Tuesday, August 14, 2012


The Late Registration Two Step

Say the word “August” to any experienced administrator, and you’ll see an involuntary shudder.  Sometimes it’s followed by a low, guttural moan, or sometimes by an abrupt curl into a fetal position. We’ve even been known to run for the nearest hills, crossing streams to hide the scent. August is the season of shoehorning students into remaining sections.

It’s an awful practice.  Since students often make plans at (or slightly past) the last minute, we keep taking students until the last minute.  But “taking students” can mean different things.  The late registrants are allowed to enroll, but finding the classes they want -- especially at the times they want -- is another matter entirely.  Daytime sections of the most popular classes -- developmental and introductory gen eds -- typically fill by mid-July or so.  By early August, openings occur singly and randomly.  Assembling a workable full-time schedule of popular classes in late August requires a planetary alignment.

And that’s just on the academic end.  The late enrollee has less time to arrange financial aid, buy books, and get transportation and childcare arrangements aligned.  So it’s not surprising that the numbers consistently show that the last students in are the first students out.

Internally, it would be worlds easier to close enrollment a month or two before the start of the semester.  But doing that would lead to a significant enrollment drop.  Given the degree to which our budgets have shifted away from appropriations and towards tuitions, the impact of that kind of drop would be devastating.  We no longer have the margin for error to try it.

On the political side, while we’re being attacked for “high” attrition rates, we’re also expected to be there for displaced workers as soon as they need us.  If we say to someone who was laid off in July “try again in January,” that doesn’t help anybody.  So we’re caught between setting students up to fail, on the one side, or bending the world to our needs, on the other.

So I’m thinking of a late registration two-step, as a way of both addressing the academic need for student readiness and the political need for responsiveness.  I’m hoping that my wise and worldly readers can provide helpful feedback before I start spending political capital on it locally.

What if...

we combined shorter terms with earlier registration cutoffs?

Concretely, it might look like this.  Break both the Fall and Spring semesters into halves.  (I’ll call them sessions A and B.  So September and October could be Fall A, and November and December would be Fall B.)  Run courses in 7 or 8 week formats, with twice as much class time per week as now.  (Alternately, when appropriate, we could use hybrid formats.)  Have students take fewer classes at a time, but spend more time on each class.  And have enrollment deadlines, say, two weeks before the start of each session.

That way, a student who showed up in the first week of September would be told she could register for the classes that start in late October.  That would give a realistic window for financial aid and childcare arrangements, but wouldn’t force the student to wait until January.  (It would also help the student who went great guns in the beginning of the semester, but whose life intervened in November.  In this format, the student would have, say, six credits to show for it.)  She wouldn’t be shoehorned into a sure-to-fail combination in September, but she would only have to wait a couple of months, and would actually be in a position to succeed.

We’ve found locally that the shorter the class, the higher the success rate.  (Summer classes have higher rates than Fall or Spring, and January have the highest of all.)  That’s consistent with the national research I’ve seen, too.  So I’m thinking that breaking the semester into smaller chunks, and forcing students to register well in advance for whatever chunks they take, might be the best of both worlds.

I’ve been told that this could be a severe headache for financial aid, for technical reasons.  But are there other reasons this wouldn’t work?  Better yet, has anyone out there actually lived through a system like this?  How did it work?  Or is there something I’m not seeing?

Cincinnati State Technical and Community College ran 5 terms a year up until this fall, when they transition to 3 15-week semesters (I think the transition is to get all state institutions on the same calendar). For example, in 2010-2011, the terms were Early Fall, Late Fall (which Ran Nov. 8- Jan. 31, tricky), Winter, Spring, and Summer (for full dates see: http://www.cincinnatistate.edu/real-world-academics/catalogs/images-files/2010-2011 page 2). I have no direct experience of this schedule, but thought it was interesting when I ran across it.
I believe Colorado College does 1 class at a time, intensive for 2 weeks. Mind you, I have no idea how well it would make me retain any knowledge.
Starting this year, we were required to abandon our 6, 7, and 8 week courses and conform to three semesters (Fall, Winter, Summer) of equal length, or risk our students being ineligible for federal financial aid. Bummer. Those "technical reasons" are not to be overlooked, when it comes to barriers to innovation.
We talked about shorter classes back in April (http://suburbdad.blogspot.com/2012/04/one-course-at-time.html) and a lot of commenters mentioned how they thought that teaching compressed courses would not be a good idea.
working link: http://suburbdad.blogspot.com/2012/04/one-course-at-time.html
A student who shows up here in the first week of August has already missed 2 weeks of class, so I'm a bit unclear what kind of schedule you use to get in 15 weeks of classes before Christmas. I'm not sure I would recommend our solution if you are already on an 11 week term or "quarter" system.

