To do intensive teaching or not to do intensive teaching?

Last week I marked the last assignments of my PhD teaching career… surely a good opportunity to reflect back on my experiences?! One element of teaching that differed from my own undergraduate experience was the use of intensive teaching units.

The idea behind intensive units is that students working full-time can undertake a masters unit by taking a specific day off over a small number of weeks, or a full week off and complete a unit in a shorter amount of time.  The benefits to the university are a potentially increased number of students undertaking masters courses, and use of university facilities throughout the year, rather than just during semester time.  The benefits to university staff are that teaching can occur in a condensed period, leaving more time for research.  However, there are a number of issues, most importantly whether it provides the same learning opportunities as a semester-long program.

On completion of my teaching internship in 2014 I realised that what we know about the way students learn is actually very limited. The difference between ‘deep’ learning and ‘shallow’ learning, teaching students content and teaching them critical thinking skills, the influence of students’ individual learning styles on their understanding of concepts all made sense to me.  However, knowing all the research didn’t help me really understand whether you could teach students better over short intervals in a 13 week semester or longer intervals over fewer weeks.

Students indicated that they thought the super-intensive one week course was a waste of time – not enough time to reflect on the coursework, and not enough time for practical ‘play’.  The half-semester length course received mixed reviews; some thought the full days allowed a good level of interaction with content (but required more breaks!), others thought the material would be better spaced over a number of weeks to provide reflection. In terms of student experiences, then, the jury is still out.

In terms of teaching content, I found that I taught fewer concepts but was able to go into them in significantly more detail, from a variety of different approaches (in particular practical and lecture-based).  One of the challenges I had with the intensive format was making decisions around what material could satisfactorily be excluded from the course, without substantially diminishing students’ understanding of the unit topic.  This was a valuable experience that had me thoroughly reconsider the extent to which I was trying to create a brain-dump of concepts rather than give the students enough knowledge to critically examine processes.  I was a little shocked to find that the majority of my lectures constituted ‘examples’ of policy problems, rather than got to the crux of what policy was trying to achieve. By stripping my unit content back to simply asking students to learn about key types of policies and their associated issues, I think students developed skills and knowledge that could be broadly applied to any policy setting, which is a much better outcome than having them rote learn a number of policy scenarios!

As for the university’s experience? The Faculty of Science currently runs 15 different ‘non-standard teaching periods’, with associated venue timetabling issues and students who never really get any time off from studying.

Clearly, we still have some way to go to perfect the twenty-first century university timetable, but we’re getting there.  And if it means students get the opportunity to immerse themselves in a unit and lecturers have the opportunity to hone units into streamlined content, then all the better!

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