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CAUT Bulletin Archives

June 2011

Compressed Courses Shortchange Students

Can students learn as much in a compressed course format? Several lines of reasoning suggest not, says Jim Clark.

Many universities, my own included, offer compressed courses, generally to appeal to a broader range of students or to benefit from the brief availability of resource people other than regular faculty. This may involve block scheduling, in which students take successive, intensive courses over short periods during a term. In the extreme, students may receive half- or full-course credit for classes that meet for only one or two weeks. Both pedagogical and political considerations suggest faculty and their professional associations should be skeptical about the legitimacy of such efforts.

The critical pedagogical question is whether students can learn as much in a compressed course format, sometimes as short as a week or two. Several lines of reasoning suggest not. Consider trying to teach the content of a half course in a single week. It is extremely unlikely that one week allows sufficient time to cover the amount of content normally included in a full-term course, let alone a full-year course meriting six credits.

Such abbreviated courses may not even strive to mimic full-length courses; hence, they are given alternative labels (e.g., intensive institutes) to denote their special status. But a week of speakers, no matter how gifted, involves an amount of material many faculty would be discomfited to cover in a full term.

Simple calculations illustrate the implausibility that a week is sufficient to allow the amount of teaching and learning that occurs in a regular course. Class time alone for a regular term course over a 12-week period is equivalent to at least 30 hours (12 weeks x 2.5 hours), which means a minimum of six hours of lectures or other class activity during each day of a one-week compressed semester-length course, or at least 12 hours a day for a full-year course.

But learning does not occur only inside the classroom. Student counselling services re­commend two hours of studying for each hour of class time, adding an additional 60 hours or more in an already abbreviated time. Even allowing for the fact that today’s student studies less than in the past and well below the recommended time formula (estimated in a recent report to be about three hours a week per course for the average full-time student), there’s still a requirement of another 36 hours or so. Quite the workload for a three-credit course, and double for a six-credit course.

Even if class and study time were magically equated to that of a regular term, well-established principles of learning negate any possibility that students in time-compressed courses would learn and remember as much as in traditional courses. One such principle is the spacing or distributed practice effect, which states that learning experiences spread over time promote better long-term retention of information. Severely compressed courses do not allow such spaced learning.

A related and well-established principle is that regular testing of learning and knowledge improves long-term memory for new material, again something that is impossible in an abbreviated format. Diverse other effects (e.g., interference effects, primacy effects) also raise similar questions about highly compressed formats of instruction.

Empirical tests of alternative formats addressing these issue is limited. Researchers have generally explored non-traditional formats not nearly as radical as those envisioned here. They often consider only end-of-course learning, rather than the long-term retention that is of primary interest; and the radically time-compressed classes may have no regular term equivalent that allows meaningful comparisons.

Notwithstanding these limitations, the relevant literature inspires little confidence that time-compressed courses work well. For example, substantial studies on students who take alternative or block scheduling in high school are generally not supportive of its effects. Several findings on learning outcomes show poorer long-term retention and students performing worse in university science courses.

These pedagogical considerations alone should give faculty and students pause for thought. But the political dangers of time-compressed courses, besides the lack of student learning, should also concern faculty.

One feature of some compressed courses is the “instructor content” — use of guest lecturers who bring special expertise to the theme of the institute. Such lecturers may have few ties with the institution and are unlikely to be concerned about the consequences of these courses for the academic integrity of the host university or to contribute to the myriad other services faculty provide to their home institutions.

Compressed courses thus exacerbate the excessive use of nontenured faculty to teach courses and continue a longstanding trend to reduce the role of and demand for tenured faculty. A recent report in the U.S. shows the past decade has seen a nine per cent reduction in tenured faculty at a time when enrollments increased by 27 per cent.

Portraying a time-compressed curriculum as fully consistent with a traditional course timeframe (i.e., meriting the same academic credit) also serves to decrease the value of regular courses. Apparently, faculty cover so little material in semester-length classes that the same content can be delivered and learned in a single week.

Although this supposed equivalence is false, it is hard to discredit given involved faculty and institutions provide equal credit for the course work, whether carried out over the space of one week, a semester, or an academic year.

Furthermore, administrators and faculty members who strive for this minimalist approach to university teaching contribute to the climate of increasing pessimism under which some faculty already operate. It reflects an “anything goes” attitude in efforts to increase enrollments and promote institutional images, irrespective of academic standards and student learning.

Time-compressed courses also feed anti-university sentiment in the wider community. Although less prevalent in Canada than in the U.S., segments of our society hold distorted and negative views of university faculty. In a recent presentation to a government body, for example, I was asked about the impression that faculty only work a few days a week and take extended time off during the summer. And some have equally negative and stereotypic perceptions of students as “coddled.”

Such sentiments are only fueled by anything that gives the impression that the amount of work involved in teaching and learning a regular course can be compressed into a single week. Faculty and students should be finished with a semester’s work in three weeks or less, and a degree afforded in a year or so.

Faculty, students and administrators are attracted to shorter compressed courses for diverse reasons. The work of teaching and learning is quickly over in the abbreviated time of class meetings, allowing faculty to focus on their other scholarly activities and students to work at outside jobs or gain additional credits without the effort required in regular classes. Administrators may like the “efficiency” of short courses and the image presented by institutes involving high-profile instructors.

Although there may be ways to mitigate some of these limitations (e.g., reading assignments that students are tested on at the start of the sessions), the numerous shortcomings and challenges of compressed courses should not be underestimated. At the very least, these novel and potentially damaging initiatives require proper evaluation of students’ academic development — something rarely done in any serious way — and should be used judiciously or not at all.

Jim Clark is professor of psychology at the University of Winnipeg.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily CAUT.

CAUT welcomes articles between 800 and 1,500 words on contemporary issues directly related to post-secondary education. Articles should not deal with personal grievance cases nor with purely local issues. They should not be libellous or defam­a­tory, abusive of individuals or groups, and should not make unsubstantiated allegations. Articles may be in English or French, but will not be translated. Publication is at the sole discretion of CAUT. Commentary authors will be contacted only if their articles are accepted for publica­tion. Commentary submissions should be sent to Liza Duhaime.