Tuesday, April 24, 2012


One Course at a Time

A few years ago, my college started a January intersession in which students take a single course for two weeks.  It was a runaway hit; enrollments have grown every year, course completion rates have hovered around 90 -- off the charts by community college standards -- and faculty feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

So now we’re starting to imagine what it would look like if we could break up the Fall and Spring semesters into smaller units: maybe a couple of seven-week terms in each, or, in the most radical version, five three-week sessions in which students take one course at a time.

The idea is still very much in the “what if...” stage.  I’m hoping that my wise and worldly readers can help me think this through.  (It will go to local faculty, too, of course; I just don’t want to present them with anything half-baked.)

The appeal, from the institutional perspective, is that students seem to do better when they have fewer balls to juggle at any given time.  There’s something to be said for the “total immersion” model of a course, just as there is for a language.  (For language courses, it’s a slam dunk.)  The opportunity to lose yourself in a single class -- whether for faculty or for students -- is enticing.  If the class meets several hours per day for three weeks, and it’s the only class you’re taking, then it’s possible to build a day-to-day continuity that’s much harder when the class is broken into 45 50-minute periods over four months.

This approach could also work better for students who have to miss a few weeks.  They could just drop one class and be done with it; the others would be unaffected.  Students who start late could skip the first several weeks, for example.  It would also be easier -- potentially -- to keep the same schedule four or five days per week, which would be of real value to students with jobs and/or children.  It’s much easier to juggle life circumstances when classes don’t vary from Monday to Tuesday.

It has its downsides, of course.  Science labs could be a real challenge, at least on a large scale.  I’m not sure how it would work for courses that require the material to seep in slowly, like philosophy or literature.  The financial aid implications could be a headache, and I’m pretty sure we could crash the ERP system in short order if we weren’t careful.

But it’s hard to ignore evidence on the ground.  When students take fifteen weeks to do a class, the completion rates are lower than when they take two or three weeks.  Treating classes as projects seems to work for them.

Obviously, we’d have to work through any contractual issues beforehand, but there’s no principled reason that couldn’t happen.

Even if we split the difference and went to a variation on a quarter system -- split each semester into two seven-week halves, and have students take just two or three classes at a time -- I’d expect to see at least some gains.  It’s easier to manage two or three projects than to manage five.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you tried something like this?  Are they any gains or pitfalls that you didn’t expect, or that aren’t obvious from the outside?  

All I can say is that I would not at all want to teach composition in three or even seven weeks. The additional classroom time wouldn't meet students' need to let the material sink in. For other subjects -- especially elementary and intermediate language courses -- it could make a lot of sense.
I disagree on the language front. Again, students require time to let it sink in. 3 weeks of intensive language would probably result in fairly impressive but extremely short-lived gains.

I also would not want to teach my social science statistics course in 3 weeks (I've done it in 7 and even that was tough).

I think this could possibly work better with survey courses.

One concern might be how you would help struggling students in a timely manner. By the time a student figured out that they were in trouble and came to see the professor, it might be too late to correct the problems. Also, your small n of students who take the intersession course you offer now, may not be generalizable to your entire student body. Those students currently participating opt in to the "extra" course in an intensive format; maybe that's because they're particularly driven and would be successful in practically any educational setting. Is the same true for the whole population? Probably not.

Still, an interesting idea, and maybe worthy of a pilot. One way to structure a pilot might be to offer a range of 3-4 first-year courses to an incoming cohort, who rotate through them in their first semester.
I think that this would be a really good option to try for remedial classes when the students have seen the material before but not mastered it. Instead of having to spend four semesters working through the remedial sequence, the students can power through it in a single semester of laser-like focus on math/writing.
This is the block at Colorado College. Students find it a draw, but there are huge costs for faculty and for the institution. Not sure any data shows it is any better than other schedules, at least in SLAC context.
Ok, a couple of things. At my institution we do have an accelerated degree program that is built on an 8-week model. But it's worth noting that this program assumes that students are taking more than one course per 8-week term, so all it does is make them do *more* work, more quickly - it doesn't mean that they are taking one course at a time in this model. We also have some courses that are offered in the 8 week term that "regular" students take, but the reality is that those who do so usually are also taking 3 other (or 4 other) 15 week courses at the same time. In other words, these courses don't work like "wintersession" courses (which we also have).

So, some things to consider: to what extent do these courses encourage students to pile on an extra course (so one eight week course when they'd also be taking three 15 week courses) in order to get their degree more quickly (and spend less money), but to take that "extra" course to which they can't really commit the time necessary to actually learn the material?

