Mixed reviews show challenges and successes
“Greater flexibility” and “development of new experiential, travel and learning opportunities” were part of Augustana’s decision to transition to a block plan schedule, a form of education that is becoming more common within liberal arts institutions. Yet, the transition to the new calendar has also been challenging and met with mixed reviews from students.
Mid-way through the first eleven-week session, members of the Augustana community are cautiously optimistic about the change.
“In the long run, it can help students manage their time more efficiently,” said Farshad Labbaf, a fourth-year psychology student. “I see potential in the block calendar.”
Labbaf said that three-week portion needs some improvements, “especially with regards to CSL placements of the classes and making sure if it is even possible to teach specific courses comprehensively in such a short period.”.
Fourth-year environmental science student Ryan Baier said that the new calendar can work, but the course load needs to be adjusted. “I would give the first year implementation of the new calendar a break from criticism because it is a learning experience for both professors and students,” said Baier.
Some students are concerned that the block calendar doesn’t work for certain classes or majors.
“The system might work for certain types of classes but not for most science courses which cover more material in a short time,” said Vanessa Lievers, a second-year mathematics student.
Lievers said the biggest challenge was a lack of time during the three-week term. “I never felt I had any time to prepare for assignments and exams, let alone process what I had just learned,” said Lievers. “By the end of the three weeks I was so sick and tired of that class.”
And the implication of the new calendar has negatively affected students who are registered with Student Accessibility Services, like Andrea Hewko, a third-year computing science student.
Hewko said that the main problem with the new calendar is that it only benefits healthy people who are taking a full course load.
“Long classes are very hard for me and I can only take three classes, as this is as tiring to me as a full course load,” said Hewko. “This makes the new calendar detrimental to me.”
Hewko said that she doesn’t see how more intense classes can be taught in even less time without cutting material. “It’s just not feasible, for the students or the teachers, to demand that the same material is taught in a shorter amount of time.”
“Sometimes the brain needs time to work on a problem,” said Hewko. “If no one is given the time for this, then our solutions will lack the creativity that Augustana claims to value so much.”
Hewko said her overall opinion is that the new calendar doesn’t work and “just makes things harder.”
For first-year students, the new calendar has been fairly well received as it has allowed student services to change orientation and help students make the transition to university.
“It taught me a bunch of things that made it easier to assimilate into university life,” said Chad Owen Mailer, a first-year undeclared student. “It makes first years’ transition easier and more fluid.”
Kelsey Judith Nottveit, a first-year kinesiology student said that it was good to get familiar with Augustana without the stress of many classes. “I liked it because you had one professor and one classroom, and you got to connect with the same people,”
For Student Life, the new calendar has allowed for a redesigned orientation to be linked with the First Year Seminar (FYS). “New students stay in a cohort of 20-25 people for three weeks instead of three days during previous orientations,” said Randal Nickel, executive director of student life.
Nickel said that students have reported that the cohorts helped them connect with others. The intent for the new orientation was to reduce the “firehouse of information,” as Nickel calls it. “Orientation is now focused on important conversations and opportunities to connect.”
Nickel said that Augustana has made great steps in the right direction and he looks forward to hearing the feedback to ensure that student services provides great experiences.
Professors, in particular, have had to focus on changing their methods and altering pedagogical practices. Brandon Alakas, associate professor of english, said that he is positive about the new calendar.
“Literature courses allow for a good deal of flexibility,” said Alakas. “Having so much time to work through texts with students has certainly been enjoyable.”
Alakas recognizes that change is often disruptive and that not every student has had the same experience. “My impression is that studying one course intensively for a short period and then having only four classes for the rest of term has relieved some pressure and opened up some extra time in schedules.”
For Alakas, the new calendar is a “remedy for pedagogical inertia” in that it has meant rethinking how he teaches. “Teaching a compressed course in the block forced me to think even more carefully about each assignment students submitted.”
Alakas spent a fair time thinking about “rhythm”. “Maintaining energy throughout the three weeks meant thinking a lot about the rhythm of the course in terms of day-to-day routine and weekly workload.”
“We need to give ourselves time to adjust to the new calendar,” said Alakas. “All of us—students and faculty alike—are used to the traditional term.”
For the science department, the main challenge is modifying existing courses to a new time frame. Glen Hvenegaard, environmental science and geography professor, said that it has been an adjustment. “Simply going through a transition of change, adjusting expectations, and sorting through many logistics.”
Hvenegaard said that he likes that students and professors can focus on one course. “It allows for extended and focused examination, and time for field studies courses, expeditions, field trips and more,” said Hvenegaard. “Once we work out the few remaining kinks, it will make Augustana unique and will provide wonderful learning experiences.”
Karsten Mundel, associate dean academic, said that he thinks disciplines will continue to think about which courses to offer in which semesters and potentially create new courses.
“In my own class, I experienced what many others have reported: the three-week courses build a really strong and supportive cohort of students,” said Mundel.
“I think most of the changes will come at the level of the individual class as instructors realize how to maximize the learning experiences for students in the the three-week block,” said Mundel. “Once we have been through a full academic year, I think we will be in a better place to assess how this is working overall.”
Augustana is still early in the assessment and feedback process, however, there are plans for an ASA student survey and a formal assessment led by Augustana political science professor Lars Hallstrom. “I don’t want to jump to conclusions. But I’m particularly pleased by the very positive feedback from students, faculty members, and tutors regarding the first-year seminars,” said Dean Allen Berger.
“There’s still a lot to learn regarding the calendar and we’ve just started the first eleven-week session,” said Berger. “Both the ASA’s student survey as well as formal assessments led by Dr. Hallstrom will help us ascertain where there’s need for improvement.”