A Mitchell Institute report shines a light on how quality teaching and innovation in universities can dramatically improve learning.
The report found the Victoria University Block Model of teaching cut the fail rate for first-year students by around 40%. The model involves rearranging the timetable so students take one subject at a time in a four-week “block” of intensive learning rather than multiple subjects together over a traditional 12-week teaching semester.
While universities generate innovation for other industries, innovations in their own core business – teaching – do not receive much attention. Innovative teaching often happens “in spite of, not because of” the system in which universities operate. Yet it can have a significant impact on student learning.
The latest research analysed the academic outcomes for commencing students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects following the adoption of Australia’s first block model learning structure in 2018. Comparing first-year cohorts in the two years before the change (2016-17) to first-year cohorts in the two years after the model was implemented (2018-19), the report found the overall fail rate for these students fell by around 40%. The improvement was greatest for students from equity groups, such as female students in non-traditional areas and students from non-English-speaking backgrounds.
This research reinforces the findings of earlier research on the block model’s impact.
VU has since rolled out the block model for all years of university, including postgraduate degrees. Other universities, including Southern Cross and Murdoch, have recently introduced a form of block model to their teaching.
What’s the recipe for success?
The report got “inside the black box of the block model” to find out how this improvement in learning happened and what other universities can learn.
In interviews, VU students said doing one subject at a time helped them focus and sustain learning, rather than cramming for end-of-semester exams. As one student told us:
“I feel like when you do one thing at a time, you learn better as well.”
Students also gained confidence from getting results from their first “block” early, instead of having to wait until mid-year.
“When I saw my marks come through and they were the unexpected high marks, it was very motivating ’cause it gave me that confidence it’s possible.”
But the key ingredient was a focus on quality teaching and student success. When VU introduced the model, it created a dedicated multidisciplinary First Year College staffed by academics who were passionate about teaching.
The importance of quality teaching shone through in the interviews. Students recognised that the staff cared about their learning.
“It just wasn’t like a job that you guys had to do […] you’re really invested and you wanted us to do well, you really did, and it was very clear from the very beginning.”
VU academics and leaders also described the positive energy and enthusiasm in the First Year College. Staff from all disciplines came together to create an environment where learning comes first.
Why aren’t such innovations more common?
The experience of the block model shows universities can innovate in ways that lift results for all students, especially those in equity groups. This raises the question of why such innovations have been relatively rare in Australia.
It’s no secret that quality teaching matters. A 2017 meta-analysis covering over 2 million students explored the factors that affect learning at university. It found the largest impact comes from interactive classes where students engage in discussion with academics and each other.
Block model classes exemplify this approach. As one VU academic said:
“I think that’s another difference in our block and small classes, with students who have been to other universities who say, "I never got to talk to anybody. You’d have to sit there in silence.” And […] the teacher was just miles away. You’d never actually get close to them.“
The problem is that quality teaching is generally not given the recognition it deserves. While Australian universities are monitored for quality teaching as well as research and broader impact, the way universities are compared internationally skews their focus towards research that helps them scale academic rankings.
There is a vast difference between the Australian universities that rank highest in teaching quality and those that rank highest on international measures. The Australian university ranked highest internationally is not among the top 10 universities for undergraduate teaching quality in Australia.
This is a self-reinforcing cycle, as prestigious universities attract many students who need little teaching support.
COVID generation may push change
All Australian universities may need to give greater attention to teaching and student support as the COVID-affected generation of young people enters universities.
In 2020, student rankings of university teaching quality fell to an all-time low. Less than half of Australian undergraduates felt satisfied with the efforts that teaching staff made to engage them. This suggests universities will need to focus intensely on teaching quality to get students back on track.
The Mitchell Institute research was conducted as COVID-19 moved learning online. It found the close relationships between block model students and staff, and the passion for quality teaching, helped VU to get through the chaos.
Focusing on quality teaching is not just a strategy for student achievement. It is a smart move for all universities to build their resilience in uncertain times.