Designing and developing a Foundation Year module

Jill Kirby


The University of Sussex introduced the Arts and Humanities Foundation Year (FY) programme in autumn 2015, with mandatory core modules that included the Making History module.  Despite the name, the module was also intended to include some history of art, philosophy, and American studies content.  This chapter offers a reflection on the development and evolution of the module, focusing on curriculum design but also the consideration given to practical techniques for building student confidence.  It provides a case study and step by step process for developing and continually evolving a module to match the needs of a diverse FY student body. Whilst it was developed specifically for this cohort of students, most of the steps would apply equally to the development of modules for undergraduates.

Sussex’s FY programme welcomes students:

with a broad range of backgrounds and experiences including: those who aren’t sure which subject they’d like to specialise in; those who don’t have the right combination of subjects for direct entry into Year 1; those who don’t meet the expected requirements for direct entry into Year 1; and those who are returning to education after some time away. (University of Sussex, 2018 Arts and Humanities (with a foundation year) BA Accessed 7 July 2018)

These different routes into the programme are often reflected in student motivation and engagement during the year, particularly among those who do not achieve their direct entry offers and may sometimes feel they have ‘failed’ or that the FY is an annoying delay in reaching their desired degree programme.  Additionally, the FY supports widening participation by enabling students from non-traditional Higher Education (HE) backgrounds to enter the programme on slightly lower grades and encourages applications from adult learners. Overall, these different routes make for a diverse array of backgrounds and abilities among students.  Because the module was compulsory for the arts and humanities programme, and optional for the social science and business programmes, this meant that the potential student cohort might include those who had not studied history beyond Year 9, those who wished to pursue a degree in the subject, and those taking it as an option whose other modules were within a different disciplinary framework.

Approaching curriculum design

Consideration of these issues was an important factor in the development of the curriculum and teaching practice for the module as were concerns about student social and cultural capital, self-beliefs and confidence.  According to Crozier and Reay success at University is predicated on having the right cultural and social capital and this plays a significant role in being able and ready to participate as a learner but also to gain more widely from available opportunities (Crozier and Reay, 2011, p. 46).  During the first year of the module, it became apparent that many FY students had misconceptions about what was expected of them, such as buying all the books from which the essential texts were drawn, not realising that digital copies were provided. Such a case exemplifies a lack of broader understanding of HE culture and is highly indicative of the problems encountered by first-generation students with little cultural capital relating to HE (Crozier and Reay, 2011, p. 148).

Lack of knowledge about what it is to be a HE learner is often reflected in issues of confidence for students.  While feeling under-confident is not unique to FY students, the combination of limited cultural and social capital, lack of understanding of HE and often self-limiting beliefs about ability, can combine to cause considerable difficulty for some students (Dweck, 2000, p. 3).  In some cases, this is exacerbated by, and/or contributes to, problems with anxiety and other mental health issues which are increasingly common across student cohorts, but perhaps more predominant in FY students and often the reason that they have not achieved the grades for direct entry to degrees (Thorley, 2017).  While the deficit model approach is not necessarily a helpful one, it was important to bear these issues in mind when developing the Making History module and ultimately they have underpinned much of the continued development of the curriculum and teaching for the module.

Curriculum design is clearly more than just a syllabus or ‘unit outline’, although it can sometimes be misconceived as such (Fraser and Bosanquet, 2006, p. 270).  In the case of a FY module, despite the ongoing debates about the impact of greater and more diverse student numbers on standards in HE over the last twenty years, creating the curriculum was also not simply a case of ‘dumbing down’ first-year undergraduate courses (Haggis, 2006, p. 522).  This was an opportunity to focus on the student as a learner and to engage them with the subject area, but also with their own experiences of learning. The aim was to provide much the same level of intellectual challenge as a first-year undergraduate module, but with slightly more focused and targeted reading and more time for discussion and exploration of ideas, as well as an emphasis on building up academic skills through practice.

