The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

5.2 Key dimensions of curriculum design

One key aspect that will colour curriculum design is the ‘short-fat’ versus ‘long-thin’ decision. This is almost certainly the result of an institution-level policy. ‘Short-fat’ describes the situation in which the academic year is split into two ‘semesters’, with students taking half of their units in each semester, probably being examined at the end of each semester. ‘Long-thin’ has students taking all of their units spread across the academic year. There are strengths and weaknesses of each approach.

This issue cannot be divorced from the question of how many units a student is required to take in a year, and there is a trade-off between the flexibility of the curriculum and its focus. It may be argued that taking fewer units at any one time allows students to concentrate their studies, rather than dividing their efforts and attention between myriad different topics.

A long-thin approach may thus be most appropriate where students take a relatively small number of units. However, although this gives students time for reflection, it may come at the expense of flexibility. On the other hand, where students follow a relatively large number of units in a year, a short-fat approach enables them to focus, but may encourage pigeon-holing and in some circumstances can lead to loss of continuity.

An illustration of this can be seen at the University of Southampton, where the institution moved to a semester pattern in 1995, with most programmes adopting a structure in which students take 4 units per semester (i.e. 8 units in a year). The School of Law opted out of semesterisation, and created ‘double’ units, teaching 4 long-fat units across the year, realising that students would find difficulty in studying 8 units concurrently.

Can we identify an optimum number of units for a year’s study?

For a programme where students are taught in a long-thin pattern, one possibility would be that adopted by Southampton’s Law School, of 4 x 30 CATS units. Students under such a scheme can focus on their 4 units, analyse issues in depth and have time to reflect. In Part 3, 1 unit could be a dissertation or research project. However, such a structure places limits on student choice, unless some of the units present hybrid contents, perhaps by presenting material from a range of applied areas. An alternative solution would be to create some ‘half’ units. However, in a 4 unit per year pattern, students may also face high risk from having made unwise choices. A 6 x 20 CATS system introduces more flexibility but forces students to spread their efforts more thinly – but maintains time for thinking and reflection. It is possible that teaching and assessment could be phased such that some weeks could focus on a subset of the units.

Under a short-fat system, a 6 x 10 CATS per semester pattern fragments student effort without the benefit of reflection time – and increases assessment loads substantially, especially where there is a reluctance to move away from examinations as the prime assessment mode. A 4 x 15 CATS per semester pattern is more effective, and can be combined with a double (30 CATS) dissertation or research project in the final year.