Tuesday, January 03, 2012


The Uses of January

I’m wondering if there are other productive ways of using January.

Like many, my college doesn’t start the Spring semester until after Martin Luther King day.  (This year, it’s actually the week after that.)  And the Fall semester ends before Christmas.  The college runs a smattering of intersession classes, and the popularity of that format is growing, but it’s a small fraction of a semester’s offerings.  I think there’s room for growth in intersession, and I’m happy to work on that, but I’m starting to wonder if there aren’t also other things to try.

(I’ll have to stipulate here that I’m writing in the context of a community college.  We don’t typically send large contingents to the MLA or AHA conferences, which I know absorb a good deal of oxygen in other places.  We usually send more faculty to TESOL than to the MLA.)

Has anyone out there experimented with running structured (but ungraded) review sessions in January?

I’m thinking particularly of courses that move in progressive sequences, like math.  A student who limped across the finish line in, say, basic algebra may harbor a lingering doubt about being fully prepared for intermediate or college algebra.  (Names change, but you get the idea.)  For the student who escaped the Fall with a low passing grade and some lingering doubts, I’m wondering if a January catchup/review session might help them stay on track in the Spring.

(Alternately, for the student who failed but came close in the Fall, I could envision an intensive review leading to a second shot at a final exam in January.  The benefit would be that the student wouldn’t lose an entire semester by retaking the course in the Spring.)

It’s a variation on the “summer bridge” idea, but somewhat looser.  Rather than a graded course -- which requires a certain number of hours, a set of assignments, and all the usual trappings -- a noncredit review could be adjusted to meet demonstrated student need.  If you only need, say, eight hours of review to get up to speed, good for you.  

The academic in me likes the idea of using the otherwise-fallow January session to increase time on task.  Having students who struggle with a subject get some time to focus intently on it seems like a pretty low-risk strategy, especially if the students aren’t charged for it.  Worst case, they’re no better off than when they started.  Best case, they move from “doomed” to “back on track.”  

The devil, of course, is in the details.  

Pay actually isn’t the major issue; our faculty contract sets out an hourly rate for intersession work.  If the reviews became hugely popular, the cost could become a problem, but I’d hope we’d get at least some of it back in improved student retention (and therefore tuition revenue).  

The question that jumps out at me, not having tried something like this on any major scale, is customization.  Assuming that different students have different weaknesses, maintaining some sort of customization while scaling up could be a challenge.  Presumably, technology could help to some degree, but I’d expect to see real limits on that, at least for now.

So a question for my wise and worldly readers: have you seen a relatively informal, but still successful, January review system?  If so, how did it work?  Anything constructive would be appreciated.

Is this a holdover from when all of the youth in your agrarian area were needed to harvest Collard Greens? I've never seen a start after mid January, as much as I wished for one to get some skiing in before going back to school.

My current college's calendar minimizes the "forget weeks" between semesters, so I have no examples to offer. We do, however, have a "late start" sub-semester for late arrivals that might offer an opportunity for a "bridge" or "welcome to college study skills" short course after the regular semester starts.

But do you really think students will show up on an empty campus to review for a class they don't even want to take or think they need?
And how much will you pay your faculty to stay on campus during the winter break? Or would you actually try to scrooge them out of that money?
The idea may have more chance of success at a cc that draws most of its students from the local area, than at a traditional residential campus. But still, I wonder how many would take advantage of it. The students who need it most - those with marginal math grades - are also the ones who are least likely to volunteer for more math over their break.
My (4-yr, large public) uni requires a math placement exam before you can step into a math class, and all scores expire after one year (including ACT, SAT, etc.). If you don't like your score, you can take a one-week refresher course the week before school begins in Jan. It's non-credit bearing and the price of the class (which is not charged as regular tuition) includes the fee for taking 1-2 exams. After the intense M-F class, students retake the exam and usually place into a higher class.

In this case, students *want* the review and have been told by us that they need it.

We also have a large proportion of students who take a 2-year leave of absence to serve a religious mission, and this refresher course helps them get back into the stream of things.