This approach was consistent with research suggesting that mediated materials and learning guides, as well as the inclusion of topics and issues relevant to a variety of student socio-cultural experiences, are useful for curriculum design for widening participation (Warren, 2002, p. 93).  According to Warren, explicitly encouraging students to relate new concepts and new material to what they already know, rather than dismissing it as inappropriate to HE approaches, helps new knowledge to be remembered and understood. Once the new ideas have been absorbed they can be revisited to develop them further and embed them within a more sophisticated HE framework (Warren, 2002, p. 35; Gravestock and Grace, 2009, p. 35).  Such an approach allows varying experience, backgrounds and levels of understanding to be valued, encouraging students not only to learn from each other but to feel confident in contributing to the learning process. By relating the topics of study to their own experience and general knowledge students feel more confident contributing in class and this underpins the development of the student’s own ‘voice’ as they understand their own knowledge, practice and selves in comparison with peers (Barnett and Coate, 2005, p. 126).  This approach builds confidence as students recognise the variety of experience and views in the group, and realise that there is no single ‘correct’ answer and as a result, become more comfortable in sharing their own views. Additionally, by taking this approach, it is possible to make explicit the process of learning so that students become aware of themselves as learners so that small group learning in seminars functions both as a means of studying the seminar material but also the occasion itself and the relationship between the two (Warren, 2002, p. 95).

Considering student self-beliefs

Also implicit in the approach to curriculum design was an intention to build and support the confidence and self-belief of FY students, informed by Barnett and Coate’s concept of ‘knowing, acting and being’ which they describe as ‘nothing other than the making of the student self’ (Barnett and Coate, 2005, p. 4 and 149).  Traditionally, courses that have offered a ‘second chance’ to students who have underperformed at school and who are often self-doubting, have focused on building student self-belief and this was a fundamental aim in developing the Making History module (Yorke and Knight, 2004, pp. 31–32).  Self-theories are the beliefs that learners have about the extent to which certain attributes, such as intelligence, are mutable (Yorke and Knight, 2004, p. 25).  They can be linked to concepts such as self-efficacy, ie the belief in ‘one’s capabilities to organise and execute the course of action required to manage prospective situations’ (Bandura, 1995, p. 2).  Student beliefs about self-efficacy influence their motivation and commitment as well as willingness to take on challenging tasks (Holker, 2012, pp. 112–113).  According to Yorke and Knight, the concept is one of the four broad student attainments inherent to the notion of student employability, and thus highly pertinent to contemporary discourse on student outcomes in HE.  They point to both ‘efficacy beliefs and other personal qualities’ and ‘metacognition’ (understood as ‘reflection’) as abilities that are particularly important as they are closely aligned and relate directly to engagement and how much students develop over the course of their studies (Yorke and Knight, 2007, p. 158).

Additionally, greater awareness of self-efficacy has been shown to be more important for students from lower social classes (which often also include more ethnic minority students) because they tend to have lower aspirations and are more likely to ‘settle for less’ (Holker, 2012, p. 114).  Very often, the same students also lack a ‘growth mindset’, having a fixed view of intelligence, rather than a belief in their ability to develop. Beliefs about intelligence are ‘associated with economic disadvantage’ and moderate its ‘effects on achievement’ (Claro et al., 2016, p. 8664).  In practice what this means is that students with a fixed view of intelligence tend to approach challenges with a preconceived view of whether it is something they can do successfully or not (usually taking the negative view), and this limiting view of their own abilities can lead to ‘learned helplessness’ (Yorke and Knight, 2004, p. 27).  This makes it critical for tutors to help students become aware of these ideas and to ‘show students of a fixed disposition that they might achieve more than they perhaps imagined if they were to attend to the development of their own attributes, dispositions and abilities’ (Yorke and Knight, 2004, p. 31). Awareness of these issues influenced not only the design of the curriculum but its ongoing evolution and the teaching practice of those delivering it.

The remainder of this chapter will outline a ten-step approach to designing a module based on the approach to curriculum design outlined above that also foregrounds student self-beliefs around learning and confidence.

