A radical rethinking of undergraduate learning

Victoria University in Melbourne’s western suburbs had been struggling for nearly a decade. The uncapping of student places by the federal government from 2010 onwards hit it hard.

While the majority of universities surfed the wave of opportunity afforded by the demand-driven system, a small number failed to thrive. Among the hardest hit was VU.

With its traditional student cohort of first-in-family and low socioeconomic status students opting for more prestigious institutions across the city, VU’s numbers crashed, it’s bank balance went into the red and it resorted to enrolling students with school results that would be unacceptable at any other university.

Low entry standards and high attrition rates go hand in hand. Unsurprisingly, VU was faced with the brutal reality of one third of its first year students dropping out, further challenging it’s ongoing financial woes. To put things in perspective: VU has run deficits for five of the past six years. In 2018 it was in the red to the tune of $29m. With a first year intake of around 4500, the university found that more than half (2500) had between them 3500 unit fails.

Something drastic needed to be done and urgently.

Using a theoretical approach

Enter Ian Solomonides. A Brit who had previously worked at Nottingham Trent University before taking up a job at Sydney’s Macquarie University and then moving to VU. Solomonides, who had academic standards and quality in his portfolio, started to investigate how pedagogy might be used to remediate such high failure rates.

He had become interested in the work the work of British academic Graham Gibbs and his work on learning gain or what he describes as “the magic that happens between the inputs and outputs” and also that of Australian academic Sally Kift and her work on transition to HE. A TED talk by Canadian David Helfand on designing a university for the 21st century also came onto his radar.

Using Gibbs’ work as a theoretical basis, Solomonides identified eight characteristics that predicted academic success: student effort; student sophistication, such as spending time on the right things; small cohort and class size; teacher quality; timely and impactful feedback; close contact with teachers; collaborative and active learning; and having consistent and high expectations.

“A lot of these things correlate with student engagement, which is also about a sense of belonging. It’s about getting students to quickly and efficiently engage with their studies and with each other,” Solomonides says. “The modern interpretation of HE is very transmissive and impersonal with cohorts of 500 or more. Students can feel alone and isolated.”

Remodelling undergraduate learning

The solution, he realised, was to engage students in small class sizes of 30 and teach one subject at a time. Each subject is taught intensely over a four-week period. With four subjects in each 16 week semester. It’s called the block model. Solomonides says the block model is “in essence a scheduling approach”.

Students are taught on three days a week, giving them certainty around their timetable to undertake paid work and other commitments. Each block has only one teacher, providing consistency and stronger relationships. They are given immediate feedback and don’t have to wait for their results. Those who fail are encouraged to retake the subject as soon as possible, sometimes in the next block.

Despite some resistance from the academic union, teachers under the new model are employed in a “first-year college” and have no research commitments. One hundred new staff were recruited specifically to teach under the new model.

There was a rationalisation of courses which saw about 75 courses cut from around 200 to 125 and then each subject and unit was redesigned with the block model – including blended learning and the flipped classroom – in mind. And extraordinarily, Solomonides says the block model went from concept to implementation in just eight months.

“There was some blood on the floor and most of it was mine,” he laughs.

Pointing to results

Solomonides says after one year, the university can already point to results. Attendance rates increased 20% and first-year enrolments went up by 6%. Data is not yet available for 2019.

Overall pass rates are up 7.9% to 83.9% and both the percentage of students receiving distinctions and high distinctions have jumped up. Assessment is standards based and so does not follow the usual bell curve of fail to high distinction. Those who meet the standards are marked accordingly.

“We’ve looked at the demographics and we can see that there are improved outcomes for students no matter what their background, but there have been disproportionate improvements for people from non-English speaking backgrounds, indigenous and also low socioeconomic status students. Everyone is doing better under the block model,” Solomonides says.

Dimitra Christou is one such student who is feeling the power of the block model. She entered VU straight from school with an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR ) of 63. comparative to their performance against all other students. Christou says while she applied to other universities her highest preference was to get into VU’s law program.

“I found it really smooth. I was expecting university to be very overwhelming but it was fun, especially compared to my friends who went to other universities,” Christou says.

She scored mostly credits and distinctions for her eight first year subjects. She says expectations were clearly and often articulated, with extra sessions focused solely on assessments held before and after scheduled classes.

“I would say the block model would be very successful at any university,” says Christou. “It just makes sense: one subject at a time helps you focus very intently. I found it easy, enjoyable and doable and I’m very excited to be going into second year.”

Running high on energy

Solomonides points out the block model is also flexible allowing the university to open up enrolments at other points in the year.

Many of VU’s students are first in family to attend university, including from refugee and asylum seeker backgrounds. Importantly, they have shown the model extremely suited to international students and it won a major national award in recognition of how it benefits them. Retention rates increased by 10% and the proportion of international students receiving distinctions and high distinctions jumped by 50%.

“We set out with a very clear design approach and it has worked. We know the government is watching and other institutions are watching. When writing about this innovation we have been using the concept of entropy – its a word from physics that means a system is running out of energy. That was the traditional higher education sector feels like.”

It’s certainly a win-win. Students are lumbered with debt from failed subjects, and with the first year retention rate climbing to 88%, the university is not saddled with the cost of students who do not continue.

7 responses to “A radical rethinking of undergraduate learning

  1. Fantastic to read about this. Wonder if my work on identifying existing skills brought with those students and ways to enhance them might not also be of value in this project? I would be delighted to provide details. Lynette Faragher

  2. As a teacher in VU’s first year college, it is very gratifying to read the interest in our work over the last year or so.

    I’d just point out that several of us do have research commitments. Actually, the block model can be very sympathetic to the time pressures of teaching-&-research academics.

  3. Block mode teaching has its place, especially for certain disciplines. But VU’s model to reduce the amount of curriculum content taught (to fit within 3-4 weeks), change assessments (which has happened) and increase the ability to obtain “easy marks” will always result in grades going up. Time will tell on how the first year students transition into second year. The other issue is academic burnout. Intensive teaching is exhausting.

  4. The implementation of the Block Model was based on many ideas and lessons form across all sectors of education, including empirical research identifying pedagogy known to support and encourage learning gain rather than maximising the transmission of content. The ‘contact’ hours are the same over 4 weeks as they were over the longer semester but learning and teaching id far more active and collaborative.

    No model is perfect though and just because the traditional semester system has endured, it doesn’t mean that it if fit for purpose in the education of 21C students. So far, many indicators suggest that students are engaging with learning more deeply than in previous years and are showing greater levels of understanding and meaning. We are conducting investigations into many aspects of the Block Model including impact on understanding and retention, as well as student and staff welfare. It’s a new system and will evolve and develop over time as it must.

  5. Putting my cards on the table: I am a faculty member of the First Year College (FYC) at Victoria University (VU).

    I read with interest, last year, the article that Bradbury Smith refers in his/her comments above. This piece raises concerns about how the Block Model might or might not serve students looking to succeed and excel in the 21st Century. These are the very concerns that drive debate in the FYC, as student learning and development are our key focus, as they must be at any university worth its salt.

    We have employed the Block Model because we believe that it, along with our focus on student-centred learning, gives our students the best chance of achieving success upon graduation. We will continue to reflect on, review and revise the ways in which we use and structure the Block Model in order to maintain this approach.

Leave a Reply