Community colleges and four-year institutions are offering more flexible learning schedules to accommodate the needs of today’s college students, who are often working adults. Options include late-start courses, mini-semesters, and block schedules that allow undergrads to enroll in just one class at a time.
But planning and implementing a flexible academic calendar requires significant communication and collaboration among multiple departments. Here are some course scheduling best practices from several higher ed institutions that have gone against the grain to offer flexible learning.
1. Late-start courses
Cabrini University (Pa.)
What: Accelerated courses in online or hybrid formats, offered in weeks six through eight of each semester
Why: Students who aren’t enrolled in the right class usually begin struggling by the third or fourth week. “Maybe the student’s work schedule hasn’t been well balanced or the teaching style doesn’t align with the student’s learning skills,” says Kimberly Boyd, associate dean for retention and student success. Late-start courses allow students who drop classes at the beginning of the semester to enroll in another course to stay on track.
How: Six years ago, Center for Student Success leaders asked the academic department chairs to redesign classes—often those without prerequisites—that would translate well into a new late-start, accelerated course format.
“Faculty chairs now know this is an option when they are setting up the course roster for the next semester,” says Michelle Filling-Brown, dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. She shares the information with Boyd’s office early so the late-start courses are on their radar.
Students planning to withdraw from courses now must meet with an advisor. “It’s in this crucial advising moment when we are often encouraging students to pick up these late-start classes,” says Filling-Brown.
Boyd’s office also aggressively advertises the late-start option to students who are withdrawing from classes via email, print, social media and digital monitors on campus.
The registrar’s office manages course enrollment through the Blackboard Learn learning management system, which the university’s head instructional designer oversees.
The retention piece also gets attention. “We need to be mindful that these students could also struggle in this accelerated format,” says Boyd. “So we need to inform academic tutoring about these courses and make sure other support structures are in place.”
Advice: “Department chairs usually have a lot on their plates at the start of the year, so having the option to teach an accelerated course in the fall gives them breathing room, since they wouldn’t have to start teaching until later in the semester,” says Filling-Brown.
University of Maryland Global College (formerly University of Maryland University College)
What: Three or four start dates for undergraduates; two or three start dates for graduate students (depending on the term)
Why: Most of UMGC’s students work full time. Officials sought to expand its late-start dates (originally at two per term), but realized that scheduling sometimes resulted in students having finals as they start a new session. Since expanding to four late-start dates in around 2012, students who enroll in the first late-start session can take the fourth without experiencing any overlap, says Tom Porch, manager of retention planning and initiatives.
How: The addition of new late-start times forced UMGC to change how the system marketed to and recruited students. For example, the enrollment registration for September usually opens in May. “We feared that marketing this in May would cannibalize the summer term since students would focus on the fall instead,” says Porch, who ran the advising department at the time. “When we began offering more start dates, we wanted to give it a shot—and there was no cannibalizing and students ended up enrolling sooner.”
Offices to involve in creating flexible learning options
Meanwhile, the financial services department works with academic affairs and enrollment to ensure courses are eligible for financial aid. For example, students on financial aid could enroll in late-start classes that begin near the end of the fall semester and extend into the spring. However, federal financial aid may not recognize this as a fall semester course, so students may not receive aid, says Porch.
The bursar’s office also needs to be involved in case a student on a monthly payment plan, for example, wants to add multiple start dates to their schedule to graduate sooner. “This could impact their ability to afford multiple start dates per term, and the bursar’s office needs to communicate that,” he says.
The project management office plans and monitors initiatives to ensure student success. “PMO has really helped in bringing the university to this cross-collaboration,” he says.
The marketing tone shifted from focusing on negative consequences to more positive nudging. For example, it went from “Don’t miss your start date” or “You only have one last chance to register” to “Let’s find a plan that works for you” or “Let’s keep the momentum going.”
Advice: “The sooner a student can enroll in a class, the more prepared they will be,” says Porch. Students have generally seen more success since UMGC began recruiting processes earlier.
