First year science students guinea-pigs for semesterisation

Science modularisation has been a positive development, according to Prof. Peter Coxon

Science modularisation has been a positive development, according to Prof. Peter Coxon

The ‘Common-entry’ Science programme is one of the most successful courses that Trinity provides, and is the most popular science course in the country by some margin. During my period as Dean of Science, I served on College Council and saw many changes to Trinity’s structures. I also briefly served on the Working Group on Modularisation and Semesterisation, which seemed a good forum for discussion. I did note that the College–wide information sessions were so poorly attended that the ones I went to showed the organisers outnumbering the audience. One wonders if the College staff had really engaged with the debate about change as closely as it might.

However, the need to modularise our courses to fit with European universities, and the need to regularise courses and to produce modules of five and/or ten ECTS, seemed like an opportunity to revitalise Science. It would make many more options available to Junior Freshman students. To do this, the Course Management Committee set about the task of getting agreement on ten ECTS modules for Junior Freshmen that could be taken in patterns to give students a broad base in science and lead to academically viable options in their subsequent years. This process took two years, and was assisted by the incredibly knowledgeable administrative staff in the Science Course Office, and by some particularly useful intervention by the Senior Lecturer. The modularisation we started has culminated in a range of first year options in various patterns. We hope a survey of this year’s Junior Freshmen will reflect a positive response.

In producing modules we had focused on academic processes and on logical progression. Effectively, by the start of this year, we were offering students the option to take sixty ECTS in two sections of the College teaching year, known as semesters, with thirty ECTS in each section. The traditional three-term structure (with nice names –which we should try and keep in some form if we can) required splitting in two. Quite simply, First Year Science runs Semester one for twelve weeks for all nine weeks of Michaelmas term and three weeks of Hilary Term. Semester two starts in week four of Hilary Term and runs through until the end of Trinity Term.

The proposed College wide semester system is far better, incorporating an earlier start but holding all twelve weeks before Christmas, with a reading week option in the middle, so that modules can be taught in tidy blocks. However, I have to say that in my experience of teaching Geography, cramming courses into half semesters has been far from satisfactory.

Having said that, the advantage from the students’ point of view may be that there is more chance of a student being able to take up more diverse modules in Sophister years, as courses spread over a whole semester often timetable against each other. Another advantage is that as the Annual Examinations are over earlier, there is more time to collate, mark and appeal the results. Modularising into intensive blocks of teaching frees up staff time for research during the semester, rather than having continuous teaching commitments.

With the current system not threatening examinations before Christmas, I can see no objection to it. Personally, I believe that students should hold onto the May or June examinations, followed by Supplementals in September. However, I feel that there is a need to debate this among the student body. As this is an important issue, students would do well to consider the alternatives. One alternative would be to hold two examination periods to allow modules from semester one to be examined separately, although personally, I doubt this latter move would be popular with staff or students.
My concerns for a student’s “Trinity experience” are less about changing term structures, but more about the increase in student numbers. This increase has lead to problems as to where and when lectures and practicals can be held. Complex time-tabling, a lack of large venues, quotas in Sophister year options in science and currently inadequate staffing at core areas are currently posing some major problems for our department. In the Science Course Office, for example, we have lost experienced and seasoned staff. Without these people, the office’s ability to deal with student issues without undue stress and very late working hours has been compromised.

We need investment in the basic cogs of running courses. This is absolutely critical to the student experience. Students know that an efficient and well-run office can help them through a tangle of course options, timetables and regulations. I am hopeful, indeed sure, that the new Faculty structures will recognise the value of the interface between students and the course administration, and that students will continue to get a good service from the Science Course Office. If they do not, then the student’s path will be a tricky one as College courses and options become more complex with semesterisation.

Professor Peter Coxon MRIA, FTCD, Science Course Director