Once a Week Is Not Enough

July 29, 2005

Most students love them. Some instructors swear by them. A number of administrators see them as a way to get through the curriculum with less fuss. But there's a problem with once-a-week courses: They almost always fail.

The problem is that unless the subject is one that does well in a traditional lecture-type format, the content cannot be delivered properly in one shot.

My mentor, a composition instructor, confessed that although he’d been teaching night classes for a decade, very few succeed. Only higher-level composition courses had been successful. He insisted that core courses that were process-heavy, such as composition, math and laboratory-based science, simply don’t work when class meets once a week.

There were not enough practice-and-feedback loops to help students absorb, retain and apply information. Hence most students failed the course. But, to his dismay, his institution kept booking classrooms and instructors to teach courses once a week. After a number of painful years trying to teach developmental and transfer-level English composition at night, I believe courses that meet once a week are not delivering. One instructor friend confessed that his developmental English composition students simply could not pass in a course that only met once a week. As he wryly put it, "their core literacy skills are piss poor."

A former dean confessed that even though the administrators pushed for more and more night classes -- most of which meet just once a week -- these were especially bad for under-prepared students. Teachers found it difficult to engage the students for three-hour straight; students frequently dropped the courses or failed. But the administration has continued to offer more and more three-hour night courses in every subject. A tremendous number of college students, on the other hand, love the once a week format. While teaching at three different community colleges and two universities (one public, one private), I managed to convince students to give me the low-down on such courses:

"I’m an adult and I'm not going to commute to one class on two separate days. It’s a really inefficient use of my time," one student piped up. Another student proclaimed, "I go, I sit, I absorb, I do all my homework. I don't need to take a few days break from it after every hour -- I'm there for it -- give me more!"
"In 50 minutes, we get shortchanged," another student complained, "after students settle in, we lose 10 minutes. At the end of class, they start getting ready to go and we lose another 5 or 10. It’s a rip-off."

"When I do math, I need more than 50 minutes to get it. The three-hour course helps me figure out what I’m supposed to do," she told me, "The rest of the week I apply what I’ve learned to the homework."

Other students were less than positive about the once a week experience. One male student said, "I don’t know if it’s because it’s at night or because it’s a once a week class, but by the end of the semester only half of the class is left."

"It sure does weed out the losers," a young female student told me.

Another student, who has five children, confided, "If I wasn’t so busy, I could take this and get an A, I know. As it is, I’ll be lucky if I even pass. It’s just not enough time to really do the work."

"I do the homework while the teacher is talking," one athlete told me. "I mean that’s wasted time anyway. Or sometimes I get lucky and some student will let me copy hers. It’s all the same to me."

"I hate the three-hour classes at night. They just drag on and on. If we’re lucky, we’ll see a film."

To me, the problem seems complex. First, students simply cannot absorb and retain information that is given in one-shot. The beauty of classes that meet three times a week is that students have a chance to replay the information in their heads and practice. With the guiding hand of the instructor, they can get even more direction and be assured that they are "getting it." An exception to this observation seem to be courses that have more than one part -- a lecture and lab, for instance. In some cases, higher level literature courses work, too. There, students get enough time to "get into" the topic. Even in these courses, I still have concerns about the ability to actually learn material when a student is only given one contact period with the instructor.

Second, with courses that meet once a week, students often forget most of the material by the next week. Only the most disciplined students who practice outside of class will be assured that they will succeed. Marginal students often fail. Students who have the minimum background and little time to study or practice are guaranteed to fail. As a colleague once told me, students with stamina, developed study skills and learning styles will succeed -- yet this population makes up a much smaller percentage of the student population that chooses once a week courses.

Unfortunately, once a week courses are often advertised to working students as a way to avoid many trips to the campus. "Convenient" is a word often seen on Web sites and college brochures. Although some of these students are disciplined enough to do work on their own, many are simply too busy working or supporting family at home to work well outside of class. Their homework slips lower and lower in priority until it is impossible for them to remember just what the instructor wanted. Many times the result is that they come to class unprepared. Because of the nature of the student population and the subjects offered, administrators are selling something that often cannot be delivered.

Instructors are often not nearly as effective teaching a three-hour course than they are with three shorter classes. The result is that they often let students go early or end up scheduling assignments students see as "time-wasting" rather than integral.

When directed to teach a three-hour session, many instructors make an effort to teach three shorter lessons in one session. Although this may be successful, it can also seem like a disjointed set of exercises. With a class that meets several times a week, lessons build on one another -- with time for students to retain information. With once a week courses, learning is
jammed into one long session.

Many writing instructors I know end up having students do in-class writing to fill time and to give the instructors something to assess. They simply don’t have the time to allow the student to go home, outline, do research, write drafts and produce good work. For the instructor, being "on" for three hours can be exhausting. When I taught several of these courses a week, I often came home so tired that it took me hours to "come down" from the experience and go to sleep.

