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Sheffield Hallam University An Investigation into “Killer Modules” in HE Taming the “Killer Modules”

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1 Sheffield Hallam University An Investigation into “Killer Modules” in HE Taming the “Killer Modules”

2 It has long been known that a major issue hampering student progression is the “killer module”. “Killer modules” can be defined as modules that are “exceptionally challenging to many students and are very difficult to pass” even though the same students might be progressing well in other aspects of their course. (CIE, 2004) Introduction

3 Aim To identify modules that have low pass rates and to establish measures to rectify the problem. Objectives Identify the “Killer Modules” Analyse the nature of the “Killer Modules” to establish possible common themes Analyse the module results over the recent past to establish if this is a new or endemic phenomena Interview tutors to seek out their views on “Killer Modules” Establish what the IT Programme Area are currently doing to alleviate the issue Interview students who have failed “Killer Modules” to seek out what they feel are the problems Give recommendations of what can be done additionally to improve pass rates Aim & Objectives

4 Outline “[K]iller courses, in which even excellent students have difficulty, as measured by the high proportion of grades – [show that] the university is not serving these students – [and] with tuition doubling by 2011, ‘value’ will be more easily questioned.” (Hedani, 2007) The investigation identifies the problem modules and seeks to analyse their nature to establish a possible common theme. It analyses the module results over the recent past to establish if this is a new or endemic phenomena. A number of students who have failed such modules are interviewed to seek out what they feel are the problems. Finally the study examines what the Programme Area is currently doing to alleviate the issues. It gives a number of recommendations of what can be done to improve the learning experience in these identified modules and consequently improve the pass rates leading to more satisfactory progression rates.

5 Research Approach Module Identification The “Killer Modules” are defined as those modules that had more than fifteen students with a first time pass rate on less than 80% in the academic year that had also less than 80% pass rate in either of two previous academic years. Tutor Enquiry Three tutors from across the programme area were identified and interviewed to explore their views and establish existing techniques. The results of the fact finding interviews were analysed and used to form a questionnaire. This questionnaire was administered to nine tutors from across the programme area. Student Enquiry Seven students were identified from the mid-year examinations as having failed at least one of the killer modules.

6 Module Identification The data was grouped by the English standard university levels: Level 4 – First year undergraduate Level 5 – Second year undergraduate Level 6 – Final year undergraduate Level 7 – Postgraduate Computing Information Systems Mathematics & Statistics TOTAL Level 4 Level 5 Level 6 Level Total ‘Killers’ Total Modules % Killer20.0%14.0%20.5%17.8%

7 The modules were grouped into generic subject areas: l Business l Databases l Mathematics l Programming l Project l Statistics l Systems Computing Information Systems Mathematics & Statistics TOTAL Business Databases Mathematics Programming Project Statistics Systems Total ‘Killers’ Total Modules % Killer20.0%14.0%20.5%17.8%

8 Analysing the above data there appears to be a problem with business modules in the Information Systems subject area, programming and database modules in the Computing subject area and statistics and mathematics modules in the Mathematics and Statistics programme area. “Jokes are made about ‘killer modules’, although mathematics is by no means the only target here.” (Stirling, 2006) Level 4Level 5Level 6Level 7TOTAL Business Databases Mathematics Programming Project Statistics Systems Total ‘Killers’ Total Modules % Killer33.3%42.3%2.3%12.5%17.8%

9 Tutor Enquiry Measures already taken l Dropping the module in favour of an alternative with a higher success rate l Removing the examination and assessing by coursework only l The introduction of short weekly or biweekly assessed tests l Monitoring attendance and identifying at-risk students as early as possible l The use of intervention measures (Burley, 2008) Connection between modules The vast majority of tutors (seven out of nine) thought that all the identified modules required incremental development and an accuracy of working with little scope for mistakes. Indeed they required convergent thinking and logical reasoning. “[I]t takes time and repeated practice not just to develop understanding, but to develop the heuristics that allow minor errors to be tracked down and corrected.” (Tutor H) Problem worsening Most tutors were in agreement that the situation was worsening, particularly over the last two to three years.

