This week finds me restructuring a traditional 14-week semester-based online course into a 5-week accelerated summer session (also online). What to do, what to do? Keep the tests but make them worth more points? Cram three discussion board questions into each week? Or two, because three would be too much? If I cut back from two essay assignments to one, am I being unfair – to either the traditional fall/spring students who have to do two or to the summer students who won’t get the educational value from writing both? Decisions, decisions, decisions (and advice is more than welcome!).
In helping myself understand the difference between the pace of a fall/spring vs. accelerated summer course, I did a little research and came across this fascinating article by Austin & Gustafson (2006) from the Journal of Economics and Finance Education titled Impact of Course Length on Student Learning. The results of this study suggest that, controlling for a variety of variables, intensive courses (like a summer session) do tend to result in higher learning than traditional 14-16 week semester courses.
Perhaps summer sessions simply “lower the bar” (which is what I am afraid of doing as I’m restructuring my traditional course to fit in 5 weeks)? Not so, according to these authors. They look at the future performance of these students as well and conclude that the higher grades more likely represent a true increase in knowledge rather than a lowered bar.
This finding is particularly interesting to me as I teach online at both a state university that operates on the traditional semester system and at a non-traditional online school that uses 5-week terms. I have always wondered about the difference in learning between these two groups and here is one study that offers some evidence that they are equivalent or that the accelerated term is somehow more effective than the traditional one.
One of the reasons for this finding, I think, is that students take fewer accelerated courses at a time (maybe one summer course, for example, or two at the most compared to five courses in a full traditional semester load) allowing accelerated learners to immerse themselves in one topic, which is consistent with what we know in neuroscience/neuropsychology – that deeper, more connected, immersive learning = better learning.
Thoughts? Please leave a comment below!
Well, I am certainly looking forward to a more thorough reading of this article so thank you for sharing it. I’ve wondered about this issue a lot especially as more of the large public universities have been following the lead of some private, less rigorous, institutions toward the shortened terms. My university’s policy of allowing students to take up to 4 classes each 7.5 week session may be a problem and could counteract the enhanced learning described by this article.
I’m glad you found this post and article helpful, Sharon! Its certainly is hopeful to read that trends toward what seem to be “more efficient” or “more competitive” curriculum design does not necessarily correlate with decreased education or learning for the students.
I am always suspicious of economists conducting educational research. But I can imagine a more concentrated course being more effective for some students. One point I would ask though is whether the summer course students finished their concentrated course closer to the start of the subsequent course (that was used to measure whether greater learning had actually been achieved) compared to the regular session course students who might have suffered from “summer forgetting”?
Good points, Wayne 😉 Yes, if I was focused on a class every day for 3-5 weeks solid and then someone asked me what I remembered I would certainly remember a point or two regardless of how much I’d “learned.”