A year on the Block: What have we learned from a shift in delivery

Is block teaching (and learning) the way forward? Brett Koenig shares lessons from a year of implementation in the East Midlands

Brett Koenig is Associate Head of Law (Education) at De Montfort University 

It has been a year since we introduced block teaching, and as such it’s an opportune moment to reflect on the successes and challenges of this innovative approach.

Wonkhe doesn’t usually carry single university case studies – but given the considerable interest in block teaching and its potential benefits, the team has encouraged us to communicate our learning from a year on the Block.

Block teaching condenses traditional semester-long courses into focused, consecutive blocks of learning. The ethos is to give students more time to engage with their learning by studying one subject at a time, instead of several at once.

In theory it leads to faster feedback through more regular assessment, and a better study-life balance – as it avoids bunching of assessments at the end of the traditional year.

At DMU on Law courses each block runs for 7 weeks in total (6 weeks of teaching and 1 week for assessment). Each student has 2 hours lecture, 2 seminars (3 hours each) and 2 hours of asynchronous materials. This makes up a total of 8 contact hours per week per student.

Planning and sequencing

We’ve found that to make the most of block teaching, meticulous planning is essential. A detailed curriculum for each block, including key topics, readings, podcasts, and other resources, should be organised sequentially.

Organising sequentially allows students to build upon previous knowledge. Topic sequencing in the design of modules then supports deep(er) learning.

During my teaching on the block, it became clear that it is paramount that students work in advance. Staff must be clear that content will not be “transmitted in class”, instead it is worked with or worked on. There is an onus on us educators to make pre-sessional work engaging, which we’ve been doing by using formats of interest to students such as podcasts and videos.

Authentic assessment

One of the foundational principles of block teaching is the idea that assessments should be “bite-sized” and delivered frequently to provide a “critical outlet for feedback.” In this format, traditional end-of-semester exams are replaced with a series of smaller assessments spread throughout the block.

We’ve been working hard to ensure these assessments are authentic and directly relevant to the workplace – helping students develop transferable employability skills. It’s been crucial to intentionally address the learning outcomes when designing assessments.

We’ve also found that assessment milestones need to be made explicit to students. For example, it’s been helpful to communicate where students should be with their assessment in week 1, 2, and so on. This has supported effective time management and has ensured that students stay on track.

Additionally, our assessments have been carefully scaffolded, with a “little and often” approach to assessing to maintain student motivation and engagement.

During my first year on block teaching I found it particularly helpful to set aside seminar time for students to work on assessment. This has helped for diagnostic purposes, as well as skills development. Communication to students about what is coming and the provision of a clear roadmap for them have also helped.

Engagement and active learning

Active learning strategies have been crucial in our block teaching to keep students engaged and ensure effective learning. These strategies have included case studies, debates, group discussions, problem-solving activities, mock trials, client interviewing, advocacy and other experiential learning methods.

The immersive nature of block teaching has allowed us to experiment with these approaches and promote deep learning. Students have responded to learning by doing – and we aim to bring the real world into the safety of the classroom.

One important face of engagement in my sessions is to build in contingencies to mitigate students who have not engaged. I set aside time for those who have not done tasks, but provided higher order activities for those that have engaged. This can be used in a peer learning method.

Particularly at level 4 in Law, with some students having studied Law at A-Level and others having not done so, there was a tangible difference. Our use of peer learning has bridged that gap.

Feedback as integral

In the model, assessment and teaching have been more closely aligned. Assessments have been both formative and have contributed to the summative assessment, allowing students to continually build their skills and knowledge – encouraging students to assess and provide feedback to each other can foster a supportive learning environment.

Personalised feedback and sample answers have also helped build rapport with students, which is especially crucial in the intense atmosphere of block teaching.

Overcoming challenges

There have been challenges. Before embarking on the strategy there was a review of our entire portfolio, which led to a reduction in the number of programs – and halved the number of modules.

Over 100 programmes went from initial concept to validation in 2 months. It was absolutely clear that “lift and shift” was not a solution to implementing block – with a more traditional approach, there is more than enough lecture material but not enough content for 6 hours of seminars per week.

In addition, the flow of the seminar and its connection to the lecture is necessary to take into consideration. This is because often the lecture comes after the seminar due tot timetabling. Therefore the seminar should not rely on the lecture but focus on the overall module design.

Handling period of absence

There are issues for students too. Overcoming illness and low attendance in block teaching can be challenging, but with careful planning and proactive strategies, it is possible to address these issues.

There is also an argument that students are only falling behind in one module, which can be recovered through the use of in-year retrievals, rather than multiple modules simultaneously.

As with any approach to teaching, maintaining open and regular communication is vital. The use of peer support from student networks becomes even more important, and attendance tracking at an early stage is also important.

The intensive nature of the block does allow free periods of time to recover time lost. But we’ve found that need to be flexible to understand the needs of students – and work closely with them and student services to provide assistance.

Thumbs up

Finally, feedback so far has been positive. Findings from a couple of different surveys demonstrates:

  • 84 per cent satisfaction rating for overall teaching and learning experience
  • 86 per cent for the quality of the course
  • 88 per cent affirmed they have made the right course choice
  • 93 per cent enjoy focusing on one module at a time
  • 92 per cent felt singular focus supported work/life balance and lifestyle
  • Student satisfaction is higher than students studying non-block – by more than 10 per cent points in some cases.

We are continuously evaluating the impact through student and staff pulse surveys as well as through an evaluation framework. It is a big change – but we are optimistic that students will reap the rewards.

3 responses to “A year on the Block: What have we learned from a shift in delivery

  1. It would be good to note some of the earlier introductions of block teaching such as by:

    Quest University in British Columbia (2007);

    Victoria University in Melbourne (2018);

    Southern Cross University in New South Wales (2021);

    University of Suffolk (2021-22) (McKie, 2021).

    It would also be good to refer to some of the literature on block teaching such as:

    Davies, W. M. (2006). Intensive teaching formats: A review. Issues in Educational Research, 16(1), 1097-1120.

    Loton, D., Stein, C., Parker, P., & Weaven, M. (2022). Introducing block mode to first-year university students: a natural experiment on satisfaction and performance. Studies in Higher Education, 47(6), 1097-1120.

    McCluskey, T., Smallridge, A., Weldon, J., Loton, D., Samarawickrema, G., & Cleary, K. (2020). Building on the VU Block foundations: Results from the inaugural first year cohort. In E. Heinrich and R. Bourke (Eds.), Research and Development in Higher Education: Next generation, Higher Education: Challenges, Changes and Opportunities, 42 (pp 61-72).

    McCluskey, T., Weldon, J., & Smallridge, A. (2019). Rebuilding the first year experience, one block at a time. A practice report. Student Success, 10(1), 1-15.

    McKie, A. (2021, September 27). UK universities growing keen on block teaching. Times Higher Education, https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/uk-universities-growing-keen-block-teaching

    Samarawickrema, G., & Cleary, K. (2021). Block mode study: Opportunities and challenges for a new generation of learners in an Australian university, Student Success, 12(1), https://studentsuccessjournal.org/article/view/1579

  2. A lot of the things you implemented can be done in more traditional formats as well, e.g. “real life” type assessments, or engaging pre-sessional material. I would have liked to read more about the impact on staff, not just on students. While “the block” is ongoing, I guess it’s impossible for the lecturers to do anything else (whether looking after a sick child or meeting a research deadline). And when you say that the number of programmes was reduced, did this lead to staff redundancies, and if so, was that one of the reasons why De Montfort introduced block teaching?

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