The “How to” Guide

  1. Identify the desired learning outcomes for the module
  2. Develop potential topics
  3. Develop ways to structure content logically (around themes/skills etc)
  4. Develop ways to structure teaching and learning
  5. Liaise with colleagues to confirm lectures and collate relevant learning materials
  6. Decide how to assess learning outcomes
  7. Write module handbook, incorporating relevant policies (eg on academic misconduct)
  8. Identify texts and other materials
  9. Build module pages on Virtual Learning Environment (VLE)
  10. Evaluate the module

Identify the desired learning outcomes for the module

The convenor for the Making History module was appointed less than two months before the FY Arts and Humanities programme was to go live.  Therefore, some aspects of the module had already been decided by School senior management. This included the learning outcomes, which were loosely based on the existing undergraduate History BA learning outcomes, and were quite general, ie at the end of the module students were expected to be able to ‘use a range of strategies for managing their studies effectively’ and ‘identify their strengths and development needs by making use of feedback on their academic work.’  Such broadly-framed outcomes are consistent with arguments that learning outcomes should be flexible enough to allow for ‘innovations and diversions’ although subsequent revisions have made them a little more specific (Hussey and Smith, 2008, p. 112).

The only subject specific outcome required students to be able to ‘offer their own interpretation of and arguments about historical and philosophical questions clearly and accurately on the basis of in-depth analysis of evidence.’  Although the learning outcomes were already set, it was helpful to compare them with the learning outcomes for similar modules in the same FY stream, such as Reading Literature, in order to understand similarities and differences and ensure consistency and coherence.

Develop potential topics

For Making History the only requirement was to ensure the inclusion of some history of art, philosophy and American studies in the module to reflect the range of subject areas within its home School, although it was recognised that the majority of the module would be history-focused.  It was built around a variety of topics that students from a range of socio-cultural backgrounds could relate to and structured to model key historical and academic skills that built and/or enhanced student learning so that students would enter their degree programmes often in a stronger position than direct entrants, thus mediating some of the missing cultural and social capital of non-traditional HE students.  For example, topics such as the 1980s enabled students to relate their family history to historical events and discussions around the philosophy of feminism could be related to their own life experience.

The module was predicated on a teaching model of weekly guest lectures and seminars taught by dedicated tutors.  Therefore, one factor in identifying content for the module was consideration of the teaching and research specialisms of faculty members and their popularity as lecturers.  The intention was that they would be able to ‘re-purpose’ existing teaching materials, rather than create new lectures from scratch. Practically, this also meant that the content was partly driven by who would be available to teach in each academic year.  A list of possible topics, concepts, methodologies and skills was identified based on conversations with individuals as well as research among the School’s undergraduate curriculum and online staff research pages. From this a variety of themes emerged which could then be read against other modules such as Reading Literature, to identify ways in which the Making History module might provide historical context for some of the English literature material.  While this was possible in a few instances, it would have been too restrictive for both modules to structure them specifically to this end, not least because the Reading Literature module was chronological and Making History deliberately was not.

The selection of content was also based on the ways in which different teaching and learning activities lent themselves to certain topics and materials, and thus to ensuring variety and engagement for students as well as playing to the strengths of faculty and the teaching team.  For example, faculty involvement in the development of several freely-available online databases and collections, such as the Proceedings of the Old Bailey online ( and the Observing the 1980s collection (, meant they could provide an insightful lecture on a related topic and then seminars could focus on students getting involved in working with the online sources, practising search skills, analysing primary sources and presenting their findings.

Develop ways to structure content logically (around themes/skills etc)

A list of topics was developed into an initial curriculum that offered a framework to enable students to analyse a range of different sources, as well as helping them to develop their skills in building and challenging arguments.  To engage students and provide an insight into the many different types of history, history of art, philosophy and American studies that they might go on to study, it was based around a set of broad themes, such as War, Slavery and Empire, introducing different topics, periods and methodologies and above all providing lots of practical opportunities for working with primary evidence.

With this in mind, the very first iteration of the curriculum focused on methodology in the early weeks of the module, so that students (especially those who had limited experience of studying history) would gain the skills to work with a range of historical evidence.  However, it very quickly became apparent that this was not sufficiently engaging and changes were made for subsequent years. A deliberate choice was made not to study any one topic in great depth over several weeks (leaving that for those who wished to progress to degrees in history/history of art/philosophy/American Studies).  Instead, the aim was to cluster topics within themes so that if students found themselves disinterested in a particular subject, they would not become disengaged as the topic focus would shift the next week, although the theme might be studied for several weeks.

