Monday, January 06, 2014


Saving Students from Themselves

This one is really looking for advice.

Like many colleges, mine has a January Intersession.  Intersession is two weeks long, and the courses are intense.  They’re taken by a blend of our own students and visiting students from other colleges who are looking to pick up some gen ed credits during the break.

The logic behind intersession is that there can be a real pedagogical benefit to focusing intently and solely on one thing at a time.  Doing nothing but, say, sociology for four and a half hours a day for two weeks can work for some people.  It doesn’t work for all classes, but it works remarkably well for some.  (It’s particularly good for classes with labs that require long, uninterrupted blocs of time.)  Many of the classes are online, which gets around the issue of snow days -- a very real prospect in Massachusetts in January -- but even those assume that the student is only doing one thing.

For the most part, it has worked quite well.  The course completion rates for intersession have been in the 90’s for the last several years, and the anecdotal feedback from faculty has confirmed that the students have stepped up.  Students tend to self-select; those who would thrive in the “boot camp” format seek it out; those who want nothing to do with it, don’t.

But every so often, a student comes along with a different angle on the universe.

We hadn’t set a formal maximum on the number of intersession courses a student could take, mostly because we didn’t really believe that it would be necessary.

Let’s just say that not every student quite grasped the concept of focusing on one thing.  

So, my question to my wise and worldly readers.  If your college has an intersession or something like it, do you have a maximum number of classes or credits that a student can take at one time?  If so, what did you base it on?

We don't have an Intercession, but we do have an 8-week Summer Session, and we offer several 4-week 'Boot Camp' classes during the Summer. In particular, we run back-to-back sequential courses, such as General Chem I followed by General Chem II.

We have no limit on the number of Boot Camp classes a student can take, but there is an effective limit of two, as those two classes would fill up an entire day, each day of the week. I suppose a truly masochistic student could take a third Boot Camp class during the evening hours, but that would be beyond insane.

Given that your Intercession is so short, how can a student possibly fit in more than one course? It must be completely impossible to take more than two, right?
My state has a rule: A student cannot attempt more credit hours (excluding labs) in a non-traditional session (summer or interim) than there are weeks in the session. A "week" is loosely defined - as long as a session includes at least one day from a calendar week it counts as a week.

It essentially limits a student to one course in an interim-length term (three weeks) and two courses in a summer term (six weeks.) Exceptions can be made for "exceptional" students in the summer but not in interim terms.

If the courses are online, ambitious students can underestimate the workloads. That's why most of our intersession classes were off campus and/or involved travel, which placed a practical limit on the number in which a student could enroll.
Our college only allows one such class at a time. We didn't used to set a limit on it, but after reviewing the performance and attendance of students who took 2 or 3, limit ahoy!

Scuttlebutt says that the decision-makers didn't expect that any students would want to take more than one minimester at a time; otherwise it would have been limited right away.
I want to second what Uncle Matt said: make a data-driven decision.

We don't have anything shorter than 6 weeks, and that does not exist in isolation so it is not possible to extrapolate from our situation to yours. We do, however, tell students that one six-week class is like two and a half regular classes. You might try telling them that each intersession class is like taking seven regular classes at once.

Ours is a three week intersession; students are allowed to take at most three credits, which, in our semester system, works out to 45 class hours.

If the class is online, and the student isn't physically in the room, it's easy to imagine some students (and others) thinking that they should be able to do the work and learn everything in very little time. But since many college classes are planned through a long tradition of learning something that takes, say 90 hours or more in a semester, it's easy for more experienced teachers/learners to see that learning the material might be difficult.

However, if ever there's a time to see if one can divorce credits from hours, this might be the time.
Not quite the same universe, by my SLAC (DePauw University) started its intersession (which it calls "Winter Term) in 1971 or thereabouts, so they have a long history of it.

1) Only one course. Period, no exceptions.

2) They're beginning to run into problems with it, and are considering major modifications. Among other issues, a growing number of the courses are off-campus (in sunny, warm climes) and, increasingly (as I understand it) of dubious academic merit. A second problem is that faculty are not required to offer them, and it's apparently becoming more difficult to get the faculty excited about them.
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