Other flexible-scheduling offerings: Eight-week, three-term undergraduate programs; 11-week, four-term graduate programs with two-week breaks in between in which students take one course per term; 12-week, three-term graduate programs with approximately three to four week breaks in between, in which students take one or two courses per term.
Tyler Junior College (Texas)
What: 12-week late-start courses that end at the same time as the 16-week term
Why: Over six years ago, the community college realized that students signed up for courses right on the start date. “They really struggled getting things in order, such as submitting financial aid, getting their meningitis shots and purchasing textbooks,” says Registrar Britt Sabota. “We wanted to make sure students are well positioned to do well on the first day.”
How: Deans, department chairs and the registrar’s office collaborate to make sure the college has enough classrooms for late-start courses. Next, a scheduling committee lets the registrar’s office know what rooms will be used for these courses. This ensures the registrar doesn’t claim these rooms for other classesâ“which can happen since these rooms “will be sitting for four weeks before they are used.”
The registrar also uses an analytics tool from the space management technology provider Ad Astra to help schedule rooms and course loads more efficiently.
Advice: “We take into consideration which professors will be teaching and what school the class is part of to identify which buildings these classes usually take place in, ” says Sabota.
Lone Star College (Texas)
What: Six-, eight- and 12-week “minimesters” embedded throughout the academic year, plus three-week minimesters in the winter and between the spring and summer terms
Why: This system of community colleges and four-year institutions had received numerous inquiries from students about adding courses between semesters. “When I was president at one of our colleges, we piloted many of these ideas before we decided to spread this systemwide,” says Chancellor Stephen Head. “Now, Lone Star basically functions 365 days per year, except major holidays such as Christmas or Thanksgiving.”
How: The Office of Student Success & Completion reviews minimester course ideas from academic chairs to ensure they align with building schedules and have the appropriate start and end dates. “We also meet frequently with designated employees in enrollment management to provide enrollment data,” says Connie Garrick, executive director of records and enrollment services/registrar. Data analysis helps identify the time of day and the best method to offer these courses.
As an incentive for teaching these classes, faculty can choose between additional compensation and taking a semester off. Because Lone Star is well funded, officials are able to pay for that extra help, Head says.
Advice: Be sure to consider revenue implications of flexible scheduling options. When Lone Star tried reducing tuition for weekend courses, the courses didn’t pull in enough students to be financially viable. “To reduce tuition, you need more students taking these courses, and they weren’t enrolling,” says Head.
Tyler Junior College (Texas)
What: Two consecutive eight-week semesters of cohorts-based, associate degree courses, with the first eight-week block consisting of gen-ed courses and prerequisites to the classes in the second block; also, five-week mini-semesters of hybrid bachelor’s degree courses in applied and health care technologies that begin in September, October and November.
Why: TJC designed the bachelor’s degree mini-semesters for adults working in the health care industry and the two consecutive blocks for more technical associate degree courses such as automotive and welding. For the latter, students can enroll in up to three courses in the first eight-week semester before moving on to the second.
“This format allows working adults to get through these technical programs more quickly,” says Registrar Britt Sabota.
How: The college marketed these changes via email, social media and texting to the best student candidates so they could create realistic academic goals and plan their work schedules accordingly. Advisors and professors in the associate degree program of eight-week semesters also communicate the addition of the five-week bachelor’s mini-semester program to students who first earned their associate degrees at TJC and return for their four-year degrees.
Program coordinators report the start dates for these five-week courses to the registrar’s office, which is in charge of scheduling. While the first five-week semester begins later than the traditional 16-week semester, the last five-week semester ends at the same time. “The beauty of the five-week terms is that they all fit within our 16-week shell. It’s neat and tidy,” Sabota says.
Advice: “I don’t have magic advice except that you might have to be willing to work late and on weekends,” says Sabota. “Many of our students have classes on Saturday and in the evening, so our work schedules have had to adapt to mirror that.”
Volunteer State Community College (Tenn.)