How can financial aid accommodate this model that you suggest (for it does seem that the way you're thinking about it is that students would only be taking one or two courses at a time, which only works for "full-time" status for financial aid if the students manage four courses in the 15 weeks. In other words, most students would be taking two intensive courses at a time, and then another two intensive courses without a break right after that, in order to maintain full-time status. If that's the case, it's not really allowing them to juggle fewer balls - it's just allowing them to condense the balls that they are juggling into shorter spans of time.

This isn't to say it isn't worth it to experiment with different time-frames for courses. But I'm not sure how those experiments really *improve* student learning, which you suggest you think would be the reason to do such things. I think they might improve time-to-degree, but time-to-degree ain't necessarily about learning or becoming educated.

And I agree with your first commenter Stephen Hill that I'd never want to teach comp in 3 or 7 weeks, because the thing with comp (when taught effectively) is that it takes writing all the time for a long time to make a better writer. Yes, I could probably get through the assignments in three or seven weeks, but what would the return on those assignments be? And isn't the return the point?
Where I think you'd run into other issues is with courses like math, where the work is sequential and requires recall and review of previously learned material.

For example, if a student takes calculus 1 in 3 weeks and then takes calculus 2 15 weeks later and then calculus 3 15 weeks after that, retention could be awfully low between courses.

I took psychology as a 3-week course and that was excellent.

I wonder how it would work, logistically, to offer some courses as half-term and some courses as full-term? i.e. a student might take calculus 1 and spanish 1 as full-term, and take ... oh, let's say psychology in the first half-term and sociology in the second. I know the community college near me has a bunch of 'delayed start' classes which seem similar to that.
I am a firm believer in the quarter system, for some of those reasons and some others, but this idea is different. Crazy different if you tried to teach a semester of calc II or III or calc-based physics (even without the labs) in 3 weeks. Some things take time, like a research paper.

My college has "half" semesters during the regular year, but not on a large scale like we do in the summer. I have no info at all on how well that works other than the fact that some faculty volunteer for that option, but I do like the equivalent schedule in the summer. Apart from the second semester of a "majors" science class, my highest success rate is in a short-semester class I teach in the summer.

Our "short" semester is not as short as you describe, but I think the reason it and your intersession work is not on your list: The worst way to take a class is Tuesday-Thursday. The best way is 5 days a week or 4 days with Wednesday off. As long as you are experimenting, include that as a possible variable.

I'm less sure about the work-school issue than you are. The two-day schedule is popular because they can work those other 5 days of the week, particularly in the service sector. This would be a non-pedagogical reason the 2-day classes are a problem.

I know of a HS that used something like it (probably what they call a "block" schedule at Colorado College), and it was a wash. Good for some things, bad for others, and abandoned because it is too hard to change schools or play football.
I really like the idea for nontraditional students and folks who have crises that regularly come down the pike, such as people with children or poor health.

I dislike the idea tremendously for math and philosophy classes; I've taught math-lite and math-heavy Economics in both shortened Summer sessions and the traditional semester schedule. The more math or abstract thinking the class needed, the more the students needed the off-time to ruminate.

Definitely worthy of some pilot programs. Especially worthy in the case of remediation, where students would at least get quick feedback.
Wow good research for five three-week sessions in which students take one course at a time. Great post...
I think in the Colorado College model, Math and foreign languages are spread across the traditional semester rather than being a 3-week block.

I believe Cornell College in Iowa uses the same model.

Also, if it's the "math for gen ed" I'd be fine with it being in a 3-week block. But, that's more about how I view that course and how the students view it too. Fortunately, I never teach it.
This would be brutal for new preps. If you could afford to guarantee that a professor had the 3 weeks prior to a new prep off, it could work, but if they taught the period before the new prep ay, yi, yi...
For the things I teach I don't think this would work. It takes time for things to sink in. Think of it as the brain forming new pathways. This is a process best done over months, not weeks.
Does this really scale well? Or are the positive results due to it being only part of the year? Change of pace? Selection of students and faculty involved? Types of courses? All the above?

Maybe keeping it small scale is the way to go.

Let me add intense organic chemistry even without lab is too intense for most students. Need to be able to mull things over and take breaks. It can get overwhelming.
Previous commenters are correct to mention Colorado College and Cornell College as SLAC examples of the block plan in action. From a perspective that might be a little closer to the CC environment, Brown Mackie College (a national for-profit that focuses primarily on vocational and career education) does one course a month.

