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The Pros and Cons of Optional Modules

StudentsTips and AdviceUniversity

Optional modules sound like fun and games, but in reality, they can be pretty tough. As any, optional modules should be given a lot of thought; it’s all very exciting doing something new just because you can. But remember, even if it does not match your expectations, you will still have to pass it to move onto your next year. So, I’m going to give a quick walkthrough, based on my own experience, so that you know what you are really opting in for!

What are optional modules?

The clue really is in the name. Optional modules, sometimes also referred to as ‘elective modules' or simply ‘electives', are modules that you take from outside of your department. I am studying a straight English Literature course but I was allowed to take a French module instead of another English.
This, I think, is the main misconception about optional modules - they are not additional, they are more like substitutes.

Who are they for?

The department that you can take an optional module from will likely depend on the type of degree you are taking, therefore it is unlikely that if you are studying Maths you would be allowed to take a History module and vice versa. Of course, certain universities or degrees may not allow for optional modules at all. This may include courses like Liberal Arts or Natural Sciences, due to the already existing range of subjects covered. However, it seems that the holy grail of optional modules lies amongst modern foreign languages.

My Experience:

During my first year at university, I completed five Literature modules and one French. I have found that many people do this and a range of departments usually allows for an elective if it is a language, therefore in my weekly seminars, there was a tremendous variety of subjects, from English to Engineering or even Business.  


- You get to meet a vast amount of people from different years, colleges (or halls) and subjects. Also, because there is often a lot of partner or group work, you have a real chance of establishing a good, close relationship with people. I know for sure that I have created better friendships with people from my French than my English seminars.
Doing French at A-Level definitely influenced my decision to carry on with it. I am a firm believer of the power of languages and would truly encourage anyone to take up at least one other language (English is not understood everywhere!). However, I did not realise how much my enjoyment of the language depended on my teacher. So, when I began taking these French seminars where the conveyor was less enthusiastic and the work more independent, I began to doubt my initial decision. - Optional modules can be extremely useful for your main degree if you use them properly and to their full potential. They can help or add extra depth to your work, which will often help you to stand out amongst your peers.
Other than the topics that were covered by my French course, I definitely enjoyed the different ways in which it was taught and assessed. As an English student, I am expected to write many essays, therefore by doing a subject that consists of more questions that require shorter answers was truly a blessing. Similarly, having smaller teaching groups (approximately ten people), meant that the lessons were a lot more interactive and not so note-focused as my lectures or even tutorials. It truly provided an opportunity for everyone to take part and practice their language. - I believe that whichever optional module you go for, and however well you do in it, it will provide a true test of character. You will undoubtedly be challenged and will have to adapt to various areas such as work ethic or even attitude. Personally, I definitely saw the difference between how I handled my English and my French work and I know that thanks to the previous difficulties I encountered, I knew better how to handle unknown situations and I was by far more collected when it came to stressful situations such as exams, than I would have been if I had not taken French.
My experience is only one of many and therefore I would definitely encourage anyone to look into doing an optional module. It can truly be a lot of fun as long as one is passionate about what they decide to do. For some people, optional modules can be life-changing, but for others, not so much. Personally, I will not be carrying on with the French course, but instead opting for evening classes.

-Pro or Con:

You have to remember that because the optional module is coming from a different department, the ways in which it will be taught and assessed may (and likely will) vary to those from your own department. For some, like me, this is a positive as I can have a break from texts and essays, but for others, the sole format of the exam paper may be a disadvantage.


- You must be very passionate about whatever subject you choose to pursue as an optional module. University truly involves a lot of independent work and self-motivation and therefore, if things do not go to plan, you may find it hard to continue which in turn can lead to unnecessary stress.
For me, my optional module was a very mixed bag. On the one hand, I did enjoy learning more about the French culture rather than the language because it was something that I found thoroughly interesting and very different to my previous studies of French. But on the other hand, the amount of stress that I had to go through whilst waiting for my exam results was sometimes overwhelming. - After falling behind in work, it can be hard to return to the previous level of both skill and motivation and it can bring a lot more stress. Personally, I also found it quite irritating that something that essentially does not contribute to my original degree could be my ultimate downfall. Therefore, it is incredibly important that you choose a module for which you are willing to put in the time and effort.
Of course, my experience may vary greatly from others who do optional modules, and the way they are conducted will differ depending on the department and the University. In essence, optional modules can be very useful for your degree, for example, I know of many Biology students who take a Maths module, which in turn helps them with calculations and adds a greater depth to their reports. French also helped me to an extent with language analysis, as we essentially had to learn and understand the French grammar from scratch. Despite encountering various troubles along the way, I think that the module overall taught me how to handle these hard situations, and so later I could apply this knowledge to other modules and to day-to-day situations too. In addition, even though the wait for results was very stressful and seemed to go on forever, I now feel a lot more prepared for next year, when the workload and difficulty will undoubtedly increase, giving me more confidence in handling tough situations.

Optional Module Tips:

- Visit the university/department website – do the research!
- Often there are student reviews of each module, so be sure to read through those to get a real taste for each module.
- Don't be afraid to contact the department and ask them for more details, i.e. how each module would be taught, what the assessment consists of, and details regarding contact hours and group sizes. Most importantly, remember that each module is as good as you make it and sometimes, it is worth listening to your gut feeling.
GRB Blog Author and Student - Natalia Falacinska

Natalia currently studies English Literature at Durham University. Of course, that comes with a reading love affair. In her spare time, she enjoys: writing, playing sport and learning languages!

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