The flexibility of the Block Plan allows Colorado College to adjust its calendar for the 2020-21 academic year, broadening scheduling options for students and providing more value to them during this unpredictable year. It also is proving to be a model for other institutions, with CC educators giving presentations to several hundred faculty and administrators at multiple institutions this spring and early summer and hosting a virtual two-day Institute on Block Plan and Intensive Teaching and Learning in July.
Rather than being locked into a traditional 16-week semester course, students on the Block Plan take courses in three-and-a-half weeks segments, or “blocks,” followed by a four-day block break.
Currently, CC plans to offer 11 blocks, beginning in August and continuing through Summer 2021, with the ability to add a 12th block if needed.
Block scheduling also allows Colorado College to take a phased approach in bringing students to campus this fall. First-year students will participate in a modified New Student Orientation and Block 1 classes; this allows the first block to be taught with fewer students on campus, while also helping new students get a solid start in college, adjust to the Block Plan, and gain the sense of place that is so meaningful at CC. Sophomores, juniors, and seniors have the option of distance-learning courses in Block 1 and will return to campus in Block 2.
The addition of a new January “J Block,” as well as half blocks and summer courses, means students can take 10 blocks of courses for the usual eight-block tuition cost this academic year, adding additional flexibility. This also allows students the option of shifting their academic year’s start and end dates, while still meeting their requirements for the year. More information and the 2020-21 academic calendar.
That ability to react and adapt quickly is one of the advantages of the Block Plan, says Chad Schonewill ’03, assistant director of solutions services. “I mean, if there’s any place geared to reacting quickly ... that’s bread and butter for the whole college,” he says.
Former Provost Alan Townsend, in an “All Things Considered” interview that aired on NPR in May, said, “Colleges that use it [block scheduling] have the opportunity to change the way classes look every three weeks — since there are multiple start and stop points. With a semester, you have only a single start and then, often 16 weeks later, an end.
“Different students can make different choices. That’s really hard to do with a semester-based system, but the blocks allow us to do that,” Townsend said in the NPR interview, headlined “Six Ways College Might Look Different in the Fall.”
Other Schools Looking at CC’s Model
CC has been contacted by various small liberal arts colleges, K-12 schools, and universities, including research universities and an Ivy League institution, seeking information about block teaching, say Traci Freeman, executive director of the Colket Center for Academic Excellence, and Jane Murphy, associate professor of history and director of the Crown Faculty Center. Schools want to know the benefits and challenges of the block structure, how faculty should design courses for the intensive format, what works and what doesn’t, and what challenges students face learning at an accelerated rate.
“They are interested in hearing how the Block Plan works and how to prepare faculty and students to teach and learn in a block system,” says Freeman. “They are also interested in the impact of the block on student life, academic support, and advising.”
Murphy and Freeman co-organized the Institute on Block Plan and Intensive Teaching and Learning, originally scheduled to be offered in-person this summer, in connection with the 50th anniversary of the Block Plan.
With interest in block programming intensifying because of COVID-19, Murphy and Freeman restructured elements from the original program and designed a remote version, offering webinars July 6-7 with colleagues around the globe. A total of seven sessions will be offered, and Colorado College presenters include Freeman and Drew Cavin, director of Field Study. Freeman and a colleague from Cornell College will co-present “Teaching and Learning in Block Plan and Intensive Courses,” and Cavin will present “Active and Experiential Learning Online.” Register online.
Additionally, Freeman, Murphy, and Mike Taber, professor of education traveled to China last fall to consult with administrators and faculty at Duke Kunshan University, which has a seven-week term. This spring and early summer, Freeman and Murphy presented to several hundred faculty and administrators at multiple institutions, in addition to holding conversations and sharing materials with educators across the country. Among their presentations was “Teaching and Learning for Intensive, Time-shortened Courses,” which Murphy and Freeman delivered in June to faculty and administrators at three small liberal arts colleges.
Murphy says other schools are especially interested in hearing about introductory STEM and other content-heavy classes, reading, writing, and research.
“We answer these questions honestly. Research would indicate that time-shortened courses are no better or worse for student learning than semester courses,” says Freeman. “What does seem to matter in a time-shortened course is the faculty member and their pedagogical choices. This said, the Block Plan does put certain pressures on the processes of teaching and learning, which faculty designing classes should take into account. And we make the point the Block Plan alone is not what makes CC special, but rather it is the teaching and learning culture of the institution that has developed alongside the Block Plan that matters most.”
Murphy agrees. “We advise them that classroom climate, inclusive pedagogies, and meaningful relationships between students and student-to-faculty also is really essential to a successful block,” she says. “These relationships with one another and the material motivate students to do the intense work we are asking.”