It’s the end of May, which means that many of you have finished teaching for the academic year and are already embarking on a summer of relaxation and leisure (ha-ha). Others, however, will be back in the classroom teaching compressed-format summer courses.
Whether they are taught in the summer or at other times of the year, these short intensified courses are increasingly a standard feature at North American universities. Cramming a whole semester’s worth of material into as little as three weeks often appeals to older students, to students with inflexible work schedules or family commitments, and to those trying to make up credits for various reasons.
From a teaching standpoint, I’ve always been skeptical of their value. I’ve never taught a compressed course myself, but I guess I always assumed that the quality would suffer. Isn’t it important to give students time for complex ideas to sink in? What about the benefit of repeated exposure to material? What about in-depth research assignments?
It turns out that my knee-jerk objections were quite wrong. In a recent paper published in the Canadian Journal of University Continuing Education, William Kops, a professor of general studies at the University of Manitoba, surveyed the literature on compressed-format courses and found a surprising amount of unanimity.
There’s not a huge amount of research into the quality of these courses, but what there is almost entirely supports the conclusion that they are as good as semester-long courses. Using a variety of metrics, researchers over the past 20 years have concluded that intensive courses do no disservice to students, and may ever offer some advantages. For example, students tend to be more focused, discussions deeper, and teacher-student relationships closer in compressed courses than in traditional ones.
In addition to his literature review, Kops also conducted a qualitative study of compressed-format courses. He interviewed instructors from two large public universities — one in California and one in Canada — to try to discover some best practices for teaching these courses. The answers that Kops elicited provide a road map for anyone embarking on teaching an intensive course this year and suggest, to me at least, that there may be reason to question the primacy of the current semester model in our thinking. Here are some of the instructors’ suggestions:
Prioritize. Most of the faculty that Kops surveyed reported that they were unable to cover the same amount of material in a compressed course as they would have over a full semester. With a severely reduced number of meetings, syllabus construction has to start with brass tacks: What do students absolutely have to learn in this course? Any material that would be nice for them to know, but not essential, will probably have to be jettisoned. In one exercise that Kops mentions, instructors imagine that they have to teach the whole course in three hours: What’s most important? What can be left out?
Capitalize on longer class meetings. What they lack in the number of sessions, compressed courses can make up for in the length — and potentially the intensity — of individual sessions. The most successful teachers Kops spoke with were able to capitalize on the long class meetings in a number of ways. Perhaps most notably, they realized that having more concentrated time at each session meant they didn’t have to review and reintroduce topics as often. They didn’t have to spend the first 15 minutes of every class recapitulating what they did in the previous class. Long class sessions are particularly well-suited for focusing on process and working on the sorts of problems that you might normally send students home to tackle. Here you can help students as they work, and discuss the issues that come up as they occur.
Break up long assignments. There may not be time in a compressed course for a traditional weeks-long research assignment, so successful instructors often break long assignments into smaller tasks. Designing a series of short assignments that build on one another takes advantage of the frequent and lengthy class meetings and, again, focuses the students on process. As important as their finished products is the work they do to get there. Having students turn in drafts, research exercises, and other “incomplete” material allows you to encourage metacognitive learning throughout the course, particularly when paired with regular feedback.
Clear the decks. Finally, many instructors reported that it was important to approach intensive courses by clearing their calendars of other commitments. Compressed-format courses are usually offered in the summer, when you’re not teaching other courses, and when there aren’t as many service duties to fulfill (like attending departmental meetings). You’re only teaching the course for a few weeks; it’s worth giving it your all. The extra time you can offer students — whether it be grading their work or conducting extended office hours — will go a long way toward making the course successful.
When I started looking into compressed-format courses, I assumed that they would inevitably compromise student learning. After reading up on the subject, I’ve not only lost that prejudice, I’m starting to question the traditional format for college classes. Our current system of semester-long courses surely wasn’t designed with much forethought. If we could start from scratch, what format — time span, number of meetings, duration of meetings — would we come up with? I don’t know the answer, but I wouldn’t rule out something that looked like an intensive summer course.