Develop ways to structure teaching and learning

The teaching structure had already been put in place based on a weekly lecture by a member of School faculty followed by a one-hour weekly seminar taught by a member of the teaching team, during the subsequent week.  The seminar was extended to two hours after the first year as an hour proved insufficient. Although there has been much criticism of lectures for being ‘boring, passive, ineffective and antiquated’, researchers have also highlighted their role in helping students to see themselves as part of a community of learning, while others have stressed the ways in which a lecturer’s personality and charisma can ‘bring a subject to life’ (French and Kennedy, 2017, p. 639; Mulryan-Kyne, 2010, p. 176; Revell and Wainwright, 2009, p. 217).  From a pragmatic perspective, lectures remain a key teaching method, particularly where large cohorts are involved (Mulryan-Kyne, 2010, p. 176). Seminars were supported by one or two essential readings and other optional resources such as videos, websites and primary sources. Some of these latter were suggested by faculty, but most were identified by the convenor to offer additional material to give background or further detail on particular topics. Clearly, the quality of lectures depends a lot on the lecturer, but exposure to different styles and methods of lecturing also gives students the chance to reflect on approaches and styles of pedagogy. This is important in helping them adjust to the HE environment and to thinking about themselves as learners. For most of the first semester, time was allowed in seminars for students to reflect on their responses to the lectures and how they could learn from them. This enabled discussions of alternative note-taking methods, use of lecture capture for reviewing notes and for students to examine the benefits and limitations of lectures (eg their usefulness in providing context and structure and the student’s own responsibility for engagement) (French and Kennedy, 2017, p. 646). This was also useful in gathering constructive criticisms and suggestions from students to incorporate into future lectures, such as a request for greater signposting of key points.

Liaise with colleagues to confirm lectures and collate relevant learning materials

Liaising with more than twenty faculty colleagues to agree lectures, timings and to request suggested readings to support the lecture’s subject area, was somewhat time-consuming.  Faculty were asked to suggest an essential reading and one or two additional readings and/or primary source materials and questions that could underpin the seminar activities for that particular topic.  The convenor drew on the provided material and additional research to create seminar plans to be used by the teaching team. Although the individual lecturers suggested essential readings in their subjects, the convenor sometimes asked for alternatives, particularly when their suggested readings were either too long or overly jargon-laden.  This focus on language is important because the diversity of our student cohorts means that we cannot assume a uniform level of familiarity with academic language, conventions and procedures. For some students who enter the FY straight from school, some elements may be familiar, but for others (eg mature students or those for whom English is not their first language), the academic environment and its terminology can seem very alien (Gravestock and Grace, 2009, p. 15).  It was important that essential readings were reasonably accessible, and that the level of challenge they offered evolved over the course of the first semester. It should be noted that each year content planning needs to take place in sufficient time for faculty lectures to be included in workload allocations and in timetables, so that any changes to the module have to be identified at least by early in the Spring semester in order to be incorporated into planning for the following academic year.

Decide how to assess learning outcomes

The curriculum was designed to assess students on core historical skills around analysing evidence including visual culture, as well as more generic academic skills (essay writing, presenting arguments).  Students were asked to produce a formative essay early in the first semester in order for tutors to gauge their levels of skill and to offer practical forward-looking feedback as well as to scaffold skills development in seminars.  Although the timing and broad modes of assessment had already been set and were compliant with University assessment regulations, they were sufficiently broad to allow some flexibility. The assessment at the end of semester one was a primary source analysis exercise, while the Spring mid-semester assignment was a paired presentation and the final end of year assignment an essay.  The timings were predicated partly on the need to stagger assessments across all FY modules in order to avoid overloading students at particular times, such as the end of the autumn semester and partly to enable marking time particularly for modules with very large cohorts.

Write module handbook, incorporating relevant policies (eg on academic misconduct)

The module handbook needed to set out the module learning outcomes, how the module was taught and assessed, and by whom, its syllabus, essential readings, contact information for tutors and core information about academic integrity and marking criteria.  It identified any books that the students needed to buy and confirmed which would be provided digitally. It gave the syllabus on a week by week basis, listing the topic and essential reading. It was made available to download from the VLE, and most of the information was also duplicated in various sections of the module’s VLE site.