What we do is have a shorter semester that starts a few weeks late. I'm pretty sure it is populated entirely with the kind of new-student gen-ed classes you describe (English, History, basic math) based on historical data concerning the needs of late-registering students. Students showing up for orientation in the last week or so before classes start can take empty slots in existing classes, but we no longer "shoehorn" them in or open an entirely new section just days before classes start.

Ones who show up after the last minute have no choice. We no longer do a late add after a class has met more than once.

We already have some half-semester classes, often structured so a sequence can be done back to back, but there are not many and those are usually full by now. I posted my comments about half semesters back in April.
Both my grad school alma mater and my husband's undergrad alma mater were on a quarter system -- ~10 week terms, starting in early October, early January, early April, and early July.

Coming from a semester system (~15 weeks) at my undergrad institution, I was not, at first, thrilled with the shorter periods. I felt that if once I got behind in any class, I was almost doomed. There was no time to catch up. If you're kind of at sea for the first two or three weeks of a new subject (common, at least for me) -- the class can be a third over before you start to get your legs under you. However, I can't say that the outcomes were bad. I did pretty well in those compressed classes, and my husband, who was already used to that pace from his undergrad institution, never did agree with me that the terms were too short.

The summer session was actually even further compressed, with some limited selection of courses being taught in six week intensive sessions, of which two could be squeezed into the summer in the most popular cases. I TA'd for the summer physics sessions. Instead of having lab once a week, we'd have lab three times per week, on top of the ~1.5 hours per day, 5 days a week, that the students would spend in lectures. And I think there were study sessions too. This option was mostly taken by students trying to get a prerequisite "out of the way," rather than by future physics majors, so they weren't dedicated to getting the most they could out of the experience. It was a grueling ordeal to be survived. We TA's hated that pace, and I think we all agreed that the level of understanding achieved by the summer session kids was nowhere near the same as for the fall, winter, or spring quarters where they had the full ten weeks (though again, that was somewhat a selection effect).

Squeezing a class that would've taken fifteen weeks at my undergrad alma mater into six is a bad idea, I think. (Breaking up that class into two sessions, with sequential course numbers, would have been much better -- but for that to benefit your late registration people you'd have to make sure to offer both the first and second half of the class every term -- hard to do, maybe.)

Bottom line -- I think 7-8 weeks is too short, if you're going to try to squeeze the same content in. But the quarter system is a popular and proven format, and could probably be made to work.

If you really are interested in more radical experiments, though, you could look into what they're doing at Quest University. There "Your classes are all seminars with fewer than twenty students. You take one class at a time - a new intellectual adventure each month." I think Colorado College runs the same way. One of the faculty at Quest blogged about his experiences switching over to their system here.

I work for large Pub U (non-trad/military). We switched over about two years ago from 15 weeks to 8 weeks sessions. In one semester we have 4-8 weeks sessions, with sessions 2 and 3 overlapping by about 3 weeks. Hybrid classes are taught in session 1 and 4, with a week between. We strongly encourage registration in non-overlapping sessions but there are no blocks to prevent that. Student could do any combo of hybrid and online. Typically students will do two hybrid classes in session 1 and 2 in session 4. At three credits a piece that 12 credits a semester-full time but without the FT overlapping workload. It took some adjustment but most students are loving it. Hybrid classes meet every week, one night a week.

Faculty are...coming around. Some more readily adopted to this format than others. Students are...quickly adjusting to the study time involved.

