Visit Modern Campus

Moving Past the Standard Degree Pathway: The Modular Degree

The EvoLLLution | Moving Past the Standard Degree Pathway: The Modular Degree
A modular degree system could save institutions and students time of money, would not require significant change from faculty and would maximize learning outcomes for students.

This is the conclusion of a two-part series identifying and overcoming the central issues with the standard degree pathway. In the first installment, Phillips outlined a few of the key challenges of the standard pathway, including the duplication of material. In this piece, she delves into the capacity for modular degree programs to overcome these issues.

In the last article, I identified the following as a few critical challenges of the standard degree pathway:

Course requirements for the major are usually well thought out and designed around learning outcomes. But in many degrees there is too much choice in general education and too much choice in free electives. Also, there is often no coherence between these parts of the curriculum and the courses in the major. This results in poor student success and poor learning outcomes for the degree as a whole.

My proposed solution to these issues is moving toward a system of degrees composed of modules rather than courses.

A module is a topic, minimally one week in length, which is equivalent to .25 credits, although of course modules can be larger as well, up to including an entire semester if that makes sense. What’s more, modules could be listed on the transcript as topics learned. This is more valuable than listing a course title for three credits as it provides more specificity to a student’s record in terms of topics they have mastered. Composing a degree pathway with numerous modules, rather than with courses, has numerous advantages. For example, modules can be combined in more ways than courses, and duplication among courses is eliminated.  While some believe duplication of material and repetition across courses improves learning, learning scientists disagree. Learning is improved by student’s active engagement in the material, in which they connect the material to material they already know, and use the material in new ways, producing deep learning, not by just repeating material over and over. If the content of courses were more specifically laid out, duplication and possible areas of coordination and sequencing would become obvious.

Case Study: Implementing a Modular Degree

We ran one cohort of psychology baccalaureate degree recipients’ data at Arizona State University to determine what actual courses they took for electives and general studies requirements as well as electives

Perhaps not surprisingly, students maximize overlap. The most popular psychology courses used in the major were social psychology, developmental psychology, abnormal psychology and human sexuality.  The most popular general education courses for psychology majors in the appropriate bucket were introduction to sociology, courtship and marriage, human development, marriage/family relations, human development and human sexuality (taught in a different department). The great overlap may be because students are most interested in these topics, or because the students seek to maximize overlap to make the path to their degree easier. There is also overlap in quantitative methods and experimental methods courses in the major and in the science and mathematics general education buckets, and similar overlap with electives.

The good news about the fact that there is normal overlap in content among courses is that we can take advantage of it and improve coordination across courses. To do this, each course must have specified topics covered, and if a student has already learned a topic in another course they do not need to learn the topic again, unless they need the repetition.

Faculty already produce a syllabus for each course, which lists the topics covered.  We also examined online versions of many courses, which allowed more detailed examination of topics covered. We discovered a great deal of topic overlap in the courses taken by psychology students, especially across three specific courses. While one faculty member may spend more time than another on a particular topic, or a topic may be seen as more fundamental in one course than another, it is not difficult to identify duplication. To design the modular degree, the psychology faculty would then determine the order of topics, as it is their major. This analysis showed that easily one year of topics as currently taught are duplicates. This creates an opportunity to either have students take a senior capstone experience, a year of study abroad, or simply finish their degree program one year earlier.

To implement this modular degree, faculty would simply teach their courses as they normally do. Assessments need to be designed for each module. Students do not need to repeat modules once they have learned the material. Each faculty member assesses learning of modules in their course—there is no automatic assumption that students who have learned a module in one course will have learned to the level of students in another courses. Students will take the same final exams as students finishing all courses, to ensure comparability to the current system, and complete all projects, writing assignments and presentations. Major maps are in modules, and a student can plan how many credits to register for based on avoiding overlap among the courses.

Material will be integrated across programs and perspectives, allowing the student the holistic integrated curriculum that was originally conceived as a liberal arts education. This knowledge can be assessed in a final year project, paper or presentation.

Facts and Myths of Modular Degrees

Modules are not competency-based, nor do they constitute direct assessment as defined by the federal Department of Education. Modules produce teaching and learning in same manner as done currently in lectures, labs, recitations, projects and independent study.

The difference is that the unit of knowledge is not 15 weeks, but one week, giving greater flexibility and also revealing the inner content of the current 3-semester/full-year courses, allowing better integration of knowledge to produce superior learning.

Advantages of Modules:

Content can be integrated across courses throughout the degree with active use of content at deeper levels as the student progresses, producing better learning outcomes. Also less time in the degree is spent on content, leaving more time for integrating and using content.

By eliminating duplication the typical content in a degree can be taught in less than four years, often in three or fewer years. This frees up a year for students to do more active projects, internships, study abroad, graduate-level courses, or simply saves them a year.

Advantages for the faculty:

  • Faculty do not need to change their courses, as courses are already designed in modules (topics). Faculty will benefit from knowledge of what material their students have had prior to their class, and preparation of the class will be more uniform.
  • Faculty will not need to repeat material because of not knowing if students have had it before.
  • Students in classes will be more motivated.

Advantages for the student:

  • Students do not need to take 15 weeks of all topics, but instead can take parts of courses—MOOCs have shown that many students if given the opportunity will select needed material from courses, making the curriculum more coherent and efficient from the student point of view.
  • Students will find out more rapidly what path and major fits them as they are not required to take a full semester of each course before changing path.
  • Material presented to the student will vary depending upon previous knowledge, making the curriculum less boring and repetitive, as well as more relevant and engaging.

Advantages for the university:

  • Students will be retained and graduated at a higher rate
  • Student learning outcomes will be superior and thus success of graduates will be greater
  • Curriculum will be delivered more efficiently, saving faculty time, and thus money.

– – – –


Cohen, A.m., & Kisker, C. B. (2010). The Shaping of American Higher Education: Emergence and Growth of the Contemporary System, 2nd Ed. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Phillips, E. D. (2013). Improving advising using technology and data analytics. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 45, 1, 48-55.

Phillips, Capaldi E. D., & Poliakoff, M. B. (2014).The Cost of Chaos in the Curriculum (Washington, DC: American Council of Trustees and Alumni, 2014)

Zimmerman, S. D. (2014). The returns to college admission for academically marginal students. Journal of Labor Economics, Vol 32, No. 4 (October 2014). 711-754.

Author Perspective: