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When Students Learn

April 29, 2005

Large state universities are spending more time thinking about how to engage undergraduates, and one issue receiving increasing attention is time: When are students in class?

The provost of California State University at Chico angered students recently when they learned that he had sent a memo to faculty members and deans that, among other things, called for more classes to be scheduled on Fridays. At Penn State University, meanwhile, professors have been winning praise from students for scheduling fewer courses at 8 a.m.

Experts say that both universities are headed in the right direction.

At Chico State, Provost Scott McNall says he sees several benefits to pushing more Friday courses. When weekend partying starts on Thursday night, alcohol and drug abuse gets worse, he said. But his main emphasis is education.

"The goal is to help people make wise choices," McNall said. "We want academic work on every weekday. We want to make sure that students are focused on the very reason they are at a university: to learn."

He said that he did not have data on how many students are free of courses on Friday, but that it appears to be a large share. While some student critics have said that his plan would be difficult for those who hold down jobs. McNall noted that only 15 percent of undergraduates do so, and a small share of them work far from campus.

The Orion, the student newspaper, published an editorial against McNall's plans, saying that they "trample student rights."

McNall says he's aware of the criticism and isn't worried. "The time for learning," he said, "is not always the time that students think is most convenient."

But what if the students aren't awake?

That question led Graham Spanier, president of Penn State, to wonder aloud a few years back if fewer courses should be scheduled at 8 a.m.

Officials at the university reported that the number of 8  a.m. courses are down this year 15 percent on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and 9 percent on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The Monday-Wednesday-Friday decrease is a more dramatic 46 percent over 12 years.

Last year, 9 percent of all course sections were taught Monday, Wednesday or Friday at 8 a.m. Now that proportion has declined to 7 percent. Additional decreases may be difficult, however, because there aren't a lot of blank time slots left.

Lee S. Shulman, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, called the changes at Chico State and Penn State "very thoughtful moves."

Three things that promote good student learning are engagement, visibility and accountability, he said. "You lose all three if students don't show up."

He said that the Penn State move was entire rational, given how many students are up to 2 a.m. or later. "The are just not going to be engaged at 8."

But however unpopular Friday classes may be at Chico, he said that the provost was right to push the issue. "A three-day hiatus can really disrupt the power of the educational experience," he said.

Shulman warned that these moves alone won't keep students engaged. "But these are good steps."

Chico State students can take comfort that their provost respects Penn State's president. McNall said he won't try to schedule too many of the new Friday courses at 8 a.m.

 

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