Are the days of Part I at Lancaster as we know it numbered? The paper ‘A proposal for radical improvement’, drafted in July 2017 by the Dean for Academic Quality and recently seen by subtext, would have required very rapid change to be implemented in time for an October 2019 start. The response from many departmental heads of teaching was not positive – ‘it can’t be done!’ said one – and the whole matter has gone out to a working group.
The basic idea is easy to state. In place of three Part I subject options (which in faculties other than FASS usually means two subjects in your major and one in your minor), the student would study:
– Only major courses in the first ‘core’ term; then
– A mix of major and minor courses (usually one-third major for a single honours student) in the second ‘exploratory’ term; then
– Back to your major subject for the third ‘bridging’ term.
Final assessment of courses would take place at the start of the following term, so there would be no end-of-year examinations, except for the third term’s courses which would be assessed by coursework. The emphasis moves towards the programme, and away from the department or the module. This approach to assessment, moving away from the end-of-year exam as main arbiter of success, shows the influence of recent educational research and the team in OED.
So could it work? In terms of content, staffing and timetabling, the main change would see first years studying just their major in the first term, in order to help them ‘become inducted and assimilated into their academic disciplines at an early stage, as well as beginning to learn some of the most important material for their degrees’ and ‘speed up progress towards a feeling of belonging to students’ academic disciplines, programmes and departments.’ This frontloading of core content is contentious. For many of our programmes, the deep learning occurs in the second term, after everyone is hopefully settled in, but this approach may no longer be feasible under the new proposals. Some departments have suggested that professional accreditation would not be possible under the new system.
The description of second term options envisages an ‘anything goes’ mix. There might be non-standard options in a student’s own discipline, alongside courses designed to broaden the horizons (Physics’ former Part I in ‘The Universe as an Art’ is mentioned approvingly) and double-weighted ‘switching modules’, designed specifically to enable those thinking of ‘switching’ to move into that subject more or less straight away, so their third term courses could be in their new subject.
For departments that currently offer minor-only Part I courses, this might not be too great an increase in workload, but for departments that currently mix major and minor students together, it could represent a significant hike . . . unless of course your current major class is so big that you’re on the verge of double teaching anyway, in which case, so the thinking goes, why not offer two slightly different streams?
It’s not entirely clear how combined honours degree schemes – which can currently be run efficiently with relatively small numbers due to the sharing of modules with single honours students – would fit into the new model, especially during the core term. Natural Sciences gets mentioned, as a consortial scheme for which ‘programme teams have little flexibility and find their students’ requirements can be subservient to those of departments,’ but there’s no mention of how Natural Sciences could fit into the new Part I structure.
Methods of assessment and concerns over timetabling aside, the end result might turn out to be, well, not entirely dissimilar to the educational experience at several other universities. A traditional course at a redbrick might include 75% of compulsory courses in the first year, alongside a variety of options, including for most students the opportunity to study courses in other departments. Lancaster’s approach to the first year, by contrast, is now rare in England and Wales. Scotland has always done things differently of course.
When you look beyond the thoughtful proposals on teaching styles and assessment methods, these ‘radical’ proposals for our Part I start to look rather like what everyone else is doing. Maybe the truly radical option would be to keep Part I largely as it is?