Identify texts and other materials

Essential readings were mostly identified by faculty, with a few exceptions where the topic related to the convenor’s own research expertise.  For the most part, any additional readings were either provided by faculty or identified by the convenor. Similarly, some primary sources and materials for seminar use were identified by faculty, with the convenor researching the rest.  Any copying of handout materials was also done by the convenor.

Build module pages on VLE

Once the content for each week and the identities of lecturers had been confirmed, it was possible to start building the module online. The VLE provided students with a page for each week including the link to the digitised essential reading, a list of suggested further readings (not digitised) and other further resources (such as video material, images, collections, music, news reporting etc that would enable students to find out more about the topic).  Each weekly page gave a brief summary of the week’s topic and one or two prompt questions to give students some guidance on what to consider when reading the essential text.

Evaluate the module

In the first year that it ran the module was evaluated in several ways.  Firstly, the teaching team had regular informal meetings about what was working in seminars, including student responses to lectures, readings and seminar activities.  These enabled the convenor to make changes and adjustments to seminar plans as the module progressed and to note changes to make for the following academic year. Additionally, informal student feedback was sought halfway through each semester. This was a very simple anonymous paper survey that students completed in class, that asked them to identify three positive things about the module and three things that they’d like to change.  This was extremely useful in confirming some of the teaching team’s perceptions about things that weren’t working, but also in endorsing the overall module design. More formal research was also carried out amongst all FY students by the FY administrators, and this provided information about whether the module was providing sufficient challenge to students. Other evaluations were based on the pass rate and the number of students who successfully progressed onto undergraduate degrees at Sussex.

As a result of the various evaluation activities, and the changes in faculty availability each year, the module has been amended annually to greater or lesser degrees.  This has included tightening up the thematic approach and signposting it more clearly; replacing some topics that proved too challenging; adjusting reading requirements by adding or replacing essential texts; and altering one of the assessments.

The successes (what worked well)

  1. The broad nature of the learning outcomes proved to be helpful in allowing sufficient flexibility to incorporate a huge range of content, skills and personal development within the design of the module and its future evolution.  This was important as year on year the module content, structure and assessments have all been adapted in response to evaluation and student feedback and if the learning outcomes had been too specific, this would have been much more difficult and time-consuming to achieve.
  2. The research carried out each semester with students confirmed that they found the variety of topics covered engaging, for example, ‘I’m really enjoying the topics in History.  I find them really interesting and I like the fact that they cover different time periods and also different subjects.’ There were some concerns about the pace of changing topics and one or two regretted not being able to study a particular topic in more depth.  In subsequent years some of the module themes were extended and more emphasis placed on the connections between topics to address some of these concerns.
  3. Engaging students with historical/philosophical topics that they could discuss and debate because they could relate them to their own experience, rather than to a large body of existing historical knowledge, has been a key factor in the development of the curriculum since the module began.  For example, starting the module by studying Britain in the 1980s was enhanced by setting students pre-arrival work that included a short oral history interview with a friend or relative about their life in the 1980s. This topic enabled them to relate the study of history to a range of pertinent issues such as immigration, identity politics and activism.  This task was carried out by the majority of students and meant that most of them had some relevant content to talk about in the first few seminars that did not draw on academic skills or knowledge. This enabled them to build their confidence in seminar discussions, but also illustrated the value of widely differing social, cultural and ethnic backgrounds and contributed to students learning from each other.  Having this activity occur so early in the module effectively modelled classroom interaction and set the tone for student behaviour in seminars for the rest of the year. Similarly, studying the development of the philosophy of feminism allowed them to think critically about the role of gender in their own lives (and in current debates).
  4. In the first year of the module, one of the assessments was a paired presentation to be given during the spring semester.  This created a lot of student anxiety resulting in repeat timetabling of presentations which proved impractical. With assessed presentations already included in the other mandatory modules, the assessment was amended to an annotated bibliography.  This still focused on their ability to research among secondary sources and critically assess arguments, but also linked more directly to their final assessed essay. The annotated bibliography assessment ensured that students engaged with their final essay topic much earlier in the semester, allowing time for discussion and feedback with tutors.  This alteration of assessment also enabled better scaffolding and modelling of the process of writing an essay in seminars, so that students received in-class informal feedback on research and planning activities, and then constructive written and face to face feedback on the annotated bibliographies in sufficient time to incorporate it into their final essay.  The results of this change were much-improved essays in the second year the module ran.
  5. Another simple practice to encourage students and tutors to get to know each other and to build a relaxed atmosphere was the introduction of coloured card nameplates.  Students were invited to write their chosen name on the name card and these were gathered in each week and used to help tutors learn student names (by giving them out the following week) but also so that students knew each other’s names and could use them in class discussions.  In subsequent years students were also invited to use the nameplates to indicate preferred pronouns too. Using only three or four different card colours also served as a method of creating random small groups for some group activities. It should be noted that one or two students expressed dislike for the nameplates.

