Canadian schools pilot semester-less system

Algoma University and the University of Northern British Columbia are testing an intensive learning structure

Students at Colorado College travelled to Utah during their geology block last year.
Students at Colorado College travelled to Utah during their geology block last year.
Credit: 
Supplied
Students at Colorado College travelled to Utah during their geology block last year.
Students at Colorado College travelled to Utah during their geology block last year.
Credit: 
Supplied

This fall, 25 students at Algoma University will take their classes in a 19th-century school house in St. Thomas, Ont.

They’ll be part of the University’s pilot program testing out block education within its Arts and Science faculty.

In the block structure, students take one course over the span of three weeks — they go to the same three-hour class five times a week and write the final exam before moving onto another subject. Each three-week course translates into a half credit in a traditional education plan.

Algoma University President Richard Myers said he has high hopes for the pilot program, which will run at the same time as the University of Northern British Columbia’s block learning test drive next year.

“I think one of the main attractions of the block approach to delivering courses is it enhances student success,” he said. “It’s attractive to me in that it opens the doors to all sorts of innovative teaching approaches.”

Geography students enrolled in Algoma’s block plan pilot will take classes in St. Thomas for two years before moving to the University’s main campus in Sault Ste Marie. Tuition fees, starting at $5,400, are the same as for any other student at Algoma. After the two years, the bachelor of arts students will have earned the equivalent of 10 credits.

“The block plan creates an infinite number of university programs converted to study abroad,” Myers said, adding that in January 2013, a block class will spend three weeks in Havana, Cuba for a history course.

A local donor is footing the bill. Money from the estate of the late Dorothy Palmer, whose will is executed by Queen’s alumnus Andrew Gunn, is covering the cost of airfare and lodging in Havana.

“He was entrusted to use some money from the estate to improve, among other things, educational opportunities in St. Thomas,” Myers said.

He said finding qualified faculty to teach the block program has been a challenge. St. Thomas, located 30 km South of London, has a population of about 36,000. “You don’t necessarily have a bunch of people in a small city who would have doctorates,” Myers said. “We think it’ll be easier for us to find qualified faculty and bring them to St. Thomas if they’re not already there.”

According to Myers, the block plan allows professors free time to conduct research after they’ve finished a three-week course.

“There’s a great deal of flexibility,” he said.

There’s no research to prove that block learning boosts retention rates, but Myers said he’s hopeful it will.

“You know there are a lot of students who don’t make it through first year,” he said. “We [Ontario universities] have this strange practice of moving students out of a K-through-12 system, where somebody else is openly responsible for them.

“Then you show up at university and you’re 100 per cent responsible for your own learning. All of a sudden, November hits and it all comes at the same time and you crash.”

He said with the block plan, students don’t “get nailed with an end-of-term crash, because there is none.”

Professor Robert Loevy says block learning originated at Colorado College in 1970.

“A major characteristic of the block plan is students can’t hide anymore,” said Loevy, who started at the College in 1968. “The block plan tries, and I think majorly succeeded, in delivering on what a small liberal arts college is supposed to be about.”

The College of 2,000 students continues to only offer block courses. Students are given a four-day break in between blocks. Unlike Canadian versions of the plan, Loevy said professors can begin and end classes whenever they’d like. There’s no quota for time spent in the classroom during a block.

“If class is going well and students are participating, why in the middle of a discussion should it end if the bell rings?” he said. “So it doesn’t.

“On the other hand, if things aren’t working right, the professor can end the class early and tell the students to go back and do more reading.”

Cornell College in Iowa, Tusculum College in Tennessee and Quest University in B.C. also run courses in block format.

Nova Scotia’s Acadia University first tried out the block plan in fall 2005 with their biology department. They ran the program again in fall 2006 and one last time in winter 2009.

Acadia Vice-President of Academics Tom Herman said while the block program garnered positive feedback from professors and students, it posed bigger logistic challenges which proved insurmountable.

“Even brief absences due to illness or other commitments can be problematic because of the intensive coverage,” he told the Journal via email, adding that students struggled with significant reading requirements.

“The greatest challenge is cultural — convincing an entire institution to re-think its approach to course delivery is a daunting task.”

Herman said a blended model, which incorporates both term-based and block-style courses could be effective, though Acadia hasn’t attempted it yet.

“[Block learning] is not for the faint-hearted,” he said, adding that Acadia has maintained one semester of block learning in a fourth-year arts course.

Erica Newton was a biology student at Acadia in fall 2005, during their first pilot of the block program.

“That was by far the best semester that I had at Acadia, both in terms of social experiences and learning,” Newton, now a masters student at Trent University, said. “We did so much during that block and I was able to put it on my applications to grad school and resumé.”

Newton said what the program lacked in theoretical learning, it made up for in hands-on experience.

“The class was so small that we were able to learn how biology was actually done,” she said. “We were really asked to use our brains in a completely different way, and I don’t think that universities focus on that enough.”

According to Queen’s Provost Alan Harrison, the University has no plans to adopt block learning in the near future.

“The critical thing is there’s nothing sacrificed by the normal university term” he said. “I think the majority of teaching will continue to follow the standard schedule because that’s the schedule that works well for most of those involved.

“There are exceptions and it’s difficult to predict where it might go, but I can’t be more specific than that.”

The Queen’s Academic Plan — released in November 2011 — was developed to improve the University’s approach to education.

“The real learning … [is] the result of time spent individually or with a small group of peers,” the plan reads. “During this intensive process, students should have access to a full range of resources and support services and be guided and supervised by instructors or TAs.”

Kieran Slobodin, AMS vice-president of university affairs, said the Academic Plan is a good way for the University to continue improving its methodology. He said block learning could work for smaller schools, but would be a challenge at Queen’s.

“If you’re able to devote more attention over a shorter time, you can get a better grasp of it,” he said. “But it’s difficult to do when everything else in your life is telling you to spread thin.”

Though the block structure couldn’t work for every faculty, Slobodin said similar programs already exist at Queen’s. He cited month-long summer credits as a good example of sequential learning on campus.

“It works in small doses,” he said. “But for the University to make a drastic change, it would rely on Ontario making a drastic change. It would step us out of sync with literally every other aspect of post-secondary education.”

Slobodin said he doesn’t foresee big changes in Queen’s current education model over the next few years.

“If anything, the trend has been to streamline universities in Ontario into the same system,” he said.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.