What: Eight semesters of different lengths (three to 15 weeks) throughout the year
Why: In a college survey, students said they wanted a four-day class week to accommodate work schedules, so the college created an academic calendar in which students took Monday-Wednesday and Tuesday-Thursday classes all day. This soon evolved into eight mini-semesters. Likewise, officials wanted to change the summer term, which originally began with a three-week “Maymester” that switches to a traditional schedule for the rest of the summer. Then, they decided to model the entire term after the Maymester. “We knew there were certain courses that scheduled very well during that three-week term and that students liked the time,” says Tim Amyx, director of admissions and college registrar.
How: Deans analyze enrollment data with their academic chairs to create their mini-semester schedules, says Jennifer Brezina, assistant vice president for academic affairs. “When I was dean of humanities, I also needed to coordinate with the other deans to make sure we didn’t all schedule major classes at 9:45 a.m. on a Tuesday, for example,” says Brezina. When changing the summer term, deans worked with department chairs to identify what courses did well during the three-week Maymester. “We took the entire period after the original three-week Maymester and chopped it into four three-week increments,” says Brezina. Deans then created two six-week terms at the same time to offer more options. “We left the 12-week term for science labs, since a six-week schedule isn’t long enough for labs,” she says.
Advice: Connect student schedule choices to programs such as “15 to Finish” to help students take enough credits each semester to graduate on time. Volunteer State administrators loaded the model into Degree Works, a degree audit and student planning tool. Students now select courses on College Scheduler. “By providing all of this information in a straightforward manner, we are helping students stay on track while providing a schedule that accommodates their work schedules,” says Amyx. “We know that students can be paralyzed by choice, and we were surprised to find out that before 15 to Finish, freshmen would have over 1,000 possible schedules. This software does the heavy lifting for us.”
3. Block courses
Guilford College (N.C.)
What: The Edge curriculum, which launched last fall and combines a three-week block consisting of one class and a 12-week term of three courses each semester; fall semester begins with a three-week block plan and then switches to a 12-week format, and spring semester reverses that schedule
Why: “We wanted to somehow connect liberal arts education with more applied experiences, whether they be internships or travel opportunities,” says Provost and Academic Dean Frank Boyd. Students can travel during the three-week block and then take more traditional courses during the 12-week session. In a future three-week block course, students will study management at a nonprofit in India.
How: Officials decided to shift to a new academic calendar in January 2018. “Once we cleared that decision, things picked up steam quickly to finish in 18 months,” says Boyd.
A curriculum transition committee of nominated faculty worked closely with the registrar’s office and Boyd’s two associate deans. After it was determined that the fall semester should begin with a block, the committee began working out details such as sequencing and staffing.
Since every course couldn’t be revised in 18 months, Guilford administrators are now providing stipends for faculty to restructure the entire gen-ed system and every major over the course of three summers. Other supports include workshops to help faculty develop new pedagogical approaches.
Advice: Get administrators and faculty across campus involved in change. “This restructuring project was possible due to transparent academic leadership,” says Boyd. “An essential element in institutional change is that everyone has to be a part of that change.” This includes making sure faculty leaders are part of the change management process.
What: One intensive course per student, per block, with eight 3 Â½-week blocks across fall and spring semesters; plus, an optional January half-block, nine-day course
Why: Faculty wanted to spend more time with students and sought a system in which students wouldn’t have quizzes or papers from other courses distracting them from the class of focus. “The college felt that if we were to reconfigure our calendar into a block schedule, it would allow students to more fully immerse themselves in that subject and achieve more success,” says Matt Bonser, director of admission.
How: Colorado College has had some form of block scheduling for over 50 years. Half blocks consist of noncredit and credit-bearing courses that focus on MCAP preparation and career center networking.
“It’s kind of a boot camp for students, with an eye for what to do after graduation, but in a way that’s not necessarily hooked into their major,” Bonser says. “Faculty also use these blocks for passion projects that wouldn’t fill up an entire block.”
In 2014, the college added noncredit courses to the January half block. These courses provide students with the professional and practical skills needed to transition to life after college.
Steven Blackburn is associate editor.