• Abbie Tibbott

How to Choose Your Optional Modules

Depending on what course you’ve chosen to study, you may have the opportunity to choose a certain number of modules to study. Modules are essentially sub-topics of your course, and each module is worth a certain amount of credits towards your degree, with you needing to complete a certain number of credits before you can graduate. Some courses, such as the sciences, might only have optional modules (the ones you can choose) available in the final year, whereas others expect you to choose from the first year. It’s something worth considering when you’re looking into certain universities, as if you enjoy having the choice, it might be an idea to decide on a course that has optional modules available from the start. Once you’re on campus, you’ll be expected to make your choices for the year, which is a big responsibility as it’ll direct your learning for the next nine months, alongside your compulsory modules. I was overwhelmed with the choice during my first year, so I’ve created a guide on how to pick, taking into account your interests, timetable and teaching.


Timetable balance

You’ll be able to see how many modules you’re required to take, usually on a student portal that holds your information and timetable. It’s not advisable to cram all of your modules into the autumn term, and lots of universities won’t let you do that anyway! You’re going to want plenty of time to complete your coursework, so make note of which semester the module appears in. I found that all of my optional modules required similar coursework elements, so the timetabling wasn’t a particular issue as long as I had an equal number of modules for each semester.

If you're desperate to take a particular module that would complicate your timetable balance, I'd suggest talking to the admin team that supports your department. They have lots of experience with timetabling, and should be able to inform you on whether your choice is actually possible. Make sure that if you are set on having an unbalanced timetable that you are prepared for the work involved, and that you are confident that you'll be able to submit the work on time. My university didn't offer extensions for deadlines as you were the one that had chosen to take on more work that semester, so bear that in mind!


Teaching style

This will be quite hard to tell in your first year, unless you know some older students who can give you details on what certain lecturers are like. I’d advise joining your subject’s society, as members are spread across all years of study, and may have taken the modules that you’re interested in. Lots of popular modules will run every year, so if a module has been running a long time there's a good chance that the lecturer is popular too.

Optional modules are often taught by a singular lecturer, the subject being part of the research the lecturer has done or is doing. You may also be taught by postgraduate research students, usually under the supervision of a senior lecturer. These students are often doing PhDs, so need to gain teaching experience if they want to become lecturers themselves. I’ve learnt a lot from postgraduate students, as they’re often a nice balance between student and staff member, are often younger and often have recent, relevant experience that will be relatable to your current situation. Sometimes a module may be group-taught, meaning the teaching is shared between several members of staff in the department. I had a module taught this way that covered the history of modern Britain, as it allowed the specialists in the department to teach seminars about their specific research interests.

Getting feedback on how a staff member conducts their seminars isn’t always possible though, so if a subject interests you enough, give it a go. If you don’t love the teaching style, there’s no pressure to take more modules by that lecturer in future. Your first year is an ideal time to test out the teaching styles of staff in your department, as well as begin to narrow down certain sub-topics of your degree that interest you.


Actual subject

Pick subjects you would have never thought of studying, a few you have some background knowledge in and one that you have no clue about. Well, you might not have that many choices, but I’d encourage you to be adventurous and try new things in your first year. This is the time to experiment, and you may find something that holds your interest. I took modules on US foreign policy, famines and colonialism, Victorian childhood and genocide in Africa, amongst others. I wanted to try a wide variety of specialisms that the university had to offer, especially those which I’d never studied in school. I never felt disadvantaged when studying a new topic, as the literature meant that I was able to build background knowledge quite quickly.

Have a look a module offerings before you choose your university, as there needs to be at least a few things that you’re interested in. When you’re selecting modules, make sure you have a few reserve options in mind that you would also like to study, just in case you don’t get your first choice. I can’t comment on this as all universities sort their students differently, but if you aren’t chosen for a certain module, you’ll have to pick another to replace it, so have a think about a possible back-up. Typically you’ll have to apply for your chosen options via the student portal, so there may be a way to rank your choices in order of preference. Regardless, even if you don’t get onto all your modules, you may still end up enjoying the alternative subject. I had this happen to me a few times, and I ended up enjoying my replacement choices, which were the history of the Labour Party in Britain, along with medicine in India.

It's disappointing to not get your first choice, but there's not too much that you can do about it personally, and take comfort that it won't be just you who has had to settle for their second choice.


I hate my module, what can I do?

This is a question that has come up during recruitment events, as prospective students want to know the flexibility of swapping between modules. Sometimes a module isn’t a good fit, so having the option to choose another is flexibility that a lot of universities have. There’s usually a deadline for this however, as after a few weeks have gone by, it’s going to be difficult to catch up with the teaching that you’ve lost when you switch to study a new subject. There may be other hurdles to jump through, including getting permission to join a module, which may be more difficult than you think. Lecturers usually have an optimum number of students that they wish to have in a seminar, and I’ve rarely had optional modules with more than twenty people in them. This means that any alternative modules you had in mind may already be full, so it may be advisable to stay where you are, rather than moving to a module you didn’t have in mind. It’s up to you, but remember that you need to catch up on any lost teaching.

I talked about my favourite modules in a previous Friday post, but there were certain optional choices that I didn’t enjoy that much. The reasons why I didn’t love these modules were usually down to teaching style rather than the actual content, but I chose not to switch subjects as I was confident I’d make it through. Not all teaching is going to thrill you, and some of the most popular subjects tend to be pretty dry. For example, the history of Socialism contains a lot of theory, which the majority of people don’t realise when they apply for any modules on the Labour Party or Marxism. I like that sort of thing, but I remember people getting frustrated about the theoretical elements in certain modules about the working classes. It all depends on what history you’re interested in, but I learned to stay away from certain subjects as I’d found previous reading very inaccessible to a beginner. You’ll figure out your likes and dislikes by the end of your first year, and then you can use that knowledge to pick your modules for the following year, so there’s a silver lining somewhere.

My best piece of advice is not to stress to much about module choice in your first year, as it’ll all work out in the end. If you don’t like something within the first three sessions, see if there’s anything to swap to, and try and take a variety of subjects within your field during your initial taster of university. I hope this short guide was helpful in showing you what to do, and I wish you the best of luck with your future studies.

Happy studying!