Thursday, May 9, 2013

This Week's Big Thirsty: What Gives With Summer Courses?

I teach a survey course every semester. It takes 16 weeks to get through it all, and it's tough sledding. The students bitch and I cajole, and we read and write and struggle to get it done in time.

For reasons related to my husband filing divorce papers (using his new girlfriend's law firm no less), I've decided to teach summer school for some extra money while we negotiate this dissolution - and to give me something to occupy my mind.

I asked for 2 sections, got them, and find I have been given 8 week session! And my chair says, happily in an email, "Be sure that the content and rigor remains the same."

Huh? How? I don't want to beg advice from my chair just yet - I'm not tenured, but close - and I thought I'd exhaust all of my options first. Could I ask you?

Q: When faced with a shortened term for a class you normally teach in a long form, what has to give? Do you cut material? Cut assignments? Speed up the clock on assignments? How can I keep the rigor the same in such a short period of time? Do students pick up the pace? Do summer school students - lots of times high schoolers - know we're going to do a semester's worth of work in 2 months? Help!

- Terri in Texarkana


  1. I taught a shortened online class a few years ago. I kept most of the material, increased the number of discussions, and cut the number of assignments in half. This was an upper level required course though so the students were already used to college level work.

  2. If you're close to tenure, then you know how to teach a class. Fuck the chair. S/he just needs to be able to tell the dean that s/he reminded you about the content and rigor.

  3. The class should have all the contact hours of a full semester course. Just double everything up. You don't have to drop anything--but if you have a paper due at the end of the semester it would be good to get them started early.

  4. I keep the same content, almost entirely, but since my courses usually involve papers, I require shorter papers. In my 4 week courses, I require a three-to-four page paper the first and third Fridays and give a test the second and fourth. Test scores actually tend to be better for summer courses, in my experience, either because summer school students are (self-selected) slightly better students or because the material is just fresher in their minds. If you rely on papers, though, either make them shorter or, like Stella said, just get them started early and ride their asses about it.

  5. We have divided the summer up into two sessions, so they end up being even shorter and more compact. Apparently, this is better for students and faculty who can then schedule something in the other half.

    I petitioned hard for my class to move out of one of the halves into the whole summer block. I thought the frequency of significant events was too fast. In the full summer session, everything gets speeded up. There are no "off" weeks, or space between anything. Every time we meet, something is due, or multiple somethings.

  6. In a writing class, I have to limit either the number of assignments or the length. Students simply don't have enough hours to do the "regular" course. I say it all the time and the Dean or the chair just nods dumbly and says, "Well as long as it's the same course." And of course it isn't!

    We even have a 6 week version of the course. It's ridiculous.

    1. I'm with Hiram.

      Seven weeks to get through material that takes 15. Even if it's the only course they're taking, that means doubled reading assignments, and much less time for drafts and revision before the final draft is due (I teach writing too).

      There's no way it's the same class. We don't have the time. But we must give them options, mustn't we?

  7. I've done that with a survey course. The hours came out the same so my issue was keeping them interested for 3+ hours at a time in summer. I added exercises, short videos, small class projects, etc and spent no more than 1/2 hour at a time one one thing. And I stuck in lots of 5-7 minute breaks and started class back on the dot so students knew they had to be back on time. So class would alternate: lecture, film, break, lecture, discussion, film, break, lecture, exercise, break...

  8. I have no idea, but sorry about the divorce. Sounds like a good idea to keep busy.

  9. Summer school students, in my own experience, are not ready for the heavier workload and quicker turnaround time that a shortened course usually requires. Drop city after week 2.

    1. I'll second this point. I have taught condensed summer classes for years, and I think that everyone else has covered some good strategies to follow, so I won't repeat what's already been said.

      I just want to emphasize that it's okay to scare the hell out of the class at the beginning. I tell my summer students that they will have a substantial writing assignment due every single week of the session. Furthermore, I tell them that there will be some weeks when they will have two writing assignments due. I'll gesticulate dramatically at the syllabus to emphasize these points. Then, I'll give them an assignment, and I'll grade it as closely as I would an assignment given during a standard course. All of this causes roughly 1/3 of my students to drop by the second class meeting, leaving me a reasonably-sized core group of students to manage for the remaining weeks of the session.

      Full disclosure: my university caps comp classes at 28, so when I say that I lose 1/3 of my students, I really only get my comp classes down to 20ish students for whom I have to grade writing in six short weeks. That's not reasonable, which is why I don't feel bad about being threatening, to an extent, at the start of things. Though I get that many students take the "I'll just take this class over the summer at my easy community college" approach to their studies (during the summer, I teach at a CC), I find that it's worthwhile to disabuse them of the notion that they're getting an "easier" class. Otherwise, your workload will be bottom heavy, because you'll be dealing with lots of lazy nonperformace at the end of things, after you've already dumped time into these students. I don't want to read research paper drafts from students unless I know that they will be there at the end of the course--when they need to turn in the final paper. The way to ensure that this will happen is to lose the dead weight immediately.