Unexpected difficulties

  1. The design of the module in its first year began with a focus on methodology and skills.  However, it became obvious very quickly from student responses, comments and questions that this approach was simply not engaging enough and that the essential reading was too long and rather confusing, all of which was reflected in the student research halfway through the semester.  As a result, the following year the methodology was integrated into the individual themes and the module began with a subject area that students were more easily able to relate to – Britain in the 1980s.
  2. Because the module was set up at very short notice during the summer, there were quite a few logistical issues in tracking down and contacting colleagues who were on research leave or holiday.  This meant that the deadline set by the digitisation team in the Library who manage the huge task of digitising under licence, the readings to be shared on the virtual learning environment, simply could not be met.  In some cases, the digitisations were still being done only a few weeks before the topic would be covered, which was not ideal. Because the content of the module changes to a greater or lesser extent each year, reliance on faculty to provide set readings continues to require persistence in following up missing readings, and the digitisation team in the Library only receive a partial list, with the convenor then liaising on an ad hoc basis to ensure all the necessary materials are digitised in time.
  3. There were one or two seminar groups in the first year of the module that did not seem to work well together, for example, students were unwilling to share their opinions, reluctant to work in groups, often had not prepared or read the essential text etc.  While it is not uncommon to sometimes experience dysfunctional group dynamics, these one or two groups were much more challenging to teach. Subsequent conversations with some students after the year had ended, revealed that many of them had also found it an uncomfortable experience as they had wanted to participate but had felt unable to.  To address this for subsequent years, the use of ice breaker exercises at the beginning of every seminar was introduced. While most tutors use ice-breakers are the beginning of the year to encourage conversation and help students to relax, this activity was carried out every week, with the intention of creating a light-hearted warm-up exercise at the start of each seminar that ensured that every student spoke in class.  This encouraged a relaxed group atmosphere but also helped the less confident speak out about something that was unchallenging and within everyone’s capabilities. Identifying sufficient pertinent ice-breakers was somewhat tricky, but the technique did seem to engage students at the beginning of seminars and get them focused on listening to each other and sharing their views. Informal feedback from students on the use of ice-breakers suggests that they enjoyed the exercise and felt it helped them to get to know each other more quickly, helping them to feel confident working in small groups and in whole class discussions.  One student commented, ‘I feel comfortable within the discussion and don’t feel judged for making a point even if it’s not correct.’ While for the most part, student responses to these tactics have been positive, I think it is important to recognise that some students did not like the ice-breakers. An informal student survey at the end of the year included one comment that the activity was ‘childish.’ However, the benefits for the shy and quiet outweighed the criticisms and a more recent survey showed overwhelmingly that students enjoyed the ice-breakers and most reported feeling confident about speaking in class.

Concluding thoughts

The process of developing the Making History module, whilst specific to a certain set of circumstances, identifies some of the basic steps for designing a curriculum and considering some of the basic elements of teaching, especially for FY or first-year students.  The most significant learning point and most important factor in convening any module is that it needs to evolve constantly: in response to student feedback and observed practice; to changes in subject knowledge, literature and academic and pedagogic practice.  The module has now run for four years and in its current iteration, is undoubtedly a much more coherent, focused and engaging offering than the original. However, as faculty availability changes each year, so the content is amended. New teaching and learning practices are experimented with, adopted or discarded, and different student cohorts respond differently to each iteration.  Undoubtedly, there are other ways, many of them superior, in which this module might have been developed. This case study is offered as no more than a useful template and some lessons learned to assist others in setting up or amending comparable modules and avoiding similar pitfalls.


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Disrupting Traditional Pedagogy: Active Learning in Practice Copyright © 2019 by Jill Kirby is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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