Designing Learning for Intensive Modes of Study

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The CoVid19 epidemic was a dramatic stress test for curriculum design. The dramatic fall in student satisfaction with their experiences of teaching and learning has triggered a sudden interest in alternatives to traditional subject design. Universities are re-thinking the traditional university subject delivered over 12 to 15 weeks in a semester and one alternative growing in popularity is intensive modes of study. Intensive modes are condensed formats, sometimes called block mode or fast-tracked subjects, which Samarawickrema, Cleary, Male & McCluskey (2022) point out in their recent HERDSA Guide are not a new format in curriculum design. Block mode has been around in universities for more than 50 years. Many universities offer subjects in intensive mode in their summer school programs which achieve the same learning outcomes within a shorter timeframe. This makes them attractive to post-graduate students, undergraduate students who must repeat a failed subject, or students who want to accelerate their studies so they can graduate sooner.

Samarawickrema, Cleary, Male & McCluskey describe the defining feature of intensive forms of study is a structure that allows subjects to be studied over a shorter than traditional duration. They see this as a great opportunity to introduce evidence-based teaching and learning principles into the learning design and their HERDSA Guide identifies a series of teaching strategies particularly effective for learning in intensive mode. Their concern is that the move to a shorter timeframe can also amplify poor teaching and learning principles leading to a lowering of standards and poorer learning experiences for students.

Their HERDSA Guide came out of a government-funded Intensive Modes of Teaching Project and draws heavily on the authors' experiences of introducing the Block model at Victoria University. Their experience in whole-of-institution change provides the backbone to the HERDSA Guide with insights into preparing for the change, effective teaching and learning strategies, assessment for learning, and evaluation and monitoring of teaching practices. Aware that not every institution is in the position to make wholesale changes to their curriculum they illustrate their design principles with examples from all levels of the curriculum including whole degrees, first year streams, and individual subjects.

Regardless of the level, Samarawickrema, Cleary, Male & McCluskey argue that moving to intensive modes of study requires an ecological approach to planning the curriculum. By this they mean that individual subjects sit within a network of complex and interconnected relationships between the various components of the learning environment. All the multiple factors that make up a program interact and influence one another so that they all need to be considered if intensive modes of study are to be a success.

This is where the approach championed by Samarawickrema, Cleary, Male & McCluskey can appear daunting to someone wanting to make the change to intensive modes of study. Having worked at the whole-of-institution level for so long the authors can overlook that during normal circumstances most curriculum change is incremental and small scale. It is unlikely that universities will find themselves in another crisis like the pivot to remote learning whereby decades of tradition were put aside virtually overnight. This is where the six case studies in the HERDSA Guide offered from across Australia provide evidence that the design principles apply just as appropriately at the subject, year group or degree level.

For Samarawickrema, Cleary, Male & McCluskey the longer class times of intensive modes of study allow for consideration of how students will transition into and out of a subject, provide time for holistic and authentic assessment tasks or developmental assignments that offer multiple feedback opportunities to build metacognition.

As well as opportunities, intensive modes of studies have their own unique challenges. An example is the management of student workload. While the duration of the subject is shorter, the time studying is longer and more intense. Samarawickrema, Cleary, Male & McCluskey argue that it is essential that intensive subjects establish student interest and have enhanced engagement during the longer class times using active and collaborative learning strategies. Students will need help with managing their workload by clearly identifying what is required and what is optional in a subject to avoid cognitive overload. Institutions also need policies to prevent overcommitment by students.

The principal piece of advice offered in this HERDSA Guide is that curriculum change needs a change management process that calls for the same level of preparation and project management as other significant institutional changes. Samarawickrema, Cleary, Male & McCluskey recommend a whole-of-program approach which starts with the design of the program followed by the design the subjects that fit the program. They characterise teaching in intensive mode subjects as a significant change in practice and success is dependent on the institution being prepared for the change. This the suggest can largely be by providing the space for collegial conversations about how the changes will impact individual subjects. The outcome of those conversations is likely to lead to an awareness that what else needs changing is the infrastructure to support intensive modes of learning; that is, policies, procedures, available learning support and coordination with non-intensive subjects.

Samarawickrema, Cleary, Male & McCluskey have produced a HERDSA Guide that identifies their are risks in making any significant curriculum change and uses the lessons they learned from making the shift to intensive modes of study in their universities to make recommendations likely to lead to success in any curriculum change. They provide suggestions on dealing with a lack of strong leadership, staff fatigue and reverting to familiar practices, a lack of clear communication or the misalignment of existing policy frameworks. One of their key change management strategies is to celebrate successes along the way and their HERDSA Guide is a fine example of how we can all learn from the successes of others.


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