By Bruna Pelucchi Addison, Ph.D., Senior Instructional Technologist, UW-Platteville TTC
Courses in a compressed (also called accelerated or condensed) format, especially those held in inter-sessions, are becoming increasingly common. Their popularity is due to several reasons.
- Students can catch up with their graduation requirements.
- Instructors tend to select the more essential learning objectives. This, together with smaller class sizes and reduced academic load, facilitates students’ focus. Conversely, a longer class session allows more time for more in-depth discussion.
- Smaller enrollment encourages stronger connections among students and with the instructor.
However, many instructors are concerned that these formats sacrifice academic rigor and learning in favor of student convenience. By using the term “compressed”, we imply that the traditional “normal” semester-long format is the most effective approach, despite the lack of any specific evidence for it. To quote educator Craig Swenson: “Academic calendars designed for an agrarian society are anachronisms in the digital age, where more than half of all students work full-time, year-round, and instruction can take place regardless of time and place.” (Swenson, 2003)
Since the evidence indicates that effective learning requires time-spread practice, it seems reasonable to assume that cutting the course length will have a negative result on learning. However, studies that have examined the efficacy of condensed courses, have either found no differences between the two formats or determined that the condensed one is more effective. Several confounding variables are likely to contribute to these mixed results, including the variety of length of condensed courses, the course logistics (such as differences in instructor, class size, or cohort of students) as well as the measurements used (grades, retention, or comparison of pre- and post-tests). (Walsh, 2019)
Now the question becomes, what are the characteristics that make a condensed course a successful one?
Student Perspective for Best Practices
Professor Patricia A. Scott (2003) analyzed the attributes of high-quality intensive courses and found that when they are not carefully designed and planned, students can find them tedious and boring and might forgo good practices like in-depth reading and creating drafts. Likewise, instructors may feel overwhelmed, thereby reducing the quality of their feedback. Additionally, when teaching a writing-intensive course, the time frame may be too short to accommodate a typical cycle of drafting/feedback/revision of papers. Based on students’ feedback and direct classroom observation, these are the main critical factors for success:
- Instructor characteristics: Enthusiasm for discipline; demonstrates expertise and teaching experience; good communication skills with a willingness to receive and use feedback from students; a student-centered learning environment, showing that the teacher cares.
- Teaching methodologies: variety and creativity through the use of active learning techniques; experiential learning; discussions with thought-provoking prompts; demonstrations; efficient organization of content; emphasis on depth over breadth to avoid information overload.
- Classroom environment: Fostering peer relationships and teacher-student connections; relaxed atmosphere; decreased classroom size.
- Assessment choices: substituting a few high-stake assignments with frequent and smaller ones; scaffolding, strict alignment of learning objectives to activities and assessments; authentic assignments with a variety of submission modalities (presentations, videos, essays).
Instructor Perspective for Best Practices
A survey of high-rated instructors (Kops, 2014) identified the following best practices for teaching in a compressed format.
- Organize ahead of time
- prioritize courses that do not require in-depth conceptual understanding
- avoid teaching more than one course per session
- adopt comprehensive planning instead of prepping on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis
- Redesign the course
- restructure and adjust the course content to better fit the compressed format, focusing on the basics while removing superfluous content and trimming the frills
- utilize backward design to build learning activities and assignments that are carefully aligned once the must-know learning objectives are identified
- move complex topics to the beginning of the term
- employ more interactivity and in-class group work to keep students engaged over longer meetings
- include pre-class readings and prep work as homework
- maximize opportunities for practice and feedback, increasing long-term retention of knowledge
- Reconfigure assignments
- prioritize low-stake and frequent assignments with a clear routine; this is especially important if teaching online
- assign lengthier readings over the weekends or consider substituting reading a book with watching a relevant video
- carefully consider if the time frame can realistically allow students to write a research paper involving primary sources
- Capitalize on continuity and smaller classes, especially when teaching F2F
- Immerse the students continually with relevant materials. This requires less review and recall, so you can cut down on recaps and allow more time for assigned tasks
- get to know your students with informal introductions
- Support(This is especially critical when teaching online.)
- be available in multiple ways
- provide timely feedback and communicate frequently
- offer guides and notes and time-management guidance
Workload Estimator: It can be difficult to adapt your learning activities to a compressed time frame. The risk is to underestimate how much work you are going to require of your students. This Workload estimator is a useful tool, designed by B. Barre, A. Brown, and J. Esarye from the Center for the Advancement of Teaching Wake at Forest University. The calculation is based, in part, on reading and writing assignments, discussion posts, exams, and class meetings.
Kops, W. J. (2014). Teaching compressed-format courses: Teacher-based best practices. Canadian Journal of University Continuing Education, 40(1).
Scott (Scott, P. A. (2003). Attributes of high-quality intensive courses. New directions for adult and continuing education, 2003(97), 29-38.
Swenson, C. (2003). Accelerated and traditional formats: Using learning as a criterion for quality. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 97, 83–92.
Walsh, K. P., Sanders, M., & Gadgil, S. (2019). Equivalent but not the same: Teaching and learning in full semester and condensed summer courses. College Teaching, 67(2), 138-149