Saturday, October 20, 2012

Problems with the 4-4 Student Load

As I have mentioned previously, Trinity is considering changing from the current student load of ~5 courses each semester to a load of ~4 courses each semester. This alternate configuration is called a 4-4 student load as each student normally takes 4 courses, each of which is 4 hours of credit. A related proposal is to reduce the teaching load from the current 3-3, which each faculty member teaches three courses each semester, to a 3-2 teaching load where faculty alternate between 3 and 2 courses. In general I am opposed to both of these changes, but I have to admit that my opposition is based largely on thought experiments and imagined consequences instead of empirical data.

This weekend I got the chance to talk to someone who teaches at Southwestern University. They made the change from a 5-5 student load and 3-3 teaching load to 4-4 and 3-2 a few years ago. So this faculty member has direct experience with both of these systems. I wanted to record what we talked about and her perspective of that change here, because I felt that she had some very good insights.

Lack of Student Flexibility
The #1 problem that she described was something I hadn't even thought of, a lack of student flexibility in scheduling. In a 4-4 student load situation, students really need to take 4 courses each and every semester. The reason being that it isn't feasible for most students to go up to 5 courses when each one is four hours, and if you have more than one or two semesters with only three courses, you won't graduate on time.

All faculty know that occasionally students get in over their heads or sign up for courses they really aren't prepared to take. Under a 4-4 scheme, these students really can't drop those courses without pushing back their graduation. In the case where students choose to register for only 3 courses originally and take a light load, they have an even worse problem if it turns out that one course causes them problems because then dropping to two courses can cause problems related to full-time enrollment for the year. That leads to all types of financial difficulties for most students.

Under the category of lacking flexibility, Southwestern also runs into problems when it comes to transfer students and transfer credit. Given the challenges of enrolling students, transfers are potentially very important to many liberal arts schools. How do you count the 3-hour credits that most transfer students will come in with? Similarly, many Trinity students take summer courses away from Trinity and the same it true for Southwestern. We can't give students 4-hours of credit for a 3-hour summer course taken elsewhere. So we might check off a requirement for them, but they run into problems when it comes to total hours. Here again you can have students who fail to graduate on time because they don't have the right number of hours. With a 4-4 configuration you simply lose the flexibility for students to go slightly above the normal requirements to offset deficiencies.

Too Few Courses
Closely related to the problem of student enrollment flexibility is the problem of course offering flexibility. The faculty member I talked to noted that her department (a STEM department) was forced to reduce their major to 10 courses. This reduces the number of electives that students take as part of the major and how many electives can be offered. Not only are there fewer faculty teaching slots for electives, students don't take many so it is hard to get a critical mass of students to validate offering them.

An odd side effect of having majors cut down to 10 courses was that some departments bend the rule by hiding requirements in prerequisites. In particular she mentioned that the physics department, in order to get under the 10 course limit, doesn't explicitly list any math requirements. Instead, they have math courses as prerequisites on certain physics courses, making them implicit requirements. I know that Trinity highly frowns on implicit requirements, and the University Curriculum Committee typically rejects any such proposal. However, some fields truly do have a need to include more courses, especially when outside requirements are included.

Caps on majors or just the limits to courses could cause problems for things like theses as well. The CS department at Trinity does a 3-semester honors thesis track. There is no way we can do three semesters when students only take four courses each semester. This is definitely one of those situations where two, four hour courses are not even close to the equivalent of three, three hour courses.

The last problem presented by reduced course flexibility with the change made at Southwestern is in the inability to offer short seminars and the like on topics of interest. There modified system does not nicely support the equivalent of one and two hour seminars or independent studies. This can make it much harder to support undergraduate student research.

Courses Didn't Increase in Difficulty
The primary arguments for the 4-4 student load is that students are overburdened by having five courses each semester and that courses could be more rigorous if students only took four. I have always felt that this argument falls flat. Students spend a lot of time doing things outside of academics. If faculty members really want their students to dedicate more time to their course, they simply need to make the course harder and find ways to enforce that students really do the work. It might not be easy or even obvious how to do it, but that is what needs to be done. If faculty can't find ways to enforce students doing the work, moving to the 4-4 model isn't going to help.

Indeed, the Southwestern faculty member said that my fears match what has happened there. Few faculty have actually made their courses more rigorous. What is worse, because most of the courses went to 4-credits without going up to 4-hours, she feels that students are actually spending less time working on academics. Why? Because students now only have 12-hours in class. So when they look at their schedule they see even more "free time" and they tend to book it for things like jobs, sports, or other extra-curricular activities. Once they have done that, they truly don't have the time to complete extra rigour even if faculty members step up and make their courses more rigorous.

The reality is that you have to change that campus mentality toward courses and course work and that is more important than how many courses students take or how many hours they meet. Apparently Southwestern is experiencing most of what I see as the worst possibilities of moving to a 4-4 and virtually none of the benefits. However, because they went down to a 3-2 teaching load, faculty see a benefit so it will be nearly impossible to switch back.

Adjuncts and Conclusions
One last odd problem that Southwestern has run into is that challenge in hiring adjunct faculty. That can be a challenging process in many departments when asking them to teach a three credit course. Asking them to teach a four hour course makes it harder. If they are teaching a course that only meets three hours, but is supposed to have a harder workload, it is very unlikely that they will require the desired level of effort.

The general conclusion from this faculty member was that she couldn't find anything good to say about the 4-4 student load at Southwestern. Only the negatives of the change have been manifest in the implementation. The same is almost true of the 3-2 teaching load with the minor exception that there is some small benefit to having the freedom of picking when the 2-course semester is done. However, in practice Trinity does not appear to be extremely strict about making certain every faculty member teaches three courses every semester so this is not really a practical benefit.