The Perils of a M/W/F Class

5 December 2014, 1420 EST

Greetings, fellow Duck readers.  I realize I’ve been MIA this semester – DGS duties and ISA-Midwest stuff took too much of my non-research time.  Another factor in my absence, however: a Monday Wednesday Friday schedule. And, it sucked.[1]  Like large-tornado-near-my-hometown sucked.  Today marks the last Friday class of the semester – thank god.[2]  Even though I should be getting back to research this morning, I wanted to write a little bit about why I think 50 minute/3 day a week classes should be banned in our discipline.

  • Let’s take a lesson from the educators: longer class periods that do not meet as often have some advantages for climate and learning.

My significant other, who teaches middle school science, has taught in schools where class periods are 40, 50, and 90 minutes in length.  And, my SO’s preference is strongly for longer class periods.  This preference is in line with a lot of the peer-reviewed research on block scheduling (one of the ways where students have longer class periods that do not meet as often in secondary schools).  Zepeda and Mayers (2006) reviewed 58 previous academic studies on the issue and, although they find very inconsistent results across the studies, they do find that there were improvements in “student grade point averages” and “school climate” when students were on block schedules. Queen (2008)’s handbook  on the topic also reviews the academic literature with a positive take–away point for block scheduling. There are a lot of new dissertations on the topic, however, with very different results across disciplines.  Although I’m not an expert on the topic, the logic that longer class periods allow for more diversity in teaching techniques makes a lot of intuitive sense.

  • My job at a major research institution really depends on my continued research.  Having face-time with students three times a week really cuts into research time. 

Sad reality: you can probably get tenure at most AAU research universities with a below average teaching record; you can’t, however, get tenure with a below average research record.  Getting put in a M/W/F class takes a lot more time than a T/U class and has increased opportunities for time spent away from research.  For junior faculty at research universities, I would contend, M/W/F scheduling can have severe negative consequences on their research time, which could ultimately influence their tenure prospects.  One reason why high school instructors prefer block scheduling is that helps their prep-time.  Further, if you are active at research and are going to small conferences/invited talks, you are likely to miss more class periods on a M/W/F schedule than a T/U schedule, creating a situation where students are either left with a cancelled class or an alternative instructor.

  • There is some path dependence here. Having prepped a course for a T/U it’s very hard to change to a M/W/F. 

I thought it would be totally easy to take my courses prepped for 2 times a week, 75 minutes and turn them into 3 times a week, 50 minutes. It didn’t work so well. This might be just my issue but added course preps are never fun and has been previously cited in work  on the stressors for junior faculty.

  • If the course meets on Friday, chances are attendance is going to be lousy anyway. 

Until this semester, I’ve never had a class that meets on Friday.  For many of my students- even those enrolled in M/W/F classes before –  it appears they aren’t used to attending class on Friday either.  This even seems to be the case when attendance is mandatory.  Students, of course, don’t want Friday classes any more than I do.  And, an interesting study from New Zealand even indicates that Friday classes don’t reduce “overall levels of alcohol use and heavy drinking among college students” (Paschall, Kypri, and Saltz 2006, 764), although it (and other) studies have found that Friday classes are associated with less drinking on Thursday night.  [3]

  • There is another way: M/W and T/U classes.

One way to address the issue of M/W/F classes is just get rid of Friday instruction all together and have 75 minutes classes on M/W as well.  Instructional times remain consistent and yet the problems of Friday classes are avoided. In addition, all the benefits of a longer class period can be enjoyed. Many community colleges have done this as a way to cut costs during the economic downturn.  Some four year colleges and universities have followed the trend as well.[4]   This seems like an approach that could benefit both faculty and students, if classroom facilities allow.  

[1] Again, I’m not working in a gulag.  My job is pretty sweet.  And, I’m extremely privileged to have it.  This is blog post, however, and that means I’m allowed to piss-and-moan.

[2] But I’m sure most of my students will be missing class this afternoon as they travel to cheer for the football team that shares the same name as my employer.

[3] File that finding under “social science my grandmother already knows.”

[4]   Of course, this comes as other colleges are stepping up Friday schedules as a way to make use of limited facilities.