Staff will not enroll students within a week of classes starting. Students have to do that themselves and are very strongly cautioned not too. For all the reasons mentioned.
At our small CTC, we do both traditional 15-week semesters and several 5-week courses, generally one credit hour. The upside is that the students tend to like it and persist well; the downside is that if a student has any kind of issue, it's very hard for that student to complete successfully.
(Just wanted to add that the quarter-system colleges my husband and I went to were DePaul University in Chicago, and Northwestern University, in Evanston, in case you want to look up the details of how things work in those cases. -Mary)
CCPhysicist - I'[m a bit confused by your comment about how a 15-week semester can fit between now and Christmas. My 15-week semester doesn't start until a week from today.
I'm a part-time grad student at an institution that runs 14-week Spring and Fall semesters and a hybrid Summer semester. During the summer, you can take a full 14-week session, a somewhat compressed 10-week session, or two six-week sections that run one after the other. The Spring and Fall 14-week semesters also have a limited number of seven-week classes that run in either the first or second half of the semester.

The six- and seven-week sessions work fairly well for one-credit electives (which, this being grad school, are a fairly significant amount of work and a non-negligible contribution to a 45-credit degree program). For the two- and three-credit core required courses, they're problematic.

The problems arise when instructors try to teach the same course they'd ordinarily teach in 14 weeks in 10 or six weeks. It's especially disastrous when the assignments require group work, because it's not as though six students with full and non-aligning schedules are going to have an easier time planning group meetings just because the semester is shorter. And one class I took during a short summer session had 15-person group projects, because the professor decided that we should do the same project that's assigned during the regular semester but double the number of people per group so all the presentations could be delivered in a single class period (rather than the two periods devoted to presentations during the regular semester). Please, instructors, never ask 15 people to work together on a project that requires work outside of class time! It's a nightmare.

Shorter semesters are worth trying for all the reasons stated, but professors need to rethink expectations for out-of-class work that's anything other than solo reading/writing/studying time. In addition to group work, that applies to assignments that require back-and-forth with professors, TAs, and outside-the-class experts (e.g., the local businessperson a student might be asked to interview).

- Liz B
We have been trying something similar to this for the past couple of years, and it has not been as successful as we had hoped. We still have the traditional semesters also, but when students show up to register late, we offer terms that start halfway through the semester (about 8 weeks long). What has happened is that we have had difficulty filling these courses (if you ONLY offered 8 week terms you wouldn't have that problem), and the quality of the students in the 8 week courses has been pretty bad, so that the retention rate has been not what we had hoped. It turns out when you populate an entire class with people who waited until the last minute to register, you don't get the best students. As I said, though, if you ONLY offered 8 week terms and not the normal semester-long courses as well, you might have better results.

Carnegie Mellon's Graduate School of Industrial Administration (MBA programme) split each term into two mini semesters. Works for them.
The local community college teaches remedial math in 8 week courses. If things go well,they can blast through 2 courses in a single semester (for most of them that makes them ready for college math). Plus, they're getting lots of contact hours, which helps them learn and get through the material.

There are other 8 week courses. Some are hybrid (they call them web-enhanced) where it meets the same amount of time as a 15 week course, but has some work that must be done online. Others are like the remedial math and meet double the time.

The biggest problem for the 8 week courses occurs in the spring. Spring break is fixed by the state and does not always occur 8 weeks into the semester. So, you could meet 1 week and then have a week off in the 2nd 8 week term.
I taught on a 7 week schedule at a for-profit. The problem was that we needed 15 class sessions to equal a semester equivalent. (7 weeks*2 classes/week * 3 hours/class = 42 hours, and we need 45.)

So we were supposed to have a field trip. I can neither confirm nor deny rumors that this field trip experience was often "satisfied" by a solo project rather than class time spent interacting with classmates and an instructor.

Final exam was on the last day, so that further reduced the effective amount of instructional time.

Then somebody said that financial aid rules dictate a minimum of 8 weeks. (Is it true? Don't ask me, I don't work on that side of the institution, I just teach.) We technically satisfied this by declaring that our academic calendar begins on Fridays. Week 7 ended on a Thursday (most classes were MW or TuTh) and we had a 1 hour session on Friday of the last week. Too short for a final exam, so it tended to be a joke of a class.

I don't know what they did about Friday classes or Saturday classes, because I never taught those days.
I"m not sure how to get in touch with you otherwise, but I think your twitter account got hacked. I just got a spammy DM from you that is, shall we say, not your usual style. Thought you'd like to know.
Our private junior college has experiemented with 2 regular semester , and 2 summer semesters which would overlap.

