The pros and cons of option modules

Victor Chechik, Chemistry


This workshop will focus on the role of option modules in the University teaching. Options look attractive to UCAS applicants and allow students to study the topics they are most interested in. However, there are also many disadvantages associated with offering a large number of option modules. These include excessive staff workload, difficulties with timetabling, unequal student experience, gaps in student knowledge etc. Finding the right balance between a tidy, logical degree programme consisting of core modules and giving students choice with a collection of options is a difficult task. The workshop will discuss the advantages and issues associated with teaching option modules, and will describe the experience of varying the number of option modules in the Department of Chemistry.

Chair’s Summary

Students like to have options, but optional modules present challenges both in terms of alignment to the learning outcomes of the programme map and also timetable implications, especially for modules taken by multiple programmes across multiple departments. Additionally they often lead to low class sizes, a significant number of additional progression points (smaller modules each with their own assessments) and can complicate programme transfers due to a greater range of prerequisite requirements.

But choice is clearly important to applicants to the department of Chemistry (UoY) who cite this as one of the most important aspects of the programme. Option modules can be more closely aligned to current research and so are most interesting to both staff and students. They also allow the student a route to specialising within their programme beyond the traditional core teaching.

Elective options solve some problems associated with options in terms of resource efficiency and small class size. But they introduce timetabling conflicts and necessarily require that students are assessed outside of their own board of studies which can lead to a lack of parity with their peers.

The solution in the new Chemistry programmes at UoY is to create a hard link between the option and degree title e.g. 4 degree titles, 4 options in stage 2, 4 options in stage 3. For M-level students there are additional 10-credit options for the whole cohort in stage 3. For M-level students there are additional distance-learning topics in stage 4. Fewer options mean significant reduction in staff workload and administrative support albeit with a significant initial effort.

It appears as if there is huge variety across departments both at UoY and in other universities. Some departments such as Mathematics have a very large number of option modules available whereas others – often heavily influenced by accreditation and PSRBs – offer very few options. Options were seen to allow students to tailor both their degrees and their employability, and the supervisor’s role is key here in advising on the route.

Leeds University doesn’t offer elective or option modules and instead offers ‘Discovering modules’ which fit within 7 or 8 broad themes and students can take between 10 and 20 credits each year. Students can select from a broad menu of modules listed within each theme, supported by discussion with the academic theme leader. This isn’t offered to students on some programmes e.g. medicine. One of the largest issues with this approach is accommodating this within the timetable in order to prevent double teaching. A comment was that there has been a lot of hard work over the last 7 years to embed the Leeds Pedagogy to the point at which discovering module themes are consistent. At

Durham University option modules were initially introduced in order to allow all students the option of taking a language module or a business module to support a year abroad or a year in industry respectively. This has since branched out and there is a push to increase the number of 10 credit rather than 20 credit modules.

There was a comment that the revisions being implemented at the moment to remove the modularity within A levels would restrict choice, and any marketing of optionality within degree programmes could be a strong selling point for future applicants.

Further Workshop Materials