Close your eyes and picture a college classroom. If you are like most people, you envision a room with four walls and rows of desks with students seated in chairs diligently taking notes as the professor stands in front of them lecturing about the latest assigned book reading. The group convenes for 1-3 hours; then all shuffle off to their next classes.
While this may describe a typical college class, is this really the optimal learning environment today?
Let’s look at the challenges associated with the traditional college classroom and what learning would be like if the classroom wasn’t a room at all.
Downsides to the Traditional College Classroom
The traditional classroom poses several challenges for college students who are trying to grasp new subjects, develop professional skills and transition to successful careers. Some of these include:
- Students take multiple courses at one time. Since their focus is divided, students are not fully-immersed in a single subject to achieve a deeper level of understanding.
- Classroom learning tends to be more passive (listening, note taking) rather than active (discussion, collaboration).
- Traditional classrooms emphasize rote memory of theory and principles rather than practical application (and skill development) in real-world settings.
- Course topics are often presented through the lens of a single discipline or department rather than through a multidisciplinary approach.
- The classroom environment can be restrictive, boring or even distracting to some students whose learning style isn’t a good fit with this approach.
- Because the the class schedule constraints, learning is teacher-focused (teacher conveying information) rather than student-focused (where students discover meaning through experiences and problem-solving).
- Learning tends to be individualized with fewer opportunities to collaborate with fellow students.
- Students often do not build close relationships with their professors, as professors have many students in multiple classes and fewer chances for meaningful connections.
Envisioning a Different Classroom
Some colleges and universities are breaking out of the traditional classroom mold to take an alternative approach to student learning. Colleges are working to adapt to an ever-changing world that offers instant information on almost any subject and to ensure their students leave school with practical and useable knowledge relevant in today’s competitive workplace.
In a recent article on the Future of College in Fast Company, Michele Weise, a senior research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute, commented, “Students don’t need a person to stand at the front of a room full of hundreds of students and lecture. Now, because information is everywhere, it has to be more about a special learning experience.”
To embrace this new way of thinking, new programs are emerging at colleges and universities to immerse students deeper into topics, provide use of real-life work tools, and enhance critical thinking and problem-solving skills through collaboration. Some examples of innovative programs include:
- Block scheduling, which allows students to take only one class at a time for a specific time period.
- Moving the learning experience into actual workplaces or the community.
- Minimizing the number of students per class for greater collaboration.
Institutions that are implementing these types of programs are seeing positive benefits for their students, including:
1. Enhanced professor relationships.
In many block schedule programs, professors have the ability to form closer relationships with each student, understand how they think, watch their skills develop and even collaborate on projects. Not only is this a meaningful experience for professors, but students also benefit by gaining strong mentors and recommendations.
2. A more focused learning experience.
Students taking part in single-course programs can devote themselves fully to one subject for a shorter time period allowing deeper learning.
3. Greater collaboration and teamwork..
In many multidisciplinary programs, students learn to collaborate with their professor and fellow students and approach topics from multiple angles. This level of collaboration helps build relationships and prepares them for the post-graduation world where many jobs require problem-solving and teamwork.
Exploring the ‘One Course At A Time’ Experience
To better understand the impact that these new programs and learning experiences offer students, we took a closer look at an initiative called “One Course At A Time” at Cornell College, a small liberal arts college in Mount Vernon, Iowa. Their program allows students to take one class at a time for 18 days. Instead of using a typical semester system, Cornell College has 8 blocks each school year.
To understand how it works, consider the example of an entrepreneurship course taught by visiting faculty member Andy Stoll.
In the course, students were challenged to identify a problem on campus or in the community and find creative ways to solve it. With no textbook, students learned via guest speakers, field trips, networking events, and real-life problem-solving. In the end, students traveled to the Innovation Expo in Cedar Rapids to present their final projects alongside dozens of other companies.
“We had 18 days. We had to get to work. You had to time manage; you had so many constraints; you had to do a lot in so little time. It made it real-life,” says Corey, a member of the class.
Fellow classmate Adrianne added, “This class has just reemphasized and opened my eyes to take risks, take opportunities, not be afraid to try different things that maybe aren’t already there, and the importance of networking because you never know where it’s going to get you.”
You can learn more about their experience in the video below
Why Students (and Parents) Should Care About the Scheduling Approach
The college classroom experience means more today than ever before. Between 2004 and 2014, there was a 17 percent increase in enrollment at U.S. colleges, representing greater competition for jobs after graduation or entrance into graduate school. As a four-year college degree becomes the norm, students will have to do more to stand out both to gain college acceptance and land jobs upon graduation.
Employers are looking for candidates with passion, drive, practical skills, and real-life experiences,not just people with a high GPA. Students may want to consider alternative college experiences that set them apart, such as the One Course at a Time program at Cornell College.
While these new,non-traditional programs may not be ideal for every student, they offer new options for students who thrive on a more focused learning experience.