Is the modular HE learning system a friend or a foe?

Universities in Zimbabwe are slowly catching on to a modular learning system which was first introduced online at the University of Zimbabwe (UZ) when COVID-19 hit the country. While administrators are praising the system for increasing retention and pass rates, students and lecturers have mixed feelings.

At the time the system was still unrefined and was used for only a semester. It required students to complete all courses within a matter of weeks. However, when contact classes resumed in March 2021, the system was refined and UZ reintroduced the modular learning method to try to protect learning progress made during the semester due to the frequent and sudden closures that Zimbabwean universities were experiencing at the time.

Modular learning involves short bursts of learning in one or two courses, followed by an exam at the end of approximately four weeks.

Other universities like Great Zimbabwe University, Chinhoyi University of Technology and the Bindura University of Science Education (BUSE), Midlands State University (MSU), Zimbabwe Ezekiel Guti University, and National University of Science and Technology (NUST) have followed suit, tailor-making the system to meet their students’ needs. MSU and NUST implemented the system at the beginning of 2023.

“The major motivation for the changes is the national vision and, as the country’s oldest institution of higher learning, the UZ is leading the embryonic revolution geared towards formulating home-grown solutions for local problems,” UZ Vice-Chancellor Professor Paul Mapfumo said at the UZ 2022 graduation ceremony.

Lecturers struggle

Mapfumo explained that modular learning increases retention and pass rates since students are given feedback and grades almost from day one, as opposed to the semester model whereby assessments are generally not returned until much later.

However, some lecturers are having trouble with the system. “The students are catching on faster than their lecturers. The reason is that some of our lecturers can only function in their comfort zones. We train them, but some get scared and leave. It is a normal part of academia and we allow them. We have many applications, and that shows that people have confidence in the new direction.”

Mapfumo said: “Nobody has seen this before locally, and people are comfortable on their old turf. But we had to change the design of our education and UZ had to give leadership.”

Dr Jeffrey Kurebwa, a lecturer at the Bindura University of Science Education, said modular learning was introduced at BUSE in February 2022, and seeks to minimise lecturer-student contact time while allowing maximum learning.

“It faced resistance at first and also experienced some technical glitches, but everything has been progressing smoothly since,” he said.

“Modular learning also allows lecturers time to focus on other aspects of Education 5.0, particularly research, university and community engagement, innovation and industrialisation that are often ignored.”

Students can write exams while the work is still fresh in their minds, Kurebwa explained. “I think they have finally come to understand it and they are enjoying it as it allows them to plan their time more efficiently.”

When asked why many Zimbabwean universities are migrating to the model, Kurebwa said the ministry of higher and tertiary education is encouraging universities to use the model because it is proving to be more successful than the semester system.

System reduces stress

“There is higher student motivation and better performance in terms of both grades and pass rates because the modular learning model does not allow students to get bored with the subject matter and does not leave much room for distraction.”

He said modular learning encourages focus and produces less stress. “It allows students to focus all their attention and energy on one subject or, at least, fewer subjects compared to the semester model.”

Working with fewer sets of ideas, problems and deadlines at a time means that a student has enough resources and support in their courses. This is particularly effective in the case of “boring” or required modules students take less interest in, he said.

Euphrasia Chinyanganya, a third-year student at BUSE, told University World News that the modular learning model has made her life easier.

“Before this model was introduced, it was difficult to focus on anything, really. You would attend lectures all day, have six or more assignments at a time, and sometimes even write two exams in one day.

“But, now, you only have one or two lectures a day, maybe two or three assignments at any given time, and the exams are properly spaced. It has become easier for me. I can easily understand the work and adequately prepare for exams. Modular learning gives me the ability to completely dive into a particular field of study which gives me the ability to strive for full potential during those three to four weeks.”

She said her life-study balance has improved as well. She has enough time for family responsibilities and “side hustling” and does not need to go to campus every day.

“Even our lecturers are appreciating the model as it gives them ample time to bond and focus with a particular group of students,” Chinyanganya said.

Cramming for exams a problem

Tafadzwa Mavunga, a third-year UZ student is not that happy. He told University World News that modular learning is a “brilliant idea”, but the implementation at the university has been “disastrous”.

“The modular learning model gives a student ample time to focus on one specific module or three, at most, during a specific period not exceeding four weeks. This can be adequate time if the lecturers and the students are pulling in the same direction.

“However, most of the time the lecturers only attend 10 days for the face-to-face lectures, leaving much of the load on the students’ shoulders. As students, we always end up cramming specific topics to write exams rather than having a thorough knowledge of the module,” Mavunga said.

“As a student who wants to pass, I will just have to do whatever it takes to pass the exam. After the exam, you will have to focus on the upcoming module which makes it impossible for you to focus on the grey areas of the previous module. The schedule also does not leave room for one to actively participate in extracurricular activities because you are occupied by academics and always in panic mode because of an exam in four weeks,” Mavunga said.

Annle Ncube, a recent medical graduate from the same university, is also critical. “This modular learning thing and having exams every month is not friendly. Universities must stop this. How can I be firefighting (preparing for exams) every month? l feel like we should not embrace this exam-oriented kind of learning.”