The challenge was that the same 16 week content and contact hours apply to the shorter semesters.

The end result was increased workload for faculty, at no extra pay or reduced pay for the very few.

The late enrollment students keep a'coming and the august effect was multiplied by four.

At the moment the late enrollment period continues to get longer and longer.
As an English instructor, I worry about the time students need outside of class. For example, during a regular semester (or quarter), we might ask English majors to read one novel every week or two. In a bi-term, that might mean students have to read two novels a week. When so many students are also working 20+ hours a week, need family time, or have other reading/writing intensive classes as well, the homework burden can become substantial. Writing classes would face the same problems. Students need a certain amount of non-classroom time to read, research, reflect, write, and revise several papers. Move to a bi-term, and some students just won't have the time to learn to write well. I can deliver content for the same number of hours in a bi-term or regular term. But I worry that a bi-term just won't give students the time they need for some classes. We tell students that they should plan on spending 1-2 hours outside of class reading and writing for every hour they are in class. Too many of them simply can't now. A bi-term would be impossible for them. I would like to see if there is any research on how bi-term affects student success in English, history and other classes that are reading and writing intensive.
Some of the replies are saying there wouldn't be enough time outside of class. That doesn't make sense. Let's assume Anonymous @11:37's English class has 3 hours of lecture a week and (s)he expects 6 hours of out of class work a week. In a half-semester, they'd be expected to find another 3 hours to attend more lecture and another 6 hours to do more reading and writing. That sounds like a problem, but it's not because they would be taking half as many classes. The extra 9 hours would be freed up because they wouldn't be taking my chemistry class until the next half semester.

I'm on the faculty at WPI in Worcester, Massachusetts. We've taught all of our undergrad courses on 7-week terms for over 30 years (two terms within each normal semester). Most courses have either 4 50-minute meetings per week or 2 1hr-50 minute meetings per week (a handful do 3 hours once a week). Our standard load is 3 courses simultaneously.

The pace is intense. As someone already noted, a student who loses a week to illness (or whatever) often loses the term. Open-ended assignments are tough and timely grading can get overwhelming. We expect our students to put roughly 12-15 hours a week of work in per course outside of class (which is likely prohibitive for students with significant other constraints such as family or full-time jobs).

I don't know how we handle financial aid (I believe we do tuition and financial aid on a per-semester basis).

Overall, it's bumpy pedagogically (particularly for those used to semesters), but it mostly works. Our students like taking a wider variety of courses in a year. This structure also supports some other programs that are unique to our curriculum.
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Mike@6:12AM -
I was referring to DD's mention of a student arriving during the first week of September. If classes started on 9/10, finals would start on 12/24. That strikes me as insane, and you still wouldn't have 15 weeks of classes because of Thanksgiving.

Which reminds me that the thing that bugs me the most about the modern "semester" is that it isn't 15 weeks any more. It is 14 plus finals, minus some holidays.
CCPhys: Maybe you meant September and said August? It makes your post slightly confusing.

DD: The issue I'd worry about with moving to this only is sequential classes. If students are in remedial courses, that's just great, (it of course lets them get to collegiate content much faster), and it could be really nice for people who end up needing remediation in multiple disciplines (remedial reading, writing, and math would put you at full-time right there), but if someone's heading for science and trying to take, say, math/phys/chemistry and fit in some gen eds as well, or maybe get in some foreign language classes, it's going to end up causing some gaps between courses.

One way I could see it working is declaring that some courses would only be for the 8-week courses -- which would avoid the issue of populating the late start classes solely with late registrants.
What about music classes? When you're learning a musical instrument, you can't just practice twice as many hours per day for half as many days.

Lack of stamina and endurance may prevent 4-hour marathon practice sessions, but it's not just that. Practice 4 hours a day for 8 weeks, and after those 8 weeks are up you'll forget all the music you've learned. Practice religiously for 30 minutes every day, and after a year you will have skills that last. Music classes need to run for full semesters and full years, for students to achieve the required learning outcomes.
Our high school decided against block scheduling for the reason cited above -- math, foreign language, and music teachers were able to convince science teachers (who wanted longer time slots for labs) that the students needed distributed practice for those subjects.
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