Many instructors simply let students go early every evening. In confidence, one colleague told me that she felt sorry for her students -- many worked and had families. Keeping them on campus until 10 p.m. seemed cruel. After she scheduled some "take home" work at the end of her first session and let her students go at 9:30 p.m., they expected it every night. She caved because she "felt their pain" and knew that they simply could not work effectively late at night. One senior professor friend shared that when she taught two transfer-level composition courses at our community college, the campus was completely deserted when she excused her class on time.

Office hours are often a problem, too. When I taught once a week courses, I found that I often tried to make time to see students before or after class -- not an optimum time for them to review their work or produce another draft of an essay. Even though I was available at other times, these once a week students simply could not make time to come and see me.

Many of my colleagues, loaded down teaching courses at two or three different campuses, could not make time to meet with students on other days or nights. There the students were forced to wait until the day or night of class to get help. Here, too, it was too late to then produce more work or revise work before the class deadline. One dean I know told me that "some adjuncts, especially those with long commute times or those who travel to different colleges, may be helped by having to come to the campus only once a week."

True, the one-shot teach is more viable than frequent visits to the campus, but the ones who really lost out on that deal were the students -- and ultimately the college. This is part of the reason that "freeway fliers" have received a bad reputation. Running from campus to campus is not the most effective way to deliver curriculum. After six years of this lifestyle, not only did I feel as though I was going to collapse, I also recognized that only one of the two or three campuses got the real benefit of my experience as an instructor. The others were just "paycheck fillers."

Although I did my best not to simply park outside the campus 10 minutes before class started and run back to my car when class ended -- I couldn’t say with any certainty that this didn’t sometimes happen. Asking a student to stay for 20 minutes after class was excruciating for both of us. The ones who suffered? The students. Once a week courses simply put too much pressure on students and instructors alike.

Last, many instructors end up trimming curriculum in a once-a-week course. In many topics, trying to cover the same amount of work in 16 sessions rather than 48 is impossible. Not only do students retain less, but the nature of the three-hour course does not lend itself to reading a full-length book (or some other large task) every week. Students don’t keep up with work and end up dropping or failing. I’ll be the first to admit that when faced with reality of my class schedule and the daunting amount of work that I needed to cover, I simply eliminated one full-length novel from the list of recommended textbooks.

My dean never said a word. Many colleagues of mine have admitted they have done worse. Four papers instead of six. No midterm. Eliminating full chapters of reading. No quizzes, but directed in-class exercises instead. The result is that students are not getting what they paid for. They are not receiving the same materials and assessment they would have received in a course that meets twice, three times or five times a week. As one professor friend told me, "The administrators don’t care. They just want to see numbers -- students retained, a good curve on grades, a large number going to the next level in the sequence."

He shook his head, "it’s discouraging." What matters are results, not process. Trimming the reading and writing requirements in a composition course is especially upsetting to me. These students are going on to the next course as if they were prepared. But they are not.

Why the push to once a week courses? Administrators love the flexibility. In a desperate attempt to "do it all," adjunct instructors find these courses doable. Students say that they love not having to come to school more than once a week. There’s less parking trouble, less commute, less time in the classroom, less class work.

Unfortunately, for some courses, there’s also less learning, less work and poor results. One dean I interviewed told me that she had been pushing for twice a week scheduling for night classes in her liberal arts department for a decade. The result? Not one course has been changed to what she considered a much more effective format. Discouraged, she keeps asking the chancellor for consideration. To date he has shown no interest.

As students are positioned more and more as consumer, I suspect the use of once-a-week courses will not only continue, but also get stronger. In my mind, it’s very much like scheduling breakfast, lunch and dinner back to back to save time. True, you theoretically save time during your day -- but you simply cannot choke down three full meals. After scaling back on each meal to get all three down, you still find yourself hungry six hours later. And then, of course, you visit the cupboard and find it empty.

The sorry news about the once-a-week course is that even students who can do well on their own will find themselves without direction during the week. For others who are not so disciplined, the cupboard is not even in mind. These students simply find themselves at the table again a week later confused at the meal (or lesson) presented.

I find it discomforting that very little research has been done on the effectiveness of once-a-week courses when compared to classes that meet twice or three times a week. I wonder if college systems are interested in exploring how students retain material when given only one contact
session with students every week. My experience is that in most cases, once-a-week courses do not deliver.

Students who do pass usually are able to earn a full grade less than they would in a course that meets more often. And many will not pass. To me that suggests that higher education is not delivering. Even in a society where the student is consumer, this is bad business.


Shari Wilson, who writes Nomad Scholar under a pseudonym, explores life off the tenure track. Her last column was about the mystique of out-of-state job applicants.

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