This post originally appeared as a column in The Diamondback
This week is the week I hit my midsemester slump.
Every semester, there comes a time when I feel drained, all of my courses seem dull, work seems rote and I barely manage to drag myself to class (much less study). I see the same drained expression on the faces of friends and classmates semester after semester, year after year.
Lately, I’ve realized this doesn’t have to happen. In my own experience, I slump sometime between the excitement at the beginning of the semester and the mad rush of finals and projects at the end. There are a few weeks of dead time that hit at about week eight that aren’t fun or productive. That got me thinking: What if courses were shorter?
If my class ended next week, I surely wouldn’t be in this slump - the motivation from exams would get me off my butt and back to the books. A 10-week semester could still cover a substantial amount of material — maybe even the same as our 16-week one.
So then my next thought is: Why 10 weeks? Why any fixed length period at all? Subjects don’t all fit into the same length of time. Some areas might need only three weeks of lectures, and I know some engineering courses that could certainly use a few more weeks to cover additional material.
Of course there are logistical challenges. There are some good reasons to cram or stretch material into the time given. Credits would be tricky to determine for very short or long classes, and there could be strange problems with the start and end dates overlapping and students ending up with far too many or too few courses at a time.
Course registration would become a very tough problem, rather than a mildly frustrating obstacle. All of the calendar cycles built on top of the semester model would have to change — payment for classes, parking registration, summer jobs and internships, admission for new and transfer students — since pretty much everyone’s entire calendar is built along the semester cycle.
But imagine if two- or three-week intensive courses were available year-round, instead of only in the summer and winter? Failing a class wouldn’t throw off your entire life plan. Maybe instead of having to take a whole extra semester or year, you’d be able to graduate when you planned. You could plan time off when you need it — not just during the three or four times a year when everyone is scheduled to take a week off. Professors could teach the material that is necessary and not waste any effort or time.
I wouldn’t have to slog through dead, unproductive weeks. I could take my exams now, please, and start taking new courses.
If we were designing a system from scratch, and our top priority was undergraduate education, we would provide flexible-length courses and build the other systems on top of that assumption. The credit system would have more variability. Payment would be different. Four-year plans would leave more room for failure and adjustment. Admissions would be rolling all year; accepted students would register for courses as they figured out their living situations and were ready to take classes.
I don’t know if the university president or senate would think of this as the type of innovation they are trying to encourage at this university. I don’t know if anyone in the administration is questioning the fundamentals of the way we do school here. It takes a lot of effort just to keep everything running the way it is, and there are some major changes being implemented now.
If I were an administrator intent on making flexible-length courses available, I would look to build on the successes we have had in the past. Summer and winter classes, particularly short online or blended learning courses, make good candidates to try with midsemester start dates. I would look at the courses within the existing semester system that start late or end early: How do they work? Could such courses be expanded?
I would try to find the ear of one of the deans; hopefully there would be one who is open to innovative ideas. I would try to pilot a semester full of short courses — five three-week courses is the length of a semester. With demonstrated success under my belt, I would advocate hard for more courses to be offered intensively. The next steps would be spreading the option to different departments, advertising to students and solving all those pesky logistical problems whose solutions give rise to the bureaucracy of higher education.
The real world doesn’t operate on a semester basis. Why should we?
Update After posting this, someone linked me to Colorado College, which successfully uses a block plan of 3.5 weeks. It seems like it works well for the school and the students. If you know any more, send them my way!