Sunday, March 12, 2017


8 Week Semesters

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best ones.

Like most community colleges, Brookdale is working on improving student success.  It’s making progress, despite some demographic headwinds. Too often, though, the conversation stops when we start looking at the various external factors over which a college has no control: national and state politics; local birthrates 18 years ago; other colleges becoming more aggressive in recruiting.  

I’m wondering if something over which we have control might help.  What if we went to 8 week semesters?

It could help in some pretty straightforward ways.  

At a really basic level, it would reduce the number of courses that a full-time student would be taking at any given moment.  Let’s say that the year is divided into six two-month semesters.  (I’m rounding; the units might be 7 ½ weeks, and I don’t propose to mess with Christmas.  But for simplicity, let’s just go with this for now.) If a student took classes for five of those six two-month blocs, she could do 30 credits per year -- real full-time status -- by only doing six credits at a time.  Typically, that would be two classes.  

The classes would meet more hours per week, but for fewer weeks, and students would only take one or two at a time.  They wouldn’t divide their attention among four or five classes, like they do now.  They could focus.

In my own teaching days, the single best class I ever taught was a six-week summer session that met four days per week.  It was wonderful, precisely because it was so intense.  The students got to know each other, we could follow up on discussions immediately, and for a while, they ate, slept, and breathed my class.  They didn’t have time to do much else.  

It’s not unusual for a community college student to have two jobs and one kid.  Two jobs plus one kid plus five classes equals eight things to manage.  Two jobs plus one kid plus two classes equals five things to manage.  Five things are easier than eight things.

In a setting with students who live on campus full-time and don’t do anything other than studenting, there may be an argument for the traditional semester.  Students need to learn to multitask.  But in a community college, they’re already multitasking.  If anything, they need to be able to focus.  Fewer, shorter, more intense classes offer the possibility of increased focus.

A pattern of two classes at a time in 8 week chunks would also reduce the damage done when life gets in the way.  In a traditional semester, if a student signs up for five classes that start in September and life happens in November, she walks away with nothing.  She has to start over again from scratch.  But in this format, she walks away with six credits from the Sept/Oct term; she doesn’t have to start from scratch.  Wins come more quickly and more often.

From a faculty perspective, some of the same arguments would hold.  For those willing to do a ten-month year, a full load would never have to exceed two classes at any given time.  In some areas, it would even be less than that: an English professor teaching an ALP section, for instance, would have only the ALP section that term.  That would be a full load all by itself.  Yes, the grading turnaround would have to be faster, but the number of papers would be so much smaller that it wouldn’t be hard to manage.  

In a perfect world -- and I’ll admit I haven’t looked at the HR side of this -- I’d love to have faculty able to pick which two-month blocks they’d take as a break.  Those with school-age kids would probably stick to July and August, so they’d be off when the kids are off.  But snowbirds might pick January and February.  Someone to whom the major Jewish holidays are important might choose September and October.  Whatever the choice, it would be a choice.  That would be a dramatic change from current practice.

I know that some colleges have gone in this direction, and I’d love to hear from folks with experience with this model.  I’ve already got some folks on campus doing research on it, but direct feedback from knowledgeable people on the ground provides valuable context.  Does it help with student success?  How do faculty pace their year?  Are six starts-of-term per year too taxing on the admissions and registration staff?  And how does financial aid work?  For those who lived through a conversion, is there anything you know now that you wish you knew then?

I don’t expect that 8 week semesters would be a panacea, but I could imagine them doing considerable good at minimal cost.  The academic calendar is one of the few things over which we have real control.  It looks intriguing from here.  Yes, there are details to be addressed, and those will involve working through details with local input.  But at the conceptual level, wise and worldly readers, what do you think?

My experience is that this works well for humanities and terribly for any class that involves math or heavy abstract lifting. People in the latter classes just need physical time and sleep to fully process the information and tools.

I would worry that this wouldn't give students much time for revisions--which are crucial for developing good writing skills in one ed comp. Students also need time to do the heavy reading for an upper division lit class--even a gen ed lit class would have to be careful about using novels in such a restricted time frame.
On one level, I think it would be a great idea.

But from personal experience as a CC student, full time, while working full time. I was able to take 4 classes (12 credits) by going to one 3 hour class every night, MTWTh. With commute time and such, I didn't have time to study during the week, but starting Friday afternoon and working Saturday and Sunday, I could power through the whole week's worth of work for each course. In courses where I needed guidance to do the next week's work, I'd have been unable to keep up taking two courses that met, say, 2 nights each week, since I wouldn't have had time to work in between.

As Punditus suggests, it would be super hard with math and language type courses, also writing (no time to write during the week).

What about a 10 week "quarter" as some schools use? (though fitting in a 4 hour class after a full day of work would be more difficult.)

The sorts of courses that just give a midterm and a final, I'd probably survive. The ones that do weekly or daily assignments would be much harder.
I think this is a bad idea. There are multiple educational psychology experiments that show spacing learning out over a longer period of time results in better retention. Here's a link to the Dunlosky et. al. review, "Improving Students' Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions from Cognitive and Educational Psychology"

Don't read the entire thing, just skip down to section 9 on page 32. Here are two highlights if your time is limited:

1) A statistics course switched from a six-month semester to a two-month semester. The professors measured student performance before and after. The students in the longer course outperformed the students in the shorter course on the final exam.

2) Students who were taught Spanish vocabulary over a space of four months outperformed students who were taught the same material over shorter intervals. The total amount of instruction time was equal between each group.

Your plan is solid for getting our students a two-year degree in the shortest amount of time possible, but it's also going to increase the probability of their academic failure upon transfer.
The only obvious cost is that there is more wastage. You have to have the equivalent of an extra final exam/registration week every "semester".

I'm a bit unclear about how you would get 40 weeks of teaching on a 32-week contract, but more power to you! Do you have a system where the faculty must teach part of the summer? We have faculty that choose not to teach at all in the summer, and the younger faculty and some adjuncts are thankful for the chance to make extra money for loans and house payments with a summer overload.

I do like the idea of making my contract year a bit different from the norm. I've thought it out many times. The ony thing preventing it is that it is illegal at colleges and universities in this state because the model assumes summers are off for research at the universities and we have to follow that. Contract periods are set by the state. Probably a no-win for students as well, because many of them have seasonal work in the summer while others take huge loads.

First, my college does have 8 week semesters WITHIN the regular semester. (They are more like 7.5 weeks, because of the need to overlap final exams and grade processing before the next one starts.) They synchonize, so there are no awkward transfer situations where a CC semester ends a few days after a university's semester starts. And many of those students register for both 8-week semesters at the start, although some start the year half-way through fall or don't decide what to do until they get their grades.

Second, although my experience is limited to summer 6-week classes, math and gen-ed science does better in short semesters than your other correspondents seem to think. The reason is that the classes meet more days per week. You can ask your IR folks to check, but MWF math classes always do better than TTh classes. Our summer semester is 5 days per week, and there is little drop off from Friday. I and others have very high success rates in that format. In contrast, they forget everything from Thursday to Tuesday, so Tuesday can be like starting from scratch. It's like teaching one day a week. (Even having a quiz on Tuesday doesn't help because they forgot what they need to cram for the quiz.) The continuity of a 4-day or 5-day class schedule makes learning strategies like quiz/lecture/example on Monday followed by active learning on Tuesday - rinse and repeat - very effective.

I don't know what we would do with calculus and physics, although four 7+1-week terms might not be all that different from three 10+1-week quarters and could be better than our two 14+1 week semesters. (We rarely get 75 teaching days in a semester; 70 to 72 is more the norm.) You can package the material into units that fit any calendar. The problem with doing that is you wouldn't have room for a third class.
What's an "ALP section"? I've never heard that acronym before.
I've been teaching at a university with 10-week quarters (plus 1 week for exams), where the students typically take 3 courses at once for over 30 years now. It is perfectly feasible to squeeze a 15-week course into 10 weeks, but a lot of faculty don't bother and end up teaching at the more leisurely pace of a semester system, with the result that there is often considerable credit inflation.

I suspect that the problem would be even bigger with 8-week semesters, especially if the faculty consisted mainly of freeway flyers who also taught in 15-week semesters. It takes some effort to adapt teaching styles to a faster pace, and not everyone manages to do it.

I recently split one of my courses into two quarters (going from 5+2 units in one quarter to 4 units in each of two quarters). The splitting was done to reduce the lab time per week, so that we could schedule all the needed lab sections, but it had the effect of greater student comprehension, as they had more time to digest the material.
In response to GasStation--I was teaching at a quarter school that did not devote additional time per week to instruction as compared to semesters (e.g., 3 hours of class per week). The faculty there still tried to teach a semester worth of material in 10 weeks.

It was terrible for students in math classes
We've done this for the majority of courses in our adult degree completion program at a four-year institution. The rest of the institution (traditional students) still follows a sixteen week semester, but we've found that offering two eight-week courses accomplishes exactly what you outline above. Working adult students can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and they complete more courses in a shorter timeframe. But I can imagine that doing it across the board for an entire institution might come with some of the problems other commenters have outlined.
Arrupe College, Loyola University of Chicago's two-year college (serving a few hundred 18-20 year olds, many of whom have multiple responsibilities), did 5 8-week terms for their first year. Partway through the year, the (small number of) faculty decided to return to a 16-16-8 schedule. Now in its second year, students attend (and faculty teach) year round, but they can pick and choose the classes to do over 16 weeks and the classes to do over 8.
For the record, our 8-week classes meet for more minutes per week so the total of minutes of instruction per credit is the same. They typically round up, so those classes sometimes get more class time PLUS the advantage of less overhead time (the wasted minute or three at the start of each class) for every hour of actual class time.

If a class in a 10-week quarter only meets three hours per week and gets less done than a 15-week semester class, that is OK. We only give them 2/3 of a semester's worth of credit when it transfers. It is a 2-credit class to us. (We go to one decimal place when it comes out to be a fraction.) It can be messy, so warn students about a mid-year transfer from semester to quarter or vice versa!
We killed off Physical Chemistry in the summer because six weeks four times a week was totally indigestable for the material that had to be covered
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