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You are reading: Equity through complexity: Inside the “black box” of the Block Model

Jen Jackson, Kathy Tangalakis, Peter Hurley, Ian Solomonides

Executive summary

This study investigated an innovation in higher education that has achieved demonstrable results for equity students: the Block Model at Victoria University (VU). The study looked inside the “black box” of the Block Model, interviewing VU leaders, academics and students about why it has improved retention and learning. The findings show that the Block’s impact comes not only from the Model itself, but from the complex context surrounding it. The study can help other universities recognise and manage complexity in equity-focused innovations.

Background

In the Block Model at VU, subjects are delivered one at a time in intensive four-week Blocks, instead of concurrently in semesters. VU introduced the Block Model for all first-year subjects in 2018, and is now expanding it across all higher education courses. Student retention and outcomes in first year have improved significantly since the Block Model was introduced, with the greatest gains in pass rates and learning achieved by equity students. VU enrols one of the highest proportions of equity students of all Australian universities.

The study focused on the impact of the Block Model on retention and outcomes for equity students in first-year science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. STEM subjects face particular equity challenges, including under-representation of students from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds. STEM subjects also have high potential for student-centred, inquiry-based learning, which is a feature of the Block Model design.

Method

The study commenced with quantitative analysis of student outcomes from two pre-Block and two post-Block first-year STEM cohorts. The analysis compared results for equity group students using student management system data (full student cohorts), and the Student Experience Survey. Equity students comprised around three-quarters of each data set.

The qualitative phase of the study comprised three components:

  • Interviews with seven selected VU leaders involved in Block Model implementation
  • Focus groups with 11 VU academics teaching first-year STEM subjects in Block Mode
  • Focus groups with 10 students who completed first-year STEM subjects in Block Mode.

The qualitative data was analysed to explore hypotheses generated at the beginning of the study, about why the Block Model improved outcomes for equity students in first-year STEM. The hypotheses were based on literature, and practice expertise of the VU research team.

Findings

The quantitative phase of the study confirmed that the overall improvements in student retention and outcomes in the Block Model were also evident for first-year STEM subjects. It showed that fail grades had dropped by 9.2 percentage points from the most recent pre-Block (2017) to post-Block (2019) cohorts, dropping 9.8 percentage points for equity students. Student satisfaction in STEM had also improved from pre-Block to post-Block, with survey items relating to teaching quality showing a steady improvement from 2016 to 2019. The only survey item to decline for equity students in first-year STEM subjects in this period was the perception that the unit workload was manageable.

The qualitative analysis explored seven hypotheses about the Block Model’s impact. Rather than aiming to confirm or refute the hypotheses, the analysis aimed to examine tensions and different perspectives arising in the interviews on each theme; recognising that the path from educational innovation to improved student outcomes is seldom linear or straightforward:

  • The Block Model is informed by a rigorous base of theory, evidence and reflection

Although the Block Model is based on similar models from North America, the international evidence base required adaptation to VU’s context. This involved consultation with VU staff, and drawing on equity-focused research, especially transition pedagogies (Kift et al., 2010).

  • The Block Model is situated in a supportive organisational context

The establishment of a separate, interdisciplinary First Year College (FYC) at VU is widely seen as critical to the Block Model’s success. VU now faces the challenge of extending the Block Model beyond FYC, while sustaining the enthusiasm of the FYC approach. FYC was both an innovation to improve teaching, and a response to financial challenges facing VU.

  • The Block Model prioritises strong relationships that enhance teaching and learning

Improved relationships between academics and students were a strong theme in interviews, facilitated by smaller classes and intensive engagement. Compared to lectures, the Block enables students and academics to work collaboratively to achieve shared learning goals.

  • The Block Model is being implemented by expert higher education practitioners

FYC academics were selected because of their passion for teaching first-year students, and deliberately organised into a community of practice. FYC both activated existing VU teaching expertise, and established a space in which expertise is continually growing and adapting.

  • The Block Model enables time to be used more effectively for learning

Students and academics emphasised the benefits of focusing on one subject at a time, with many students saying this had reduced their anxiety about study. The intensity of the Block also necessitates well-planned pre-class activities, scaffolded assessments, and a constant pace of learning. The rapid pace of the Block is demanding for many students and staff.

  • The Block Model involves engaging curriculum that builds skills for learning

The Block Model required all units to be redesigned, with support from VU’s Connected Learning team. Most STEM subjects have been successfully transformed to offer more action learning and engagement, and all are undergoing continual revision and renewal.

  • The Block Model enables learning progress to be more actively monitored

Students reported that getting results for their first Block after only four weeks increased their confidence. Innovative, regular assessment and feedback enabled students to demonstrate knowledge in diverse ways, although some challenges remain in calibrating assessment. The Block has also increased use of data by VU staff to monitor the impact of their teaching.

Discussion and conclusion

The Block Model at VU shows that innovation that improves outcomes for equity students is achievable, but that it involves considerable complexity. The principles of complexity theory help to illuminate what other universities can do, to achieve similar change: including creating opportunities for “bottom-up” ideas to emerge; utilising networks rather than siloes; and creating feedback loops at all levels of the organisation. VU’s experience of the Block offers insights into how other institutions can manage complexity in their own innovations.

For policymakers, the Block Model shows the importance of regulatory environments that actively support innovation, especially as financial necessity generates more institutional experimentation. It reaffirms the importance of quality teaching, especially for equity group students, and of actively involving academics in defining and improving their practice. For STEM, the Block shows how active learning can improve engagement and generate skills that are valuable for the workplace; and how interdisciplinary classes can break down the disciplinary segregation between students from different ability groups and backgrounds.

Read the full report, Equity through complexity: Inside the “black box” of the Block Model.

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