  10. From my undergrad days- I took "Shakespeare" in the summer. Here's the breakdown:
    Five week session, two-and-a-half hour class, four days a week. Tests on Thursdays.
    The first hour was Elizabethan time period, Shakespeare biographical info, and, later in the term, sonnets.
    The second hour and a half was going over the plot points and major scenes of the Play of the Day. We covered 15 plays. The math says that is 3 plays a week. The math is accurate. I spent every afternoon reading the next day's play. And Willie didn't write no One Act shorties.

  11. When I teach summer classes (and that's every year, thanks very much Stupid State Government's inability to divide by 12), it's essentially a turbo-speed version of the regular class. We still meet twice weekly, class sessions take 2:45 instead of 1:15, the reading assignments are identical, and the assignment timeframes are compressed (read: brutal). The one significant difference is that I often have to dump one of the two semester-ending projects; students don't have time to research a subject and write both the proposal and report, and I can't turn around their proposals before the reports are due.

  12. My summer course meets for the same amount of time, except we meet 3 times a week for 2 hours. Like Middle-Aged and Morose, I use more case studies and a break to keep all of us fresh. I sure don't want to talk for 2 hours, so I need to make them do some talking! My students are taking an intro course and while the smaller class size is a major bonus, the speed of things is quite shocking to them!

  13. You're supposed to do exactly the same course, but of course you can't. The scheduling of summer classes provides yet more evidence that administrators don't really believe that much of the work of college, for both students *and* professors, is done outside the classroom. So, start with what Bubba said: the chair's said it; you've acknowledged it; you both know it just can't be true.

    You should try to meet any requirements for the class that are spelled out somewhere, and that might be the subject of a syllabus review (e.g. "students in core writing-intensive rodentia classes will write 5000 polished words, and have at least one chance to revise after feedback." In a survey course, you may be talking time-period or subject coverage or something like that instead).

    I'd argue that cutting back the number of assignments is more important than cutting back the length. It doesn't really take that much longer to write, or grade, an additional page (especially if you practice minimal marking/pointing out repeating problems only on the first occurrence). The real problem, as Dr. Mindbender points out, is dealing with turnaround time for feedback on staged/scaffolded assignments. You have to do less of that (or do it in class -- another good way to break up those very long class periods is brief peer workshops on writing-in-progress).

    And yes, you'll probably get a lot of drops (if you work at a place that penalizes you for that, that's a problem; otherwise, it's a blessing, though admittedly not for the people who pay the tuition). I send an email to the registered students not long after the class fills warning them about the fast pace of the class (and talking about logistics, since my summer classes are online). I think that's a good idea, but be aware that the things you warn students about in advance -- the intensity of the work, the fast pace of the class, the fact that you're doing the same amount of work as a regular semester class in less than half the time -- may show up as complaints on the course evaluations. Of course, if you're looking for proof that you met the rigor requirement, that can be useful.

  14. I just decided that my students in a five week summer version of Introductory Quantitative Hamsterology would have to spend nearly every waking moment not dedicated to basic life maintenance working on the course: ten hours of lecture and two three-hour labs per week times fourish equals sixty to seventy hours a week.

    No worse than grad school, really. Maybe a little better.

    I even told a couple of them that, but they didn't seem satisfied. I wonder why?

    In any case, as a first time adjunct I had to spend nearly that much time to keep up.

    1. Of course, the second term that summer a student–the kind you hope for: bright, motivated, responsible–came to me the first week and asked about getting a change of time for the final because she was also taking Organic Rodentology and the scheduling people had apparently assumed this would never happen (because it's a bleeding stupid idea, that's why!).

      I tried to warn her off, but she wanted to graduate at the end of the summer and needed both...

      So over the next month I watched her perkiness dwindle and then go missing; bags form under her eyes and hope fade from her face.

      She was as game as a bulldog and passed both courses, but the results were not what she had hoped.

  15. I have successfully taught 3 Summer course: two upper-level were 6 weeks, and one lower-level was 3 weeks.

    I accelerated everything. Two midterms and a final translated into an exam every week in the three week course, and an exam every other week in the 6 week courses. I had a quiz every day in all of these courses.

    The three week one was 3.5 hours a day and 5 days a week. This was a lower-level (read: high school math) class. I subdivided each class into (minilecture -> groupwork -> 10 min break) modules, and the students ended up doing more homework during the groupwork sessions than most students do during a semester.

    It's important to stress multiple times during the first week that the course is accelerated, and that if they fall behind even a little bit or miss one class, that they will fail.

    I did have a lot of office hours during these Summers (at least 1.5 hours between each class seession), but that's ok, because I can do work if no students show up.

    Also, the acceleration is not that surprising: if a student can take 5 courses during a 15 week semester, then they can take 1 course in 3 weeks, or 2 classes in 6 weeks.

  16. I ask to teach a four-week course almost every summer, but rarely get one (they're supposed to pay for themselves, and the dept can usually find somebody "cheaper" to teach what we offer in the summer.) The money came in handy a few years ago when I was paying alimony, and I could still use it to cut down my credit card debt.

    My experience teaching upper-div courses in the summer has been all positive: the students tend to be older and more committed, so the drop rate is small and they do the work. The compressed format (classes every day) actually helps, since they're less likely to have forgotten what we talked about in previous lectures. I do need to cut a few topics out, but I'd say I can cover about 85% of what I would in a semester, certainly all the essential material.