Beware of block programs

Prof. Pettigrew on why some courses are better spread out

Quest University (Tucker Sherman/Flickr)

Lately we’ve been hearing a lot about block courses at Canadian universities. The idea is that instead of taking several courses over a semester or two, students take one course at a time over a matter of weeks. The system is already in place at Quest University and the University of Northern British Columbia is trying them out.

It’s easy to see the appeal of this kind of programming. Students get to focus on one subject at a time. Moreover, the final exam comes not long after the first class, so they have less time to forget material from earlier in the course. I’ve experienced these and other benefits myself while teaching spring and summer classes, so I can see the temptation.

But it seems to me that block courses have as many or more disadvantages, and we should be cautious before jumping on the block bandwagon.

As others have noted, there is the concern about what happens if, say, a student becomes ill for a week or two? In a normal course, there would be time to catch up. Less so in the block structure.

Moreover, there are any number of courses that either could not feasibly be offered in a block format or, at least, would be badly compromised by it. It’s difficult to imagine, for instance, teaching a solid course in, say, the Nineteenth Century English novel in a three-week block. There wouldn’t be time to do all the reading. Indeed, courses that require substantial research and writing projects might be compromised too since there might be too little time to gather resources and work on multiple drafts of multiple papers. One of the best things I ever wrote as an undergraduate was a long research paper on Dickens’ epic novel Bleak House. There’s no way I would have been able to write that kind of paper in a block course.

More seriously, the condensed time frame necessarily provides less time to really mull over the issues raised in the course. One could cram in readings and lectures in a course on, say ethics, but part of the value of such a course is what happens outside of class time or even outside of studying time. Some of my best university experiences were the out-of-class discussions with other students that developed over the course of months, or periods of contemplation where I tried to work out what I really thought about the material I was studying. If my year-long Philosophy of Religion class had been condensed into a few weeks, it would not have been the life-changing experience it was. UNBC points out that a student could do a whole minor in one semester. Is that really what we want? Or do we want students to come at a subject again and again over time?

Quest boasts that the block program allows instructors to plan trips and other activities without worrying that such forays will interfere with other courses. Fair enough. But one of the things we should be doing for undergraduates is helping them to see the connections among various disciplines. That’s still possible in a block system, of course, but I suspect it may promote a tendency already too common among novice learners: the tendency to see each class as wholly separate from the others. In fact, students should be drawing the parallels between the political theory of Machiavelli and the history of early modern Europe and the drama of Renaissance England. That seems like it would be a little easier if they were taking those courses at the same time.

Finally, I worry that the block course structure is, to some extent, part of a disturbing trend of treating courses like products which should be packaged in the most convenient way possible. Indeed, much of what we hear in favour of the system is how much students like it. Quest talks about how “Students say they appreciate being able to concentrate on just one topic, especially when the subject matter is new to them, or if they expect it to be difficult.” UNBC notes that their do-your-minor in one semester idea was a “recruiting model.”

Block courses seem innovative and exciting in a lot of ways, and maybe they are the way of the future. But, as one often finds in education, new isn’t always better, and exciting isn’t always as educational as you might think. Let’s think carefully about this one.




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Beware of block programs

  1. As a student at Quest University, and as the person who took the photo attached to this story, I feel like I should comment – Honestly when I first started at Quest f I had simular concerns about the block system, but now having studied in blocks for nearly four years I haven’t found one of these points to be valid. The key is that every class is taught in short intense blocks, rather than one off summer courses that are taught this way at many other schools (and that the author of this piece is basing his judgement upon) When every course is taught this way you actually get far more deeply immersed in your education than you would in a traditional system. I have taken courses that I never thought could be done in one month (and that I never thought I would enjoy) The Calculus series, Ancient Greek Literature, The History of Science. In every class you are actively encouraged to bring experiences from other courses to the table. Currently I am writing my thesis on intellectual property law, and I am in regular contact with faculty from the sciences, humanities, and the arts.
    As for the convenience argument, in the sense that you can do more on one subject during one month taking only one class at a time, yes, I have found this to be the case. However, I have found that Quest pushes you to go so much further than you would go in one month in a traditional program that convenience really isn’t the right word. 3 hours of work in class and 3 hours of homework outside of class is the norm, and I have regularly done more like 6 hours of work outside of class, sometimes as much as 9. By the end of “Spherical Trigonometry” I was so immersed in math I felt like I couldn’t speak english. I have certainly had life changing courses. As I work on my thesis, I am drawing from the work that I did in these courses, re-editing it, and building upon it in exactly the way the author says the block system does not allow.
    Lastly although the block system is new in Canada it isn’t actually a new idea at all – Colorado College in the US has been teaching this way for more than 40 years and consistently ranks amongst the best universities in the states.