10 Summary The following remark seems to sum up the views of many of the tutors. “Something in the world has changed. It used to be that we could assume that the students were motivated and wanted to do well. It seems now that we have a significant number who don’t. They don’t feel the need to study. Higher Education is now a right not a privilege.” (Tutor F) However, this should be balanced with an acceptance that up to 50% of 18 years olds now enter Higher Education and that the red brick universities are skimming off the ‘cream’ leaving the others to deal with the less able and often less motivated students. Could it be that these students might always have been there, but not in the university system? In conclusion I will leave you with food for thought. “What’s wrong with failing, so long as we are there to support them when they do re- do?” (Tutor A)

11 Student Enquiry Attendance Attendance at lecturers and tutorials was varied from very poor to 100%, though it’s fair to say that the attendance of the majority of students wasn’t good. Many of the students (4 out of 6) had fairly serious personal problems during the course of the year that they felt had a strong bearing on their performance. They reported that they had missed classes and found it very difficult to catch up when they returned. Improving Performance The overwhelming response was to ask for more help (5 out of 6). Student E was honest and admitted that he should have worked harder at the beginning of the course. Attendance was cited as an important factor as was studying outside class. In summary this comment from Student D seems to have resonance. “On the whole my bad performance was down to myself and not the module.”

12 More Support The principal request was for more support and individual attention. Other suggestions were quizzes in class to reinforce learning (Student D), help with time management and arranging assessment deadlines better. There was a general acknowledgement that students learn at different speeds and that the pace of work should reflect this. “Just slow down the sections of the work.” (Student F) Work From the Beginning There was conscientious that if they had realised at the beginning that there was a need to practice skills they would have done much better. Again, there was the general acknowledgement that they hadn’t worked hard enough, particularly between classes. Building on Knowledge Gained There was an acknowledgement that the modules did built on knowledge gained and if you got behind at the beginning there was little chance of catching up.

13 Summary Students believed that the teaching of the modules was very varied but that assessment was generally good. It was believed that there was a lack of support for students who, for whatever reason had fallen behind. It was also believed that the approach to teaching should be looked at as the standard lectures were not necessarily the most effective method of teaching complex material. “The teacher has got to give students hope that they can pass the module not keep telling them that if you fail then you will do it again in August and if you fail it then you will pay again.” (Student F)

14 Recommendations List of Recommendations Introduce short and frequent assessed tests Give students hands-on tasks wherever possible Introduce quizzes (enquiries) as a means of reinforcing learning Identify core teaching material expected of all students Offer remedial sessions with tutors to allow students to catch up Intervene at the earliest indication that a student is floundering Instil into students the need to practice skills from the beginning Teach the weaker students at a slower pace in separate groups Monitoring attendance to ensure engagement Consider alternative means of teaching Give students work to prepare for tutorials

15 The Crisp Map

16 Conclusions It is imperative that we stop burying our head in the sand and believing that the students are getting lazier. Maybe there is some truth in that, but we must seriously consider that we are reaching out towards the bottom of second quartile of ability and that a third class honours degree might need to mean something different today to what it did five or ten years ago. This is the sort of issue that the schools sector had to come to terms with a generation ago. By identifying core material that students must understand without compromising the learning of the more able students, the quality of our graduates should improve without sacrificing our “precious” standards. The less able students can then concentrate on the core material and ensure that they understand it, without feeling that they must rush on to the next topic without fully grasping the fundamentals first.

17 Changing our approach to teaching comes at a cost. Tutor intervention and remedial assistance require a significant investment in tutor time. It needs to be recognised that some modules are fundamentally more tutor intensive than others and that teaching allowances must reflect this. Obtaining research allowances for enquiries and experimental teaching is an excellent way to kick-start the debate. However the methods established need to be sustainable and therefore built into the programmes. We must ensure that the additional support necessary to teach these modules efficiently and effective is permanently provided and recognised as fundamental to their continuing success. Every student that is retained is income retained. Passing students at all costs is not, and should not be our aim. A better quality of student experience where students are expected and encouraged to succeed is what we are setting out to foster. This can be achieved by giving the students recognisable and achievable goals and a positive environment in which to achieve them.

18 References

19 THE END Any questions please Sheffield Hallam University Taming the “Killer Modules”

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