Posted by: Gregory Linton | 02/05/2010

Cognitive Overload and Course Scheduling

In the last post, I suggested that the traditional delivery of courses creates barriers to learning by promoting cognitive overload. I wonder whether nontraditional course schedules, such as those used by for-profit institutions, might be more effective at promoting long-term retention of knowledge.

Several years ago, I read a study conducted at Santa Monica College that compared 6-week and 8-week intensive classes with traditional 16-week classes (Logan & Geltner, 2000). The researchers discovered “higher success rates” (defined by grades) among students in the 6-week courses compared to those in the 16-week courses. The results for students in the 8-week courses were intermediate between the other two. Logan and Geltner recognize that the students in the 6-week courses could have been better students to begin with, but they also suggest some other factors that might enhance learning in the compressed classes:

  • Students tend to work together and build cohesion in intensive classes more than in traditional classes.
  • Short-term classes provide more continuity of discussion both inside and outside the classroom.
  • It is more difficult for students to maintain motivation and commitment over a 16-week period than over a shorter period.
  • Semester-long classes allow more opportunity for other life events to intervene and distract the student from learning.

Other research comparing intensive courses with longer-term courses has found that students in short-term, intensive courses learn just as well, and often better, than students in traditional courses (Martin & Culver, 2009; Scott, 1994; Scyoc & Gleason, 1993; Seamon, 2004).

Students generally report greater satisfaction with intensive courses. Scott (1994), for example, found that students mentioned the following advantages of intensive courses: greater continuity of learning, greater concentration on that particular topic, less need to prioritize their classes, fewer courses to juggle and due dates to keep track of, more in-depth discussions because of longer class sessions, increased mental investment and commitment, decrease in superfluous material, development of closer relationships with the professor and fellow students, more relaxed classroom atmosphere, and more reasonable expectations by professors.

From the perspective of cognitive science, it seems that taking one course at a time for a compressed period limits distractions and interference that hinder the brain’s ability to store new knowledge in its long-term memory. Intensive courses allow new information to build on old information, and they enable students to focus attention on only one topic. Another practical consideration is that many 18- to 20-year-olds have not acquired the organizational ability to juggle five courses with their inconsistent requirements and overlapping and competing deadlines. Taking one course at a time would help students stay on track more readily.

It seems to me that the ideal structure or schedule that would promote deep learning would require students to take only one course at a time for a three-week period. It could meet four days a week for 3.5 hours a time. A sequence of five courses would constitute a 15-week semester. Logan and Geltner (2000) question whether this time frame is too short for the brain to be able to retain the information, so maybe there are even better ways to do this.

So is anyone already delivering courses in this way? Of course, many nontraditional programs, such as degree completion programs, provide courses in a sequential format, but they also require less face-to-face time. Are there any traditional undergraduate programs that have implemented this kind of innovative delivery and structure?

One institution that I am aware of who has done this is Colorado College in Colorado Springs. Since 1970, they have delivered their courses on a “Block Plan,” which divides the academic year into eight three-and-a-half week segments. Students take one course at a time, and they take a four-and-a-half day break every four weeks. Professors also teach only one class. On its website, the college touts the following benefits of their Block Plan:

  • Complete immersion in one subject
  • No predetermined length for class discussions
  • Flexibility in scheduling class times and locations
  • Extended field trips and on-site learning
  • More hands-on, experiential learning
  • Creative research and extended field work opportunities
  • Visiting professors and guest lecturers are easier to schedule
  • No cramming for four or five midterms or finals
  • Block breaks between each block, for relaxing and rejuvenating.

For a traditional institution to radically alter its approach to education in this way would be a major undertaking, especially since colleges and universities are by nature resistant to change. But we should remember the famous saying of Albert Einstein that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Since our educational system violates the principles that promote long-term retention of knowledge, we will continue to send out into the world graduates who underprepared and ill-informed.

Sources:

Logan, R., and Geltner, P. (2000). The influence of session length on student success. RP Group Proceedings, 35-48.

Martin, H., and Culver, K. B. (2009). To concentrate, to intensify, or to shorten?: The issue of the short intensive course in summer sessions. Summer Academe, 6, 59-69.

Scott, P. A. (1994, March). A comparative study of students’ learning experiences in intensive and semester-length courses and of the attributes of high-quality intensive and semester course learning experiences. Paper presented at the Meeting of the North American Association of Summer Sessions, Portland, OR, November 16, 1993. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED370498)

Scyoc, L. J., and Gleason, J. (1993, Winter). Traditional or intensive course lengths?: A comparison of outcomes in economics learning. The Journal of Economic Education, 24(1), 15-22.

Seamon, M. (2004, April). Short- and long-term differences in instructional effectiveness between intensive and semester-length courses. Teachers College Record, 106(4), 852-874.

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