Tuesday, April 24, 2012
One Course at a Time
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?
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.
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?
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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'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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!