Ask any hardworking student about his or her college experience, and it will likely be compared to a juggling act. Traditional semester scheduling is resulting in overwhelm and burnout, even for the most dedicated students. Professors, too, are feeling the burden of perpetual multi-tasking. Thankfully, forward thinkers are recognizing this trend and springing to action.
A handful of U.S. colleges are bucking the semester system and embracing block scheduling. Instead of dividing their time and attention between multiple courses for 15 weeks, students and professors are fully immersing themselves in one comprehensive course, broken into three- to five-hour blocks of time for 18 days.
Cornell College is one block scheduling success story. The Mount Vernon, Iowa-based liberal arts college received overwhelmingly positive feedback in response to its One Course At A Time program. The nontraditional curriculum allows faculty and students to fully focus on one course without the worry of running out of class time or rushing across campus to an exam. Professors are given the freedom of flexibility, and encouraged to think outside the box by including on and off-campus field work on the syllabus.
Classes Designed to Meet Students’ Needs
In most institutions, professors must consider the limited time available per class period when creating syllabi. To make matters worse, faculty members must divide their attention among several courses each semester. Given very little time to personalize each course, professors are forced to teach the material as quickly as possible, despite the desire to deliver the information in a meaningful, memorable manner.
“On a traditional academic calendar, the professor may have 50 minutes three times per week to effectively teach a subject,” says Professor of Psychology, Melinda Green. “At Cornell we have up to four hours per day to immerse students in one subject.”
For Professor of Politics, David Yamanishi, the One Course At A Time curriculum is a game changer. “The block plan lets professors fit the class schedule to the needs of the class, rather than fit the needs of the class to the schedule,” he explains. “As a simple example, I start my Human Rights class with the film ‘Judgment at Nuremberg.’ On a traditional calendar, it would take almost two weeks of classes to watch the whole movie, during which my students (and possibly I) would forget why we were watching it. At Cornell, I can simply schedule a session long enough to watch it—or, if I’m feeling generous, with a break for lunch at the intermission.”
Students are Engaged in Active Learning without Distractions
Just like professors, students in traditional classrooms often find themselves in a virtual tug-of-war—forced to choose which courses to focus on and which ones to let slide. This continuous inner conflict keeps students on-edge and unable to fully concentrate on the task at hand. Block scheduling eases this burden by promoting active learning both in and out of the classroom.
“On any other calendar, students would be taking many classes at once, and would naturally prioritize the work for the classes that matter most to them, and must divide their attention three or four ways,” Professor Yamanishi shares. “With One Course At A Time, even in lower division classes, it’s as if every class consists only of majors who have no other classes to dilute their attention.”
Students and Professors Utilize Time Wisely
Along with increased focus and immersion, block scheduling saves students and professors time. Cornell Professor, Brian Johns, points out the wasted time associated with a traditional college course load. The Engineering Professor lists three major time-saving qualities he appreciates about the One Course At a Time program, noting that block scheduling means students don’t have to:
- Move between rooms to attend multiple daily courses.
- Waste time waiting after one class for a different class to begin later in the day.
- Deconstruct and move a project or lab setup at the end of the day since each course is allocated an exclusive classroom.
According to Professor Johns, students gain 120 hours per academic year (three standard work weeks), compared to the regular college student. “The inefficient time segments that are rooted in the semester schedule may seem negligible on a day-to-day basis, but these aggregate to a sizeable amount of wasted time.”
Block Schedules Prepare Students for the Real World
During the college application process, students and their parents tend to focus on academics and the overall college experience, but often fail to consider the importance of preparing for life beyond college.
Block scheduling encourages collaboration in a fast-paced, project-oriented environment—similar to what college graduates embark on when entering the workforce. In fact, depending on their area of study, Cornell students spend an entire block in the field and/or conducting research and experiments.
“I believe that the purpose of college is to give students the experiences they need to succeed in the real world,” Physics Professor Derin Sherman explains. “Cornell College’s academic calendar is ideally suited to this task because it allows students to engage in more real-life experiences than they could under the semester system.”
“One Course At At Time is high engagement, high accountability, and high commitment. You really see students grow and mature, even over the course of just 18 days,” according to Santhi Hejeebu, Professor of Economics and Business at Cornell. She adapted the live case-study method of business education to take full advantage of the One Course schedule.
Professor Hejeebu’s students spend a few days in the classroom, then they go to the worksite and interview the business partner. Their remaining time is focused on learning about the industry and organization, and addressing the problem at hand. Students gain the hands-on experience of working in a ‘real-world’ business environment.
Block Scheduling Advantages Outweigh Minor Challenges
As with any successful program, the shift to block scheduling included some challenges. Both preparation and execution of the schedule is time-intensive and all-consuming for faculty.
Still, the many advantages of block schedules far exceed any drawbacks; the proof is in the feedback and positive outcomes. One example is Professor Green’s course at Cornell, in which students conduct original research alongside some of the leading researchers in the U.S. Not only do these students learn valuable skills to conduct graduate and professional research; they go on to use that knowledge in their careers. “Many of my former students have secured professional research positions or have been accepted to graduate programs with a strong research component,” Professor Green notes.
While some are hesitant to deviate from a traditional schedule, many are discovering that both professors and students are benefiting from the unconventional structure of shortened, in-depth courses.
Faculty noticed a marked improvement in student motivation—along with increased productivity—since the switch to block courses. As a result, students are more engaged, which can lead to improved retention rates. Professor Sherman concludes: “[Block scheduling] gives students the time to dig down deep and really learn about a topic—to find out what’s exciting and interesting—and then permits the students to go beyond the boundaries of the original assignment.”