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'Block plan' education finds new appeal among universities Add to ...

A teaching strategy that offers Canadian university students consecutive intensive courses compressed into a few weeks is making inroads at smaller postsecondary schools across the country.

Traditionally, full-time university students take five courses simultaneously over a 15-week semester, attending two or three classes a week for each course. In the “block plan,” students take one course at a time for three-and-half weeks, which spreads out assignment due dates more evenly over the school year and avoids the dreaded end-of-term exam crunch.

Professors with block plan experience swear by it, saying students are more engaged when they can focus on a single class at a time, and the flexibility within the timetable to include field work enriches the educational experience.

So far only smaller schools – Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., Algoma University in Sault Ste Marie, Ont., and the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) in Prince George – have begun toying with block schedules. Quest University, a unique private outfit in Squamish, B.C., is Canada’s lone university on an entirely block curriculum, which it launched five years ago.

Maymie Tegart, a second-year student at Quest, says she prefers the immersion in a topic that the system affords. She also appreciates the discipline of spending three weeks on a single subject, which keeps her from prioritizing some subjects and neglecting others.

“I was surprised at how much work I [ended up putting] into classes that I didn’t think I would particularly enjoy,” she said.

Despite the block plan’s anecdotal success, no public Canadian university has embraced it on a large scale, and there are logistical limitations. Assignments must be completed and marked quickly; illness can jeopardize a whole block, as making up a lost week is impossible; and the rigorous schedule can be a barrier to part-time students and faculty with other commitments.

Certain courses also simply cannot be adapted, points out David Helfand, president of Quest University. “You can’t do a survey course of 19th-century British literature and read 10 novels by 10 different authors in that amount of time.”

One of the block plan’s big believers is Algoma president Richard Myers, who has spent the past year encouraging the school’s faculty and students to consider adopting it wholesale. Algoma’s senate will rule on the proposal in February, but the school’s student union is already digging in its heels in defence of the 22 per cent of Algoma students who are part-time, and a report the school commissioned estimates switching would cost an extra $2.2-million in the first year alone.

“There’s a fair bit of opposition,” Dr. Myers said.

One of its benefits is that it would create a distinctive identity for Algoma, which is looking to increase its 1,200-student enrolment. The rural University of Montana Western made a full switch to block schedules in 2006, and it has helped with recruiting.

Professor Fred Chilson, Montana Western’s chair of business and technology, thinks students are benefiting from the change because they “get to go deeper” into material, even when they cover less of it. Montana Western is North America’s only public university teaching entirely in blocks, even after Colorado College became famous for pioneering the approach in 1970.

George Iwama is another believer. He helped launch a pilot in Acadia’s biology department in 2005 and is spearheading a similar effort as president of UNBC, which will test five block courses in geography starting in 2013.

Acadia’s experiment in block planning required twisting a few arms at first, but “everybody came out of it saying, ‘This is just a much better way to teach,’” said biology professor Marty Snyder. Many faculty liked having alternating blocks off to do research. But the initiative died when she went hunting for other departments willing to join in.

“There was just so much resistance – people were very suspicious [of such drastic change],” Dr. Snyder said.

Dr. Helfand once counted himself a skeptic but now finds block teaching “liberating.” He knows Quest is atypical, with uniformly small classes and $28,000-a-year private tuition. But he thinks the feedback from his faculty members – all but one of whom came from conventional semester systems – merits attention from even the most traditional schools.

“No one ever wants to go back,” he said.

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