We also offer this course at some of our branch campuses, where it is held 5-10pm.

More info here: http://www.math.usu.edu//index.php?program=ugr&subprog=ref&folder=math_0920
I think it is a great idea. When I was a pre-nursing student, I lived in the Biological Sciences Lab (or felt like I did). I could repeat activities we had done in my science class labs and go slower. It was great.

I think some students would show up for the review. I've not seen it done, but I will offer some suggestions.

1. Start with one discipline area. Probably one of the more difficult science areas which are needed by students to apply to healthcare programs at 4+ year colleges, such as Sophomore classes in A&P, Human Physiology, Microbiology, Cadaver Anatomy(or what subs for it), and Pharmacology. All these subjects are useful for all kinds of healthcare areas and the competition to get into healthcare programs is fierce. Even somebody who made a good grade may want to review.

2. Set up one class, say A&P review, before or soon after the semester begins. But wait until the 12 week or so of classes to advertise it to students. Ask professors to give out "inventory cards" to students who might be interested or need it on which students check a list of areas they want. (You will have to have decide what areas to offer the first time you offer this. After the first few review times, you will see a trend as to what needs to be offered.)

3. Collect the cards and get some idea of what areas of A&P, or whatever class it is, students would like to review from the cards. Then set it up like specialized science labs covering the areas of interests/needs.

This is brief. My first career included writing curriculum for an elementary school, so I went with a process to answer this with which I'm familiar. I know you know this, but the less there is for the profs to have to do who won't be teaching it, the better chance you will have of their cooperation.

I would strongly suggest presenting it to the profs as a chance for their STAR pupils to review concepts once more before having to apply or test for professional schools, so the profs won't feel if they have a lot of students who take the review, they they failed their students, etc. And the NON-STARS can also benefit.

I like the idea of such a review since I have experienced what having a chance to review important concepts in my prerequisites was like before I entered a nursing program.

This is really simplified, and you probably already know this, but I think it will work. Good luck
If you have a common curriculum for your beginning algebra course you could tie each review sessions to specific units or exams from the course (if you failed exam 2, you might want to come to sessions 1 and 2).
Like CCPhysicist our institution does not have the late start in January. We've been back at work since 1/2 and as an advising manager my calendar is appointments every 30 minutes from 8:00 am - 7:00 pm. Right now I am seeing primarily students who did not pass last semester, as in epic fail, and doing so for 11 hours a day is dispiriting.

In a perfect world students who have a semester GPA of 1.75 or lower could use your two weeks for an intensive study skills / personal responsibility course. We have a College Study Skills course and for students who have been dismissed we have a Strategies for College Success that utilizes the On Course (Downing) text which focuses heavily on personal responsibility. If done effectively a combined workshop could do wonders for retention.
If you take away the winter break, exactly when do I get all the other requirement of my job done? I teach 6 classes at my CC, and am required to do a million extra things to prove my worth, as a temp, including research and writing endeavors that can not be tackled fairly during the semester. My semester is 18 weeks already, not including the extra "optional" but really mandetory professional development week, that is essentially unpaid.
I'm also wondering about the pay for this. My CC doesn't have an 'hourly rate' for intersession work, and to be honest, it would have to be a pretty decent rate to make me want to give up the few weeks break we have between semesters to teach. I look forward to the first two weeks in January; my young kids are back in school and I have time just for myself. I have an hour commute each way, and it's nice to have a break from that as well.

With that said, we have held workshops for students who are interested in biotechnology or research to learn/hone some basic skills. We've done them on Saturdays one fall, one January (for the two weeks I just mentioned) and the last two weeks in May. Students were very interested in these workshops and I didn't mind teaching 2-3 days here or there at these times (but again, I wouldn't have wanted to teach all 10 days). We fed the students breakfast and lunch, so that certainly didn't hurt with attendance.
It seems that you're thinking about this backwards.

You: "We have a big block of time and space in January, how should we fill it?"

Me: "The College is trying to accomplish [X]. Can we take advantage of the time and space in January to advance [X]?"
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