Students Prefer Intensive Courses

March 28, 2008

As for-profit higher education has attracted more students, many in nonprofit higher education have wondered about which qualities of the for-profit sector are worth considering for adoption and which aren’t. That was part of the impetus for a study conducted at the University of Texas at Austin on how students respond to “intensive” courses – those taught on a tighter than normal schedule, with more class time each week, but fewer weeks. Such courses are common in for-profit higher education and online higher education, but are far less common at traditional, residential institutions.

The study found – even controlling for factors that can make such comparisons difficult – that students give significantly better ratings of course effectiveness for these intensive courses than regular courses. Results were presented this week at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association.

The researchers who did the work -- John Kucsera, Dawn M. Zimmaro and Avani G. Trivedi of the UT Division of Instructional Innovation and Assessment -- said that their review of the literature found considerable evidence that student learning outcomes are comparable in intensive and regularly scheduled courses. So they set out to find if students felt equally good about the courses in both formats.

Given the variables in the success of any course, Texas is a good place for such studies because of its size. The researchers were able to find 130 recent cases where the same instructor taught the same course in both a traditional 15-week semester and a shorter intensive period of 9 or 11 weeks. Texas uses a student evaluation form for courses, and the study compared the courses taught in the same ways. In addition, the researchers controlled for class size – generally smaller classes get higher ratings and the intensive courses are smaller.

Instructor ratings ended up being the same for intensive and regular courses, when all the controls were added. (Without the controls, the instructors did better with the intensive model.) But the course rating was significantly higher, on average, for the intensive courses, even when controlling for class size.

This suggests that the intensive courses not only provide as much learning as traditional schedules, but may be more popular with students. Kucsera said this suggested that colleges might want to do more research on why these courses appear to be more successful and to consider offering more of them.

One researcher in the audience speculated that in intensive courses, there is more “bonding” between professor and students than in regular courses. Even if the professor and students would have spent the same total amount of time over a semester, the shortened period builds relationships and adds to the closeness of the experience.

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