Opinion //

Op-ed: Enhancing learning outcomes through a shorter semester

The Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education) makes the case for a 12 week semester.

Last year, as a result of the pandemic, we trialled a 17-week academic calendar during Semester 2 (with 12 weeks of scheduled classes).

The trial was successful, despite the challenges created by COVID-19: both student satisfaction of units and student performance were positive and higher than the year before.

It showed our students are able to have an effective learning experience and achieve good academic outcomes over a 12-contact week semester. This is not surprising, given it is already the more common semester structure at other Australian universities.

We’re now asking the Academic Board to consider making this change permanent from 2023 and to adopt additional changes that respond directly to extensive student and staff feedback on the proposal.

Feedback on improved orientation, welcome and preparation for units of study was very positive. This aligns with our ongoing efforts to improve students’ experience of transition to the University. We therefore propose to make this change irrespective of semester length, as we also work to make better use of online resources, offer interactive face-to-face learning experiences, provide better in-time academic support through the new Learning Hub, ensure more even workloads across the semester and avoid excessive assessment. These approaches best support the success of all students.

We don’t expect any substantial impact on the volume of student work or course content, but what is on offer is more opportunity for intensive teaching between semesters for those who want it. The format also supports the distinctive experiential forms of learning we have here at Sydney – such as internships, placements and projects, multidisciplinary learning, and learning experiences involving travel and cross-university collaboration – as well as any other commitments students might have.

Flexibility for the professional disciplines with unique start and finish dates for semesters will continue to be provided.

The proposal also commits to avoiding any substantial workload implications for staff.

For academic staff, the recommended semester model provides more time for activities that normally take place between semesters. It allows all staff to complete the array of academic and administrative requirements between the main semesters including finalising results and enrolments.

We’re also proposing to offer up to three hours of relevant paid professional learning for any impacted casual academic staff members, supporting them to work towards Associate Fellowship with AdvanceHE.

I want to be clear. This proposal is not about cost cutting nor about a move to a trimester model. It’s about providing a consistent and high-quality offer for all our students and making the most of time on and off campus. There are no other major changes to the calendar on the table.

Academic Board will choose between two options: the proposed model with 12 weeks of scheduled classes; and the current model with 13 weeks of scheduled classes and some minor changes that respond directly to student feedback. These latter changes are effective orientation and an integrative final week, good teaching practices that are already incorporated into most units. We are also proposing greater flexibility for students to manage assignment and exam preparation.

Students will soon be invited to take part in a survey of their interest in intensive offerings, and I’m looking forward to receiving your feedback so we can ensure we’re providing the best student experience possible.

Pip Pattison is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education) at the University of Sydney.

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