  2. As a student at Quest University, and as the person who took the photo attached to this story, I feel like I should comment – Honestly when I first started at Quest f I had similar concerns about the block system, but now having studied in blocks for nearly four years I haven’t found one of these points to be valid. The key is that every class is taught in short intense blocks, rather than one off summer courses that are taught this way at many other schools (and that the author of this piece is basing his judgement upon) When every course is taught this way you actually get far more deeply immersed in your education than you would in a traditional system. I have taken courses that I never thought could be done in one month (and that I never thought I would enjoy) The Calculus series, Ancient Greek Literature, The History of Science. In every class you are actively encouraged to bring experiences from other courses to the table. Currently I am writing my thesis on intellectual property law, and I am in regular contact with faculty from the sciences, humanities, and the arts.
    As for the convenience argument, in the sense that you can do more on one subject during one month taking only one class at a time, yes, I have found this to be the case. However, I have found that Quest pushes you to go so much further than you would go in one month in a traditional program that convenience really isn’t the right word. 3 hours of work in class and 3 hours of homework outside of class is the norm, and I have regularly done more like 6 hours of work outside of class, sometimes as much as 9. By the end of “Spherical Trigonometry” I was so immersed in math I felt like I couldn’t speak english. I have certainly had life changing courses. As I work on my thesis, I am drawing from the work that I did in these courses, re-editing it, and building upon it in exactly the way the author says the block system does not allow.
    Lastly although the block system is new in Canada it isn’t actually a new idea at all – Colorado College in the US has been teaching this way for more than 40 years and consistently ranks amongst the best universities in the states.
    Certainly the block system is only one element of an education but it is one that I have found highly valuable.

  3. Dr. Pettigrew,
    I’m a regular reader of your blogs and also a forth year Quest student. While you certainly raise some worth while points (sickness, difficulties researching and writing large works in just three weeks, limited engagement with course work, and taking courses in “the most convenient way possible”), I think that a deeper investigation into these potential issues would actually prove them to not really be issues at all. Before I respond to the points above, it’s important to make clear, as has already been mentioned in a previous comment, that the block programme is nothing new. Colorado College has been doing it for decades and the results are extremely positive.

    Firstly, the ‘sickness argument’ is at best, very weak. If a student was sick for weeks on end in a traditional university setting, multiple courses would be at risk. At Quest, just one. Worst case scenario, take a heath related leave, and make a class up in the early summer.

    Secondly, your suggestion that students are unable to read large works and write large reports/paper in the block system is also miss-guided. I can say with confidence, based on conversations with friends who attend large Canadian and American universities and related discussions with Faculty, that our reading lists and assignments are very comparable. While admittedly, some material (Nineteenth Century English novels, as you suggested) may be difficult to fit into three and a half weeks, I think that there are ways around this and other things to take into account. If you had done thorough, or any, research into the Quest Block System you would know about Seminal Readings that all students must complete over a couple of years. These readings will be related to the students thesis and they are done in such a way that they will have time to get through long arduous reads. This point aside, I’ll also put forward the suggestion that an undergraduate education need not be about writing long papers over the course of semesters. To me at least, an undergrad education (especially in the humanities) is about the process of thinking and investigating ideas, and then structuring thoughts into a succinct and polished medium. And lets face it – just because students in traditional settings have 3 months to write a paper, doesn’t mean that their considerations will be deeper, arguments better structured, and that they won’t pull an all night writing session to finish it.

    Thirdly, you suggest in your most miss guided point that the block system doesn’t allow for inter-student discussion outside of the class room. This couldn’t be any farther from the truth. In the block system, your block is your life. I, for example, am currently studying patterns of revolutions in a history course. Right now – I’m eating, sleeping, thinking, reading, writing, and as far as I’m concerned, living the French Revolution. Moreover, on a campus of about 350 students (almost all of whom live on campus) inter-student academic discussion creeps its way into the focal point of seemingly all conversations. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been at a house party or at the bar, only to find myself talking to a classmate, or another Quest student, about course themes.

