Sunday, 6 October 2013

Modular Learning

Teaching and learning styles at University have changed somewhat over the years.  When I was an undergraduate, my entire degree classification was based on a series of around 24h worth of written exams, taken over a period of about a week.  These days an undergraduate physics degree is made up of a series of assessments - including written exams, and other sorts of coursework - which take place usually at the end of each semester (amounting to much more than 24h in total).  In the current way of doing things, each end-of-semester exam corresponds to the end of a module - the basic unit of educational material.

I don't think it's an easy question to decide which is the better method.  It is hard to say what "better" would even mean in this context - is it to get as many people out the door as possible with a suitable education to enable them to contribute to the economic life of the country, or is it to optimise the education of those who will carry on to be the physics professors of the future?  I don't particularly have an answer to the putative question, but I have an opinion and some observations.  

This post is partly prompted by some recent posts on the facebook page of the physics society at the university.  Some people are advertising textbooks for sale.  These books are no longer needed by current students because they are "for" modules they have already taken, and not for future courses.  This is something I find strange, and is, I think, a consequence of modularising a body of knowledge which is not modular.  It is already a bit too pigeon-holing to call anything physics, when the boundaries with other academic subjects are so blurry, but even ignoring this, physics can be taken as a way of thinking, as a set of intertwined areas, where there is so much interlinking between what we call the sub-fields that one in practice finds new insights into each area of physics by studying each other area.  The idea that one learns physics by learning a series of separate chunks as "modules" is anathema to me.  The idea that it's okay to sell your textbooks because you no longer need them for the second half of your study is bizarre - but the modular system leads to it, I suppose. 

It's unlikely we'll head back to the days of intensive final examinations,  but I don't think I would have done so well in the new scheme.  Only when I had seen enough of physics, made the links between the different areas, and got more experience of the right way of thinking, was I able to really synthesise things and realise - to the extent that I ever did, and do - that I understood the subject, and was able to tackle the final exams.  

The photo attached shows my chronic inability, or unwillingness, to get rid of any old textbooks.