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Dr. David Helfand, President of Quest Canada University, stands on the rooftop of the main building in Squamish, B.C. September 28, 2012. (Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail)
Dr. David Helfand, President of Quest Canada University, stands on the rooftop of the main building in Squamish, B.C. September 28, 2012. (Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail)

Innovator profile

What if you only took one class at a time? Add to ...

Imagine that after two years of undergraduate education, you spend the rest of the time exploring one question that guides the remainder of your study. That question could be as focused as a particular health-care delivery model. Or you could ask: What is love?

At David Helfand’s university, exploring a topic that you choose is what a well-rounded higher education is all about.

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Quest University Canada in Squamish, B.C., has abandoned the traditional way of teaching undergraduates for a more interactive, yet highly intensive model. In their first two years of study, students take one class at a time (with no more than 20 students in a classroom) each month so that by the end of the year, they have studied eight subjects. After this broad introduction during the first two years, they form a question that culminates with a final project before they graduate. Usually, that question is answered in the form of a thesis. But last year, it was also explored in an original play and a graphic novel.

Dr. Helfand said the block system, as it is known, allows students to truly understand a subject matter, rather than gloss over it as they would if they were handling a multiple-subject courseload. It makes for an enriching experience, but also a demanding one.

"In our fractured world, where multitasking is supposedly an advantage, in fact it’s a disaster for learning," Dr. Helfand said. "By focusing on one class at a time, students can have all their energy focused on that one issue and go far deeper in a subject than one can ever achieve in a semester system."

Students have described their time studying at Quest as stressful. Students are expected to master the material over the course of a month, as opposed to over a semester, but they also recognize the speed forces them to be more critical.

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