The first thing I think of when I encounter the block plan is that it's hell on any kind of extended library research project, because there simply isn't time to obtain sources through inter-library loan if they're needed.
I can't imagine teaching a physics class in 2 weeks. My 6 week intersession class, with lab, was brutal enough, for both me and the students. Some things take time where you struggle/practice on your own between class meetings. And there is no shortcut to getting comfortable with charge distribution integrals.
This is the University of Phoenix model - 1 or 2 classes at a time in intense 5 week sessions.
I've taught in a format like this. The (private) college was all 3-4 week classes. Classes generally run 4-5.5 hours per day, depending on the class. (As I taught ESL, our classes were longer as the students were working hard to get up to speed.) Students generally took one course per mod; an additional course in a mod required overload approval. Think summer school all year long. It is brutal for the prep, but you do get used to it. A full time load was considered something like 8 out of 12 mods, which roughly correlates to a summer "off." (read: devoted to research or prep.) The advantage is the flexibility, and, yes, for languages it was great as an immersion experience.

I'm in a CC now, and I think that, while this could be a great option for some students and/or programs, it's probably not for everyone. Miss one day and that's like missing a week (or more) of a traditional class. Nontraditional students seem to enjoy the focus, but it's the devil on those that have to work.

I'm in a CC now, and from what I've seen, flexibility is the key to student success. I'd think that trying a pilot with some programs or classes would be great, but certainly keep the semesterly setup for those who need that.
Most of the CC's in my state offer and have done so for a while 8 week classes both entirely online and hybrid. Students tend to love it for all the scheduling reasons. It does not appear that FA is an issue.

From a faculty perspective, I think it requires complete redesign of the course objectives. You can't and shouldn't squeeze a 15 week course in 8 and call it a day. It's not right to the course, students or instructor. Instead look at the course objectives and have the time frame fit with them.
Talk to IU's adult program. They're already doing this and it's succeeding pretty well. They do 5 week classes.

In addition to Colorado College, University of Montana at Dillon does a similar thing. I have talked to Science faculty their and they like it because they can do immersion teaching and focus on using the lab for learning. It would require more science offerings as every class is essentially the size of a lab.

The block schedule changed the way they teach science; far more inquiry based learning and more focus on process then simply introducing content. As a result it may not be good for a CC because classes such as physics and chemistry are required to cover material for transfer
God forbid you should want to teach a class that requires your students to write or participate in any kind of assessment that isn't facilitated by Scantron/ParScore. In a three or five week class, students would have one or two shots to write something substantive that reflects learning in the class (maybe) and faculty would have a mountain of grading to turn around in very little time.

With a window that small, your assessment options are horribly limited. I teach on a 16 week campus and at a 10 week quarter campus and there are some things I simply cannot do in the quarter system class because of the limited time.

I can't help but notice that a lot of the ideas being floated around these days do the same three things:

1) Reduce the teaching and assessment options that teachers have in the classroom;
2) Sacrifice comprehensive or 'deep' learning for expediency;
3) Transition higher education to a more corporate model

That's bad, bad and bad.
Interesting. I believe that our Medical School largely works this way in teaching the first and second year curriculum. However, I do not know if this is generally true of all Canadian - let alone US - medical schools. It might be worthwhile to explore the paradigm in that context, though.
My undergraduate college (Worcester Polytechnic Institute) did, and still does I believe, run all their classes in 7 week terms. It worked well. You only took 3 courses each term and then you got to start over in the next term. It allowed you to concentrate better on each course. Of course, I think the model required them to re-think the content of each course and re-organize it.
UIU teaches all courses in 8 weeks, 2 classes per 8 weeks. Four 8 week sessions in an academic year. I teach there and I like it. The students love it. They don't have to juggle as many balls at once and if you should happen to not do well (freshmen) you can learn quickly how to 'do' college and improve.
My M.Ed. graduate program did some of this with their (required) summer classes - some classes were 4 weeks and some were 8 weeks. It worked pretty well for things that already made sense to me when I started the term, but for students who needed time to adjust their whole way of thinking about a subject it was pure hell. (For example, the class on behavior in the classroom was easy for me because I'd already studied behaviorism as it applied to dog training and had been using it in that context for over a decade, so I had an easy place to hang the behaviorist-focused classroom management stuff. Students who weren't used to thinking in those terms spent quite a while flailing as they had to change gears from thinking about the deep, philosophical "whys" of behavior into the more mechanical worldview needed, and it would have been useful for them to have more processing time for that thinking change before barreling on to having to use that way of thinking in a bunch of things.)

