Tuesday, April 24, 2012

One Course at a Time

A few years ago, my college started a January intersession in which students take a single course for two weeks.  It was a runaway hit; enrollments have grown every year, course completion rates have hovered around 90 -- off the charts by community college standards -- and faculty feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

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?