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UNBC pilot project experiments with block teaching

Students give an enthusiastic thumbs-up to this condensed approach to courses.

By KAREN BIRCHARD | JAN 22 2013
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Photo: University of Northern British Columbia.

Five courses in human geography – with a difference – are on offer this semester at the University of Northern British Columbia. After years of advocacy by UNBC president George Iwama and months of careful preparation, the five upper-level courses are part of a pilot project in block teaching that got under way when students returned to campus after the Christmas break.

The students take one course at a time that’s concentrated into a two-and-half-week period, followed by a break of a few days before starting the next block course. The first block course, the third-year Geography of International Development, was running from Jan. 3 to Jan. 23.

The block approach was pioneered in Canada by Quest University, a private, not-for-profit undergraduate university in Squamish, B.C. Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, considered a block plan in 2011, but decided against it.

At UNBC, the class meets every day for three hours, Monday through Friday. This makes it difficult for students to mix block courses with the traditional semester-long courses. “It’s all in or all out,” said Neil Hanlon, chair of the geography program and one of the professors teaching in the block program.

The pilot project needed a minimum of eight students but attracted a dozen. “There was a lot of interest but some students couldn’t clear a semester because they needed courses elsewhere that were only offered this semester,” said Dr. Hanlon. In the end, “we found a recruiting model that worked by pointing out that if a student wanted to do a minor in geography, it could be done in one semester.”

A drawback to the block program is that if a student gets sick for a few days, he or she could miss a third or the course or more. That’s where technology comes in, said Dr. Hanlon, with the use of mandatory Skype accounts and Dropbox file sharing, for example.

Those teaching the pilot courses say they are excited because material remains fresh and focused in students’ minds, while the format allows for more creativity and use of experiential forms of learning, group projects and more discussion in the classroom. Students find there’s no slacking off, but say the format leads to a deeper understanding of the material. Plus there appears to be greater classroom engagement with other students and the professor.

One of the enthusiastic students taking the first course, self-confessed procrastinator Jed Zimmerman, said it’s a better way for him to learn because “there is no time to wait to finish readings and assignments. In some ways there is a self-discipline built into this course.”

Fellow student Richan Greenlees added: “The depth at which we are learning about issues is so profound that it seeps into your understanding and transforms the way you think about certain things. … I will walk away remembering more and having a greater understanding of the topics covered within the block courses.”

Another student, Amy Voell, said she wishes there were more courses using the block approach. “I am able to focus more on the material of one course. And, by having a closer relationship with the professor and fellow students, I feel I’m able to get a better understanding of all the information.”

Dr. Hanlon said scheduling difficulties, including finding a dedicated room to hold the courses, were initially a problem, but he said he’s pleased that the university has been able to accommodate block teaching on campus. “Concentrated courses are already used in professional schools. We already use a type [of block course] when preparing students for field schools in Peru or Guatemala where they need classroom study before getting on a plane. And there may be ways we can use the block approach at some of the university’s regional sites or with certain cohorts of students.”

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  1. Jerry Kovacs / January 23, 2013 at 12:00 pm

    At the risk of disappointing anyone, “block courses” and “block teaching” is neither a new idea, nor a novel one. The Law Society of Upper Canada used this course delivery method for the Bar Admission Course during the 1970’s and 1980’s 30 to 45 years ago: that’s almost half a century ago. There are numerous advantages and disadvantages to this method of course delivery. To achieve success, the course administrator/facilitator needs to be extremely well organized and be good at course organization/delivery. Unfortunately, these are skills that many university professors do not possess nowadays.

  2. David Greenwood / January 23, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    Block teaching seems to have become a new cause célèbre. But frankly, its not ‘new’ or all that innovative.

    North American universities have been offering condensed ‘block’ courses in spring and summer session for many years. This is especially true for programs like geography, biology, geology and environmental science and its sister, environmental studies. These disciplines often require experiences only available when the weather’s warmer, often involving the class visiting or even staying in settings away from the classroom such as a wilderness area (ecology, geology), or another country (tourism, community studies). But it has also included courses that don’t require a summer timing, but offered in spring or summer to allow students to catch-up missed courses or repeat a course, or for students who for reasons of employment can’t attend during regular session.

    At Brandon, and other Canadian universities, students can retake (or take for the 1st time) some 1st and 2nd year courses in a range of disciplines, including some courses with an intensive lab component.

    The concern always is for these more traditional offerings is whether the students retain the same depth of knowledge in the condensed block-form of the course as they do in the traditional 13-week version. Are they just cramming the information and performing an ‘information dump’ in the final exam? Or is the information still useable later?

    I don’t have an answer to that question, but feel we need more data before a headlong rush into adopting block teaching across a wide range of courses. Is it preferred by students? Apparently so. Is it good pedagogy? I’d like to see the evidence.

  3. Erik F. / January 23, 2013 at 12:28 pm

    Nice to see a leading undergraduate university taking some affirmative action on teaching innovation. Can’t wait to see what comes of it. Who knows, perhaps we may see a new King of the MacLean’s Ranking if this sort of initiative keeps up.

  4. Mel Lall / January 23, 2013 at 1:03 pm

    Block teaching has been around for a long time. Brandon University Northern Teacher Education Program (BUNTEP,(1974 – 2012), used this delivery model throughout its history in a community based university program.

  5. Jim Clark / January 23, 2013 at 2:38 pm

    As others note, condensed courses may not be new. A more important point is that they are probably not good either, at least not if you are interested in student learning and memory for the material. See: http://www.cautbulletin.ca/en_article.asp?ArticleID=3278

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