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STLCC hopes compressed class schedule will expand student success

Do students who take only two or three courses at once have a better chance to succeed than those who have to pay attention to five at a time?

St. Louis Community College plans to use a pilot program this fall to try to find out.

The program will use a so-called compressed schedule, formally known as 7-one-7, where students at its south county education center will be able to take courses that last half as long as the traditional semester courses, but meet in longer sessions to amount to the same total class time.

After a one-week break following the first seven weeks, students can begin a second seven-week schedule. So at the end of 15 weeks, with a total of five classes, they end up with the same number of credits in the same time period, for the same amount of tuition, as they would have earned under a more traditional semester schedule.

Kim Fitzgerald, vice president for student affairs at the college’s Meramec campus, says if the pilot program shows the same results as a pioneering college in South Carolina found, students will have greater academic success, in part because they will be able to concentrate more on fewer courses, with greater time spent with their instructors.

“It increases the number of hours that they’re spending one on one with their faculty members,” Fitzgerald said, “so they get a greater satisfaction in terms of being able to connect with their professors. But it also reduces the amount of distraction they have trying to juggle four or five classes at a time.”

She said the college decided to try the pilot program after hearing about the success of students at Trident Technical College in North Charleston, S.C. There, official Cathy Almquist says, the experiment that began a few years ago has been a “phenomenal” success.

“Regardless of race and ethnicity, regardless of age, regardless of economic background, regardless of academic program, everyone did better in a seven-week term,” said Almquist, who is the school’s associate vice president of planning and accreditation.

“I can tell you with complete confidence that had we found there was a student population that did not benefit from the time-compressed courses, I don’t think we would have moved to this schedule as fully as we did. But we could not find a student population that didn’t do better in shorter terms.”

Same courses, different schedule

Starting in the coming school year, St. Louis Community College will offer the 7-one-7option in a limited number of courses at its South County Education and University Center only.

Under the compressed schedule, students would take two or three courses for seven weeks, with each class session lasting twice as long as a course would meet traditionally. After a one-week break, they would take the rest of their normal complement of courses in the second seven-week period.

Fitzgerald said the new schedule would not only let students concentrate on fewer courses at a time but would also allow for more intensive instruction.

Kim Fitzgerald
Credit St. Louis Community College
Kim Fitzgerald

“If you’re taking a mathematics class and you’ve got 50 minutes to work with a group of students to cover a certain topic,” she said, “sometimes, right, about the time you’re getting ready to roll, it’s time to break up class.

“What this will allow the faculty to do is spend more of their time working with students in a lecture format, but also engage with a more one-on-one, hands-on type focus.”

Fitzgerald said faculty pay and student financial aid are not changed by the switch to the new schedule, and the college hopes it will help attract students who might not otherwise have thought about enrolling.

“We think we’re going to have an audience of people that don’t just live in the south county area,” she said. “We think this might be attractive for students all over. So I look for some students going out of their way to take courses in this format.”

If the experience that Trident Tech says it has had is any indication, the new schedule should be popular. Almquist said that since moving to a limited compressed schedule in 2012, it now offers 95 percent of its courses in that format.

One lesson the school learned, she said, is that it has to be more precise in offering sequences of courses.

“If you’ve got a sequence of Math 101, Math 102 and Math 103,” Almquist said, “it’s really important that if you’ve got some Math 101 in seven-week session number one, you’ve got to have that follow-up class in session number two. If you’re going to have some Math 102 in the first session, you better have some Math 103 in the second session.”

Adds Fitzgerald: “The other advantage is that students can complete prerequisites for programs and classes in an accelerated fashion. So students can take intro to biology in the first seven weeks, then pick up on anatomy and physiology in the second seven weeks.

“A student who is coming to us straight from high school who is trying to get into a nursing program would take both of those courses within that first semester and then be ready to go by the spring.”

Both Fitzgerald and Almquist noted that any change can be difficult, and higher education can be particularly resistant to doing old things in new ways. But for the most part, Almquist said, everyone has been pleased with how the new set-up is working.

“Change is hard for everybody,” she said, “and it’s particularly difficult for some of our older students who have been at the college for many years. They don’t like change. They felt like they were in a groove.

“The newer students love the seven-week term. We got feedback from some of that said, thank goodness we’re on seven-week terms, because I don’t think I could handle this class for one more day. But we’ve also had some that have said, wow, that went by fast. I can’t wait to get started on the next seven weeks.”

Along with the new schedule, Almquist said, has been a campaign to make sure that students are what Trident Tech calls “seat-ready” – prepared to start learning from the first class in the compressed format.

“The faculty said there’s no time to spare here,” she said. “We can’t have students drifting in, missing the first week of class. So we made a real push to make sure that students had all of their payment made prior to the first day, they were sitting in the class on the first day, they had their textbooks and they had their supplies and they were ready to go and ready to learn.

“Some of the success that we’ve see is because of that kind of culture shift, from one where yeah, just come on in whenever you want to, don’t worry about the first week of class, to one where we’re saying that every single minute of every single class is important.”

Follow Dale Singer on Twitter: @dalesinger