Fragmentation or cohesion? Students' perceptions of their learning across modular undergraduate programmes

  • Improving Student Learning Theory and Practice - 10 Years on

    Title: : Fragmentation or cohesion? Students' perceptions of their learning across modular undergraduate programmes.

    Author(s): Helen Baron
    Institution(s): The University of Sydney, Australia
    Session: Research Paper  

    Modular undergraduate programmes are well established as the usual curriculum structure in American, UK and some European higher education institutions. Little research has been done to explore the impact of these programme structures upon the students who learn within them, despite frequent assertions that modular programmes fragment students' learning experiences and lead to superficial 'pick and mix' programmes which consist of 'rag-bag' degrees awarded through the collection of credits. Modular myths are evident in many academic 'tribes', but what data exists to support or refute them?

    The student feedback systems used to help judge the quality of learning in modular systems are often based on questionnaires completed by students responding to the learning experiences offered in each module. How can we understand the whole learning experience of the students, both within and across programmes? Has the development of modularised programmes with multiple sets of delineated outcomes produced fragmented learning, or are students making links across their programmes as they learn, forging new intellectual or skill-based connections? Most research has been undertaken on tutors' perceptions of modular systems: few students have been asked about what synergy or fragmentation they experience across their modular programmes.

    A two year case study has taken place in a UK Faculty of Higher Education delivering modular University of Manchester degrees to a thousand students. It tested the 'pick and mix' assertion by exploring student perceptions of their learning across programmes. Data was collected through 310 questionnaires, 22 concept maps and 31 semi-structured interviews. Sampling was based on Approaches to Studying Inventories and grade averages. John Biggs' presage-process-product model of learning, which conceptualises learning as a shifting interactive system, provided a theoretical framework for analysis.

    The data gathered from this case study revealed strong patterns of responses that tended to refute the fragmentation assertion. There were significant exceptions to this general tendency, as some students did not perceive coherence in their programmes. Factors promoting cross-programme synergy included individual student characteristics and approaches to learning, inbuilt programme features and the scale of the Faculty's provision. The research thus dents, but does not destroy, assertions of learning fragmentation arising from modular programmes. The implications of the findings for teaching and learning in and across modular curricula will be presented for questions and discussion.