Student choice

When I was an undergraduate law student in Dublin in the 1970s, the content of my degree programme was largely fixed for me, but there were some choices. During my first two years studying law, all my subjects (there were no ‘modules’ then) were compulsory, in part of course reflecting the requirements and demands of the legal professions. During the third year, three subjects were compulsory, and students could choose a fourth from a menu of about seven options. In the fourth and final year one subject was compulsory, and the remaining three were chosen by the student from the same list of seven options. That was it.

In today’s higher education environment the basic structure of degree programmes has, in almost all universities, changed fundamentally with the arrival of modularisation. Students must still, in most institutions, opt for a degree programme in a menu made available to them, but within these programmes they can now expect to be able to make significant choices as to which specific elements (modules) they will take, and in a number of institutions these choices will include some ‘free electives’ that can be taken from outside the subject area they have chosen for their degree. So for example, University College Dublin (UCD) describes this part of the framework as follows:

‘In addition, you generally also have a choice of two ‘elective’ modules (subject to module entry requirements, timetable and availability of places), which can either be taken from within your main subject area to deepen your learning, or from outside it to broaden your learning. The choice is yours.’

Sometimes this level of discretion is not popular with academics, who fear that the selection of modules from outside the key discipline may create difficult complications. Modules made available in other programmes may not be easily understood outside of those programmes, and students taking them in this way may lack necessary background knowledge. There may also be budgetary difficulties as student numbers become hard to predict in individual modules.

Nevertheless, as we increasingly emphasise the significance of interdisciplinarity, modular flexibility may become  more desirable. But how far should it be a free choice, and to what extent should it be constrained or at least guided? The traditional understanding of higher education was heavily focused on education within and for disciplines. Is such intellectual compartmentalisation still possible? Do we have a new pedagogical understanding of the coherent formation of students?

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22 Comments on “Student choice”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    On the whole I think flexibility is a good thing and my experience of the UCD experiment is that it strikes a reasonable balance. One does get some students exploiting the system, taking particular modules outside their field because they are so easy given their own (technical) backgrounds. But I don’t think that is a fatal flaw.
    A sensible budgetary system should allow for fluctuations in student numbers. Averaged over time and modules, a department’s finances should not be too volatile.
    As long as departments can build in pre- or co-requisites etc, academic integrity can be maintained.

  2. Fred Says:

    In countries where undergrads is 4 years degree flexibility and ability to choose outside the main area of the deree is a good thing and a common route in US (at the first years of Bachelor). The issue when it applies to 3 year BSc is that the curiculum must be ensure every part that there are some adequate knowledge of the main subject, so there the situation could be more tricky.
    The same applies to postgraduate degrees. The electives there is usually from a very related area but again the differences are sometimes important. Especially in MScs elective modules are helpful but too many of them may confuse the student especially in the so called conversion masters.

    • Is one of the issues perhaps in this part of the world that we make students specialise too early? Should that be for the postgraduate stage?

      • anna notaro Says:

        that is precisely the point in educational environments like Art Colleges (within universities) where the ‘vocational’ pressure is so strong that anything not closely related to studio subjects is deemed as too theoretical, hence irrelevant, so much for interdisciplinarity..

      • Fred Says:

        Yes I think it is. Probably Scotland is quite different than England because of the +1 year in Bachelors. “Should that be for the postgraduate stage?”
        This is a very big discussion! A lot of people tend to believe that Master’s is all about specialization so Bachelors are or should be more general and broader.
        However, it is common at least in UK and US, for graduates to enter master’s in very different fields (especially IT related and business related courses). So we can see 2 different types of master’s the specialized and the conversion masters who are mainly used to change field frequently with a direct employment-related aim.

        By the way, in some EU countries a lot of demostrations have taken place because students felt that following the Bollogna process their bachelors are loosing value which is then transfered to masters.

      • Al Says:

        Accepting your proposed model, it moves into a situation where longer time is spent in third level. This has a few consequences:
        1- The cost of that education increases due to the increase in time spent in third level.
        2- The student is for the most part taken out of the workforce for this period of time. They may have part time work but will most likely not be applying their qualifications in employment.
        3- This student is paying less or no tax from employment, if employed, and consequently there are less funds to cover this education.
        4- The consequences of such a model is that those that can afford it, will do so, but the model itself will discriminate against those who cant commit to the years and or the expense.
        5- such a model could be argued to reduce equal access, or more to the point, reduce ability to complete such a model.

        We may have to settle for less, but at least everyone gets less!

        • wendymr Says:

          Agreed – Al, I was about to post making very similar points.

          I work as an employment counsellor in Canada, where some disciplines – available at undergraduate level in the UK and Ireland – are studied only at the postgraduate level: for example, law and medicine. Others are studied at an undergraduate level, but require a Masters degree for employment, for example social work. This puts these professions simply out of the reach of many would-be students, usually for cost reasons (and with fees increasing in the UK and very likely also in Ireland this will be a major deterrent), but in some cases also for reasons of time. Many of my clients are considering returning to university as mature students, in their thirties, forties and even fifties: the prospect of six years minimum of study is well beyond reasonable for them.

          If university education were still the privilege of the elite that it was up until the 1970s or thereabouts, then more diversity and thus longer programmes – and more postgraduate programmes – might well be feasible, but with the pressures on students these days I don’t believe it’s either fair or reasonable.

  3. anna notaro Says:

    Although rather one-sided this old article in THE offers some sound food for thought on modularity
    The issue, as often it’s the case, is one of balance with regards to the interests and expectations of all subjects involved (not stakeholders, please!).
    I don’t think that interdisciplinarity should be linked to a unique pedagogical model and before thinking about its application it might be worth clarifying what we mean exactly when we use such term. This latest collection of essays offers a great overview, should anyone be interested

  4. Fred Says:

    Sorry for double posting!

  5. Jilly Says:

    I have very mixed feelings about this issue. At one level, I really like what I think of as the “American” model where students get to study outside of their major. I would like to have taken some science courses, for example, and think it would have been good for me.

    On the other hand, there are always only 24 hours in a day, and any time spent on ‘outside’ subjects is not spent on your main subject: and we’re kidding ourselves if we think it doesn’t make a difference. I’ve taught visiting American students (majoring in the subjects I’m teaching) in the same classroom as Irish students doing degrees in that subject, and the levels of knowledge were quite dramatically different: in the Irish students’ favour.

    So in the end it does all come down perhaps to a discussion about how early we specialise – if we make BA degrees more general, are we then taking it as read that almost everyone has to do a Masters? If so, that brings its own issues, especially with regards to social inclusion…

    • kevin denny Says:

      Having taught American students from time to time in Ireland and the UK and currently in the US I am not convinced that American students are at that much of a disadvantage from being over-diversified.

      • Jilly Says:

        I would hasten to add, Kevin, that I’m aware of the generalisation and anecdote in my comment. I’m sure that if I were teaching American students from the Ivy League, I’d be very impressed by their comparison to our own. Also, it may well vary from discipline to discipline. But certainly that has been my personal experience of teaching humanities students from small (but not bad!) liberal arts colleges in the US.

        • wendymr Says:

          I agree: any time I had US exchange students in my first-year undergraduate module – which was an introduction to human resource management and required no prior knowledge, just the ability to read, discuss and analyse – the majority of them did very poorly. Some even failed and had to resit. The biggest challenge I encountered was persuading them actually to do the reading; they seemed to think that reading one chapter of one textbook was sufficient for their essay.

          • kevin denny Says:

            At the back of my mind is the following stylized fact (ok, random subjective anecdote): in my experience when Irish students go to the US for doctoral work, many do okay, some struggle & not many find it easy. Of course these students and their US classmates are not necessarily typical but it suggests to me that a US 4 year degree can’t be that bad a training.

  6. Vincent Says:

    I don’t see the problem. I’ve read that there is a problem. But I don’t see it.
    Reading Con blogs and comment from the UK there there seems to be a major issue with dumbing down. But what they are really saying is that the Greek and Latin dimension has largely disappeared from the majority of degree programmes. They coming from that tradition are finding the expansion of the base troubling. But that’s all it is, a tradition.
    What I find troubling is the end of semester dump.

    • Al Says:

      @ Vincent
      I think that it would be dangerous to reduce this to and end to the classical heritage.

      There is something else missing from this diversification and that is the depth of learning attached to specialization and the resulting experience from that immersion.

      Jack of all trades master of none comes to mind as a saying of relevance here.

      • Vincent Says:

        Sorry, I’m not. What I’m saying is that the traditional University had a requirement for entry and it was much of a muchness if Glenstal Ampleforth or Eton provided it. However, once the expansion of entry in the 50’s, those schools could never provide the grist in the numbers required. Put simply, a good Classical education is expensive in terms of man-hours, rather kid-hours.

        • Al Says:

          Ah, ok.
          Could you define the end of semester dump?

          • Vincent Says:

            The exam at the end. I think it’s one of the main errors in that system that there is little or no requirement to retain anything including method from one to the next. It is one thing to distinguish between the requirements of Philosophy and say English. But it is downright ridiculous that two 16 century historiographers will have no connection nor allow any in the space of six months.

          • Al Says:

            Sir, I tip my hat to you.

            Not everyone sees the exam monster!

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