THE BLOG
04/07/2014 01:18 pm ET Updated Jun 04, 2014

Embracing a Different Way to Learn

During a recent dinner, a Cornell College mathematics faculty member recounted a moment when he knew that our One Course At A Time curriculum --where students take only one course during each of eight different 18-day terms -- was the most powerful way for students to learn. A student in his modern algebra class had shared a dream in a voice loud enough to be heard by the entire class. In this dream, mathematics had tied her mother to a tree. This student's attempt at razzing the instructor took an unexpected turn when one-third of the students shared that they too had been having dreams about mathematics and asked what mathematics looked like in her dream. The professor knew then that his class had fully engaged with the materials.

The One Course calendar at Cornell College is so immersive that each class truly becomes a part of the student. Engagement, a necessary component for real learning, is possible under a semester system, but is harder to achieve, given the number of different courses a student may take simultaneously. At Cornell College, students can attain this level of engagement in every single course.

In October, in the Chronicle of Higher Education's special issue on innovation, Goldie Blumenstyk noted that institutions are increasingly experimenting with different curricular and calendar options. From her article, one could conclude that schools are dabbling with more creative calendars as they look to squeeze every last drop of value out of the college experience and package it in some new, distinctive format that resonates with prospective students and their families. However, the One Course calendar has not taken hold to the extent that one familiar with its enduring educational benefits might think; Cornell College is one of only a small handful of U.S. colleges educating students this way.

The fact that few schools have embraced such a calendar is not an indication that it fails to deliver our claimed advantages, but rather an indication that a special calendar requires a special institution. Switching takes a fairly long time and a concerted effort to make it work. Not only does the calendar necessitate a major commitment from the institution for extra facilities (e.g., classrooms, laboratories, and dining space) and resources, it demands a totally engaged and student-centered faculty and staff to achieve its benefits. The entire faculty must think differently. As an example, the Cornell College chemistry and physics departments redesigned the organic and introductory physics sequences to an all-day every day laboratory experience. As a result, Cornell College students develop skills with laboratory techniques not developed at other schools.

Perhaps the most important benefit of the One Course curriculum is that it facilitates achievement. Success requires effort, and Cornell College students don't let things ride--they just don't have time to. They develop a deep and consistent commitment to their education and an impressive work ethic. And, this pace benefits them after graduation because they are already used to moving at the "speed of life." After all, when an employer asks for a project to be done in two or three days, that mirrors what was expected of them as students. The pace and intensity of the block plan also mirror the expectations of graduate study. Cornellians don't get overwhelmed by a time-sensitive challenge, they face it with aplomb.

More exposure to faculty and staff yields a more meaningful education. The One Course calendar offers a remarkable synergy between professors and students. Without competition from other courses, a faculty member can add contact hours as needed. The schedule bends to the course and not the course to the schedule, and this influences the hours of class time as well as out-of-class time.

A faculty member under the One Course calendar cannot lecture three or four hours per day -- that is a recipe for losing students, and quickly. Therefore, we attract faculty with serious ideas about teaching; educators who seek the pedagogical freedom to act on those ideas. Creative faculty who are dedicated to teaching come to, and stay at, Cornell College.

We see multiple additional benefits to the One Course calendar:

  1. It attracts students who like to think differently and consider everything from novel perspectives. They are, thus, comfortable confronting issues in areas previously unknown to them, learning the "vocabulary" of that area, and suggesting creative solutions to those issues based on evidence.
  2. Students learn that there are no uninteresting topics -- because they have the time and space to take everything seriously.
  3. At Cornell College, we "flipped" the classroom long before the phrase became popular. Faculty, rather than serving as disseminators of information in class through lecturing, became facilitators of learning. A course completed in 18 days appropriately puts the responsibility for learning on the students who must read, research, and prepare for the active engagement that occurs in the classroom.
  4. Lab sciences flourish because students can "get their hands dirty" every day. They can devote 2 1/2 to 3 hours to lab each day for experiments that can run all day, all week, or even multiple weeks. Faculty report similar benefits in other areas such as in the arts.
  5. It is ideal for off-campus study because classes can travel for up to 3 1/2 weeks without interfering with other classes. Even day-trips as a part of a class are easily scheduled.
  6. Students can easily arrange internships for three-week periods (or longer) and focus exclusively on that internship during that time. Indeed, their September to May availability for 3 1/2 weeks makes Cornell College students particularly attractive for employers who need students to accomplish significant projects that require full-time attention from the intern. These are the most meaningful internship experiences for students.
  7. The depth of faculty-student and student-student relationships is impressive as a result of immersion in a block-long course.
  8. Students don't need to ignore one class (or multiple classes) while they complete major projects for another one.
  9. A Cornell College student can be involved in many activities because there are no conflicts with class since all classes happen during the same times.

Cornell College professors realize that, although they can examine topics in depth in a course, they do give up some breadth of knowledge during an 18-day course. For many at Cornell, depth over additional breadth is not a trade-off, but is pedagogically sound. More faculty at other schools are discovering what Cornell College faculty already know: breadth for its own sake accomplishes little. Obtaining greater understanding of less content yields stronger results. Nothing illustrates this better than the false argument that our calendar is not as effective for subjects that require time to process like language or mathematics. The immersive learning environment means students get a deeper understanding of the content, resulting in longer term comprehension. Our students may take calculus or a language in October and then successfully take the next class in sequence the following May. This is a clear indication that students retain what they learn.

We wonder why more schools haven't adopted this innovative calendar. Here at Cornell College, we've known for over 35 years that a different academic calendar -- our One Course At A Time curriculum -- produces different and profound academic experiences and results. By giving students powerful tools for success, it prepares students for life beyond Cornell College in uniquely powerful ways--ways that are now becoming increasingly apparent in this delicate environment. Perhaps the climate is appropriate for other institutions to consider the unique and uniquely powerful benefits of such a calendar.