Bright Ideas

The “Block Method”

Quest University was established by David Strangway, former president of UofT and UBC, as a unique independent undergraduate liberal arts and sciences university that would offer a powerful interdisciplinary education to its students.  Besides its gorgeous setting, Quest is unique in Canada for capping class sizes at 20 students, for eschewing faculties and departments in favour of interdisciplinary instructors and classes, for calling their faculty (all of whom have PhDs) “tutors” rather than professors, since they teach rather than profess, and for teaching all courses in the “block” format established by Colorado College.

Under the block method, students take a single class at a time for most of a month.  Their faculty tutor has their undivided attention, and can schedule field trips or group projects as they see fit.  Students work together 24/7 if they like, focused on self-directed projects in the context of a series of discipline-based and interdisciplinary blocks (with broad topics such as “water” that span biology, politics, geography, physics, and more). (See the video clip below for a Tutor’s perspective.)

Students shine at Quest, even (or perhaps particularly) those who might fall through the cracks in traditional institutions: those impatient, ADHD students who get passionate about their interests, but cannot sustain their motivation in traditional disciplinary silos.  Tenured ivy-league profs rave about the experience of coming to Quest for a month to teach a truly motivated, engaged class.  And Quest’s scores on the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) blow away every other university in North America.

Several institutions have experimented with the block method, inspired by Quest’s example. In 2011 Algoma University, in Sault Ste Marie Ontario, debated the Block approach.  In early 2013, UNBC launched a pilot test to deliver Human Geography courses in block form.  In 2012, the Globe & Mail suggested that the Block approach seemed to be gaining popularity on smaller Canadian campuses.

This is what engaged undergraduate students look like.  It’s a university model designed for them, not for faculty, and it is likely a model that most traditional universities will resist.  But Quest is a niche institution that provides a great example of some non-traditional approaches to teaching and learning.


Dr David Helfand, Quest’s President, describes the vision behind this “university for the new millennium,” and tells some compelling stories about its impact, in his 19-minute TEDx Talk, below:


Quest Biology Tutor Dr. Annie Prud’homme-Genereux describes the benefits for faculty and for students of the Block Method in this 1-minute video clip:


Think this is a bright idea?  Please “like” it!  Have experience, good or bad, with block teaching?  Please comment below!

"My experience teaching at Quest in April 2010 was wonderful. I have never seen students work so hard! They have a minimal sense of entitlement and an advanced respect for instructors, each other, and the undertaking of learning. Enough students at Quest have come there for a purpose - they are not merely marking time or trying to keep themselves entertained, as is true of so many university students I see - that there is a drive to the student body I have not seen elsewhere. This leads to two important results: first, less-driven students are lifted up by a culture of achievement, and, second, the community is producing academic and cultural richness far beyond what one would expect from its small size. I have never seen a faculty and staff so remarkably unified by, and dedicated to, the advancement of student achievement. The Quest education is producing students with the most valuable thing on Earth: a mind that is active, open, and educated in the truest sense of the word. They are intellectually fearless and willing to work to achieve great things, and I am convinced that the remarkably high level of work they produced in my class is a small preview of their future accomplishments." - Dr. Rich Wildman, Harvard University

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  1. Josie Keelan
    November 13, 2013 at 4:57 pm

    Tried block teaching in the 1990s for a year of a degree programme. I loved it but we made lots of mistakes. We over taught and had too many assignments and did not think about how we could team teach effectively. In addition our colleagues in other parts of the institute were not convinced block teaching was a great way to educate. At the end of the year, the Dean of Faculty insisted we return to the conventional method of delivery. I learned a lot in that year and was disappointed we did not have the opportunity to learn from those mistakes and block teach again. Would happily return to that method of delivery.

  2. Paul Scarbrough
    August 25, 2014 at 9:01 am

    Ask a Swede about block teaching. I have been a visiting professor in Sweden at Linnaeus university and they use block teaching exclusively. It seems that is the only model they have ever used, so they are very experienced with it. I found it extremely confusing at the start, but it works very well. I am not sure that most of our professors could use it though, since the professor has to be extremely broad in outlook to use the block effectively. I think that they use block teaching throughout Sweden, although I am not sure.

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