Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The Uses of January

I’m wondering if there are other productive ways of using January.

Like many, my college doesn’t start the Spring semester until after Martin Luther King day.  (This year, it’s actually the week after that.)  And the Fall semester ends before Christmas.  The college runs a smattering of intersession classes, and the popularity of that format is growing, but it’s a small fraction of a semester’s offerings.  I think there’s room for growth in intersession, and I’m happy to work on that, but I’m starting to wonder if there aren’t also other things to try.

(I’ll have to stipulate here that I’m writing in the context of a community college.  We don’t typically send large contingents to the MLA or AHA conferences, which I know absorb a good deal of oxygen in other places.  We usually send more faculty to TESOL than to the MLA.)

Has anyone out there experimented with running structured (but ungraded) review sessions in January?

I’m thinking particularly of courses that move in progressive sequences, like math.  A student who limped across the finish line in, say, basic algebra may harbor a lingering doubt about being fully prepared for intermediate or college algebra.  (Names change, but you get the idea.)  For the student who escaped the Fall with a low passing grade and some lingering doubts, I’m wondering if a January catchup/review session might help them stay on track in the Spring.

(Alternately, for the student who failed but came close in the Fall, I could envision an intensive review leading to a second shot at a final exam in January.  The benefit would be that the student wouldn’t lose an entire semester by retaking the course in the Spring.)

It’s a variation on the “summer bridge” idea, but somewhat looser.  Rather than a graded course -- which requires a certain number of hours, a set of assignments, and all the usual trappings -- a noncredit review could be adjusted to meet demonstrated student need.  If you only need, say, eight hours of review to get up to speed, good for you.  

The academic in me likes the idea of using the otherwise-fallow January session to increase time on task.  Having students who struggle with a subject get some time to focus intently on it seems like a pretty low-risk strategy, especially if the students aren’t charged for it.  Worst case, they’re no better off than when they started.  Best case, they move from “doomed” to “back on track.”  

The devil, of course, is in the details.  

Pay actually isn’t the major issue; our faculty contract sets out an hourly rate for intersession work.  If the reviews became hugely popular, the cost could become a problem, but I’d hope we’d get at least some of it back in improved student retention (and therefore tuition revenue).  

The question that jumps out at me, not having tried something like this on any major scale, is customization.  Assuming that different students have different weaknesses, maintaining some sort of customization while scaling up could be a challenge.  Presumably, technology could help to some degree, but I’d expect to see real limits on that, at least for now.

So a question for my wise and worldly readers: have you seen a relatively informal, but still successful, January review system?  If so, how did it work?  Anything constructive would be appreciated.