Is an Academic Calendar Change a Good Idea?

Recently our college’s Vice President for Learning presented the Deans and Department Chairs with an idea he has for improving student retention. He wants us to move from a more traditional academic calendar of two 15-week semesters that run during the spring and fall to two-7.5 week terms in each of the current 15-week semesters. To him, since “life happens,” he believes we need to provide our students with more opportunities to complete what they have started. By having students take two to three classes per condensed term they will have fewer distractions or as he puts it “five things to focus on rather than eight.” With more time to spend on fewer classes and if a “life event” occurs during one of the 7.5 week terms, they will still take some credits away with them rather than none if this “life event” had occurred in the 15-week term. Since our retention rate is currently second in the state, most of us are a bit curious why a calendar that isn’t broken needs to be fixed.

The faculty’s response has not been positive, which has led to a daily litany of emails and hall meetings to discuss why this calendar change is even being considered. The responses are varied and obviously framed within each area’s peculiarities and constraints, but they all share a common theme: why the change? Our VP’s evidence is scanty at best; it is based on a few colleges that have waxed enthusiastically about the merits of the change. Odessa College and Texas’ “success” with this change has been the evidence most frequently cited, but one or two schools don’t seem to offer enough to suggest this calendar approach has been vetted and reviewed through rigorous research. Our VP is so sure about this idea that he doesn’t plan to pilot the change or try an either/or approach to determine its merits. Out of a real concern regarding how doable a compressed calendar actually is, I am very curious to hear if other colleges have radically altered their calendars and what were the results.

To start the discussion, I am including some of the comment stream that has been flowing over the past few weeks. Much of the discussion from the VP who, of course, favors a move to 7.5-week semesters has been about student retention and completion.  Our primary interest, however, has been about student learning.  What will students retain once they leave our courses?  What will they learn that will help them in subsequent courses, at transfer institutions, and their careers?

Some comments from our biology faculty include worries over “the spacing effect” and “massed practice v. distributed practice.”  One biology professor wrote, “Massed practice is somewhat akin to cramming, while distributed practice is learning over time. The bottom line of these studies is that for certain types of learning and skill development, spacing (distributed learning) leads to better memory.” Our VP of Learning believes there isn’t much evidence to support 15-week learning either, so this argument has not resonated particularly well.

A psychology professor indicated, “I can’t be convinced on a change of this size that is seemingly being proposed now in part on the strength of what is going on with ONE college elsewhere [i.e., Odessa]. If someone can show me the same type of statistics (96%) for perhaps 100 plus other community colleges (at the least), ideally very similar in many ways to BCC [e.g., same general area of the United States, same student enrollment size, same community and student demographics…] I might think differently.”

He went on to say, “I still think we had better be prepared to increase [student] helping resources if a change is made to abandon 15 week semesters.” Since we recently went through a major college overall with a loss of a many staff members, this concern is a significant one for us.

Another psychology professor wrote, “I did some research on block system scheduling for the student development committee. What I found was that many institutions offered various options. Some offered five, 10 and 15 week terms- all at once. Students had a choice of which to “jump in on.” Obviously allowing more flexibility. What seems to be the winning component to any of these options is block scheduling. Students can choose one “block of time” to take classes and this continues throughout their academic career within the institution. Are we discussing this option within the 8-week semester? If not, we may be looking at students having incredibly inconsistent schedules. Every eight weeks needing to make changes within their personal and professional lives to maintain schooling.”

A sociology professor went directly to the data and how our summer terms are being used as evidence of greater success in condensed terms; yet, for our school, the winterim and summer terms tend to appeal to four-year college students, as well as our best and most committed traditional students. This professor responded by saying, “Basically, the flaw here is that the sample is self-selected. I have not taught winterim, but every story I have ever been told is that the winterim attracts the very best students. However, I have been teaching Summer 1 at Brookdale for 17 years. Again, that is the best session I teach in terms of student motivation. In my experience in Summer 1, both the Brookdale students and the 4-year students are outstanding… Then, mix in the reality that the two summer sessions in question are self-selected samples of students who choose to attend school ‘OFF-SEASON’… we are really dealing with a highly-motivated sample, which will skew the results.”

For a career program like culinary, one professor wrote, “I am very concerned how this new schedule would affect career programs such as culinary, auto and nursing. For example, culinary students are in class Monday through Thursday 5-6 hours per day between lab and lecture. We do a new class every three weeks. Our students take gen ed mostly on Fridays… So that being said when would they take gen eds if they have to run [their classes] twice per week?  They would be in culinary school all day then have to go to another 3-hour class twice a week? That’s nine hours of school. The majority of my students work. They also rarely have money for the summer terms since they are not covered by financial aid.”

For the anthropology professor (who would be me!), the concerns included: compromised student learning, no time to grade essays and essay exams between shortened terms, no time to modify syllabi between terms, the challenges of matching up adjunct teaching calendars when they are teaching at multiple institutions, the high percentage of classes that would be missed “if life happens” (the VP’s mantra) in a 7.5-week term versus the current 15-week term, the need for community colleges to sync more closely with 4-year schools for ease of transfer rather than adding additional hurdles, and our already relatively high retention rate with the current calendar.

To us, this calendar idea is a significant change with little evidence of reward. I would appreciate any comments from people who have experience with condensed terms, who actually like them or who, like those at my institution, find the whole concept troublesome.

Cite as: Jones, Barbara. 2017. “Is an Academic Calendar Change a Good Idea?” Anthropology News website, April 12, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.404

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