By Alan Bunce, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
When Timothy Fuller, dean of Colorado College in Colorado Springs, and his colleagues took a no-holds-barred look at their school in the late 1960s, they decided it was time for a radical change.
"We said, let's not tinker with the curriculum," Dean Fuller recalls. "Let's rethink the whole structure of learning."
What emerged was an unusual and - in some eyes - still radical system: Students take one course at a time, a method sometimes called the block plan. They plunge themselves into one course for a few weeks, study intensively, take exams, then move on to a new course. At the end of the year they generally end up with the same number of credits they would have with the more typical four-or-five-course at-a-time approach. But it is a markedly different, and many say deeper, educational experience. Growing interest among a range of educators and students has focused attention on this intensive method of studying. Proponents tout the benefits of giving students an opportunity to focus exclusively on one topic. Many also claim that the often high-pressure approach to learning offers experience that will be useful in meeting future work demands. As a result, more colleges are considering it and in some cases adopting it - or a modified version, involving two or three courses at a time. Some independent schools are also trying it. "I'm thrilled that colleges are doing this," says Russell Garth, executive vice president of the Council of Independent Colleges in Washington. "The arguments in their favor make sense," he says, and the conditions they produce "play out that way in real life. I've talked with a couple of colleges in the past few years who have been considering this, like Fiske." That historically black university in Nashville, Tenn., entered into an exchange program with Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa, another pioneer of the one-course-at-a-time approach. "They wanted to inquire into this block scheduling approach," says Mr. Garth. "Their president thought it might work for them." Undivided attention The appeal of the system - for both students and some faculty - lies in the logic of focusing undivided attention on one subject. A student's time is not fragmented among three of four other courses. It allows more depth and continuity of study, often giving students more time one-on-one with a professor or instructor. "It eliminates time stealing," Fuller points out, or scrimping on one course to accommodate the demands of another. "It also makes courses of less immediate interest to students more rewarding, because they're not feeling burdened and worried that they really need to be doing something else." Ann O'Connell studied this way during a summer session at Mount St. Vincent University in Halifax. "We took a full year's course in statistics in just six weeks. "It was great - as long as you didn't mind not doing much of anything else," she recalls. Now a spokeswoman for Keiser College, a small two-year institution in Ft. Lauterdale, Fla., she says, "Here also we teach one course at a time - the 'modular curriculum.' It lets students who have outside work and family responsibilities concentrate on a course for a short time. But it's intense," she adds. The open blocks of time can also benefit student research. "You can do more with out-of-class experiences," Garth says. "You can take one or two days and travel, because you're not in conflict with other course schedules." According to Garth, students can also take advantage of visiting scholars who won't come for a whole semester but will visit the campus for several days. These aspects of block plans "connect the college with the outside world," Garth says. "In one case the students go out there, in the other you bring parts of the outside world in." Faculty members too, he states, get a break, since "they're not teaching every block, and the time in between is like a mini-sabbatical. …