    Lastly, you raise an interesting point about educational philosophy. I’m a student, so I only really know what I have experienced, and what those more endowed with experience around me suggest. On a personal level, my Quest experience has been tiring, frustrating, and a huge amount of work – but isn’t that the point? At Quest I have been pushed to explore subjects I would never have considered studying, I have been shown how to construct interdisciplinary arguments in a time efficient way, and I have developed the confidence to present my ideas in front of peers and strangers alike. I have strength of mind, ordered intellect, and the ability to think for myself – I owe this to the block system.

    I am confident, Dr. Pettigrew, that your conceptions of the Quest block system will change if you thoroughly investigate its merits and faults. I would put forward the suggestion of a trip to Quest. Call it professional development – I’ll be your tour guide.

  4. Dear Todd,

    I challenge you to come teach a class at Quest.

    I went to UBC last year, and now I attend Quest University Canada and can completely and honestly say you get more out of your educational experience here. You read more, you write more, you collaborate with fellow students more, and you have a massively better relationship with your teacher. When at UBC I didn’t think I could write and read this much, I thought it was impossible, as you did with your favourite paper, but I guarantee you’d create a better product in a month long intensive.

    As for missing a block if you get sick, unfortunately that’s what happened to me this block. I miss one class, nothing effects my gpa, my tuition will get pushed forward to pay for the next block, and I will go back to class in March and start another class fresh. On the flip side last year at UBC I got whooping cough, and my gpa plummeted for all FIVE classes I was taking. That’s the best anecdotal evidence I can give you.

    Lastly, if you’re going to attach Quest’s name to your article you should come visit first because this school is holistically all for education, runs as a non profit, and was founded on the principles of providing the best and most progressive educational experience in Canada.

    I hope to see you in the spring, as does anyone else from Quest who reads this laughing at the incredulity of your uninformed opinions.

    Cheers

    Keegan

  5. Since posters have been so thorough in their responses, I will provide a bit more feedback. First, I wasn’t speaking only of Quest, but of block courses as an idea. There’s a lot to like about how Quest does things in this and other regards. Secondly, I don’t dismiss block courses out of hand — I only suggest we proceed with caution.

  6. Dear Dr. Pettigrew,

    I do not have a long and thorough response to your piece, but I do strongly recommend you take up C Nicholas’s offer above of a tour of Quest. You might find that after visiting the university (hopefully sitting in on a few courses and experiencing what the students experience) its “new and exciting” methods prove to be more than just new and exciting.

    • Andrew, I would happily visit Quest. All the good folks at Quest have to do is to invite me to speak or visit in some other official capacity and pay my way. I’ll be on a plane forthwith.

  7. Dear Dr. Pettigrew,

    I agree that the block system ought to be taught with caution. My experience with Quest is that the ultimate caution necessary is on the faculty side. We frequently have guest faculty come to teach a block.

    Last year I served as the Foundation Representative to the Quest Student Representative Council (I was the student in student government whose portfolio was specifically oriented around prerequisite classes), and I can say with confidence that the most common problem with guest faculty who come is that they don’t understand the potential of the block. They–with remarkable consistency–offer light workloads, on the assumption (for instance) that reading a book takes a week. It doesn’t. It takes two days. For one small example, I’ve read Kant’s Grounding on the Metaphysics of Morals in two days, and (even though I read the thing 10 months ago, and even though I’m a math student) I think I can say with confidence that I got more out of the text than any of my friends at other universities, with whom I tried to talk about it. And I don’t think my experience is atypical (Shoot me an email at caleb.raible-clark@questu.ca if you’d like to read my essay on the text).

    Because teaching frequently settles to the lowest common denominator (or something near it), a school where some students simply aren’t focused on the material enough to do the reading is guaranteed to pull down expectations.

    The best month of my life was this September, taking a class called “African Self-Perceptions.” During the course (18 class days, with 6 days of weekends), I read a dozen texts, wrote 15 single page, single-spaced, papers (minus a couple surprise days off), wrote 3 five-to-eight page single-spaced papers, and did a whole lot of thinking and talking and mulling over outside of class.

    As long as you simply hold students to four times the work, you can easily accomplish something in one fourth the time, and I think with better results. I don’t know how hard you push your students in your summer blocks. Perhaps they are too accustomed to a light workload to really excel, or perhaps they could benefit from being pