Building programmes of study

For most of this year, I’ve been working with my colleagues to put together some big piles of documentation for the official university validation of our new degree programmes (Politics and Sociology and Politics and Economics for undergrads, European Politics and Policy and International Politics for Masters).

For those of you not familiar with the British system, students enroll for a specific degree programme, which has a defined programme of study. The university allows departments (who run these degrees) to advertise and accept registrations on the basis of a relatively short outline validation document, but before students actually start, then there has to be an extensive process of detailing individual modules, learning & teaching strategies, pedagogical and pastoral support for students, resource implications, finances, and much more. In addition, since our MScs will replace our MA programmes, we’re also required to produce a critical reflection over the past years of operation, to show how we’ve addressed issues and how that has informed our switch to the new degrees, and the validation panel will also be talking to current students to get their input to the process.

In short, it’s a big pile of work.

I will not complain about the volume of work, since I have not been the one doing it: that has fallen to my colleagues who are the programme directors. Instead, I want to consider one of the more difficult issues that this process has highlighted, namely creating a programme of study.

When we own and run a module, then it’s not so hard to build an integrated and reinforcing structure to support student learning in a particular direction: we run the classes, set the assessment and are basically left to get on with it.

In contrast, a degree brings together many instructors (each with their individual modules), plus a set of learning objectives that are – by definition – much broader and open than in a module. Add to this the involvement of other teaching departments and you can see the potential for not quite hitting the target (to put it mildly).

The solution is largely one of communication. Our teaching teams have spent many hours in meetings (formal and informal) discussing how we will make the whole into more than the sum of its parts. This means looking at overlaps, reinforcement, approaching topics in different ways and using different tools, as well as building programme-level sessions to ensure that all students are given a robust platform for their learning. We’ve had a hard look at different practices, to see if we can roll them out more widely, as well as shamelessly being like magpies and taking good ideas that we find elsewhere.

Indeed, the entire validation process is about communication too: our meetings next week will involve external assessors, who will talk to us about what we’re doing, coming with a critical eye and constructive advice.

As always in these things, until we actually run the programmes, we won’t know either the full potential or the possible difficulties, but we are go into that phase with a high degree of confidence that we have a programme that will work in continuing to let us try out lots of good and innovative practice. And that makes all that paperwork worthwhile.

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