For me personally, I always get better grades in short term summer classes because I don't have time to get into bad habits and I always do my major projects at the last minute anyway, so having 3 weeks instead of 10 to write a paper doesn't produce a paper that's any worse than than usual. However, I suspect I retain more long term from the classes where I have more time between sessions to think about the content and digest things. For example, I've taken calculus in summer session twice, a decade apart, and gotten As and Bs both times (one time was a typical undergrad Calc 1 and 2 sequence over about 10 weeks total, the second was a special course for high school math teachers that reviewed all of calc over 2 weeks). However, I don't feel that I really "own" calculus and I'd have to look a bunch of stuff up if I actually wanted to use it and I'm sure I'd cling to the book a lot more than usual if I taught it.
Maastricht University, in The Netherlands, has taught a lot of its courses in blocks of 6 to 8 weeks, depending on the subject and the direction. All courses used problem-based learning to teach skills to students. http://www.maastrichtuniversity.nl/web/Main/Education/EducationalProfile/ProblemBasedLearning.htm is a good starting point.
It is definitely a good point that the pedagogical tool of assessment would be impacted.
And yet one of the best colleges in the country, Harvey Mudd, uses the most complicated fractional semester system you've ever seen in your life. (It looks like a construction flow diagram.) What Anonymous wrote at 8:51AM depends on whether courses are offered in an appropriate format for that course.
Manchester College has used a "January Term" for longer than I can remember, and it's been very successful. It's been a while, but I don't think it's necessary for completing a degree on time. If I remember there isn't really much overlap between the Jan Term courses and regular semesters. Outside of of some reformatted GenEd courses (Did I really lose anything valuable by condensing my public speaking course into three weeks and not having 1-2 weeks between my speeches), most tend to be either remedial or off-campus.

The remedial opportunity is great for sequence courses, as it not only does it give students who had difficulty in the Fall a chance to catch back up and continue with the Spring course, but it also allows for more peer and instructor support - everyone in the class needs help, and everyone knows it.

The off-campus offerings are the real interest for many students. The history and art departments usually schedule a couple oversea trips, and somehow the Business department always manages to develop a parallel course to study foreign business practices. In years past Sociology scheduled a trip to Disney World - which always sounded like a good way to spend the winter until you find out just how much data collection you're doing, and how many papers get written :). The Pre-med program uses the opportunity to travel to Central/South America and do volunteer work in local clinics.

While I've thought about suggesting allowing month-long summer courses at my CC because of the immersive opportunity, I think the remedial potential makes a January intersession even more beneficial to the students if you can get Administration to adjust the calendar enough to try it.
As a student, I've appreciated having a one-month winter session (which my undergrad university offered) and a shorter summer option while in grad school. In both cases, I learned that there were some classes that worked well during shortened semesters and others that were more problematic.

One thing I haven't seen anyone else mention yet is group work and presentations. One required class I took involved a fairly complicated group project that had to be presented to the class. Because we had fewer class sessions in which to give presentations, the professor created fewer groups with more students per group, so I ended up having to complete a group project in three weeks with 14 other students. It was a nightmare (more so than other group projects, which are always a pain). Everyone had different schedules, so it was next to impossible to find a time to meet during the shortened project time frame.
The appeal, from the institutional perspective, is that students seem to do better when they have fewer balls to juggle at any given time.
I did my undergraduate degree at a school that ran on the quarter system (3 quarters plus two summer sessions) and did my graduate degree at a school that ran on the semester system. I found semesters MUCH easier than quarters, especially for classes where comprehension came in bursts. Perhaps I'm just a slow learner, but a short-session, immersion model would leave me stymied.

Another thing to consider is that in the post-college world, people routinely have to juggle multiple projects and must plan their time accordingly. Juggling four or five classes a semester is a great learning experience!
Quest University Canada teaches its courses on the innovative "block plan." Students take, and tutors teach, only one course at a time.
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My son has high functioning autism and is extremely bright, but gets overwhelmed juggling multiple classes at the same time. He always get an A in the short intense intersession classes but during the regular semester has great difficulty and often withdraws.

We are looking for a one class at a time college so he can move forward in computer science. Good luck in reforming your format. Can you let me know if you start offering one class at a time progam?
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