcity (of student or staff time) and investigates whether compressed teaching hours can be effective. Nevertheless, some studies find positive results. Accelerated or immersion learning students report higher than usual motivation and confidence in their learning (Lee and Horsfall, 2010) and achieve equal or higher attainment (Wlodkowski, 2003; Richmond et al., 2014).
Several LSE courses include an immersive or element. GI422 concludes the term with a full day conference of student papers. This reinforces the key concepts of the course, but extends the scope of the material covered, with papers from many countries. Anthropology offers away days for first and third years. These include academic elements, but also aim to aid transition, build community and develop skills.
I want to conclude by describing some ways to ‘bend’ the weekly teaching timetable, and ameliorate some of its issues.
Many courses use overarching themes to encourage students to conceptualise at a level higher than the weekly topics. HY118 has seven themes which return across twenty weeks, including ‘Knowledge and Nature’ and ‘War and Dominion’. These help to foreground thematic connections in a broadly chronological course. LSE100 clusters its weekly materials under two questions, one in each half of the term: ‘What is the future of democracy?’ ‘Should markets be constrained or unleashed?’ With larger clusters, courses could include a week for consolidation and reflection at the end of a thematic section.
The next step might be to assign readings not weekly, but for two or three week ‘clusters’; this could allow for richer class and seminar discussions. It would also make it harder for students to ‘opt out’ of any week. However, this approach would have knock-on effects for student workload; preparation time would be front-loaded and less regular.
Even in a traditionally structured course, contact hours are often allocated to return to topics: the ‘revision sessions’ in the summer term. These sessions are quite brief, however, and tend more towards recapping key points. Could more time be allocated for re-interrogation? Similarly, the concluding seminars of many LSE courses often include cross-course topic discussions. Could these be expanded, and prioritised over new content, during these last weeks?
My final suggestion is to include a ‘taster’ at the end of a class or seminar of the following week’s material. I began to do this so I could offer a framework for preparatory reading. This would naturally include connections to the current week’s texts and topics, while they were still fresh in students’ minds. I did also hope that if students thought, I’ll read that – it sounds interesting, they would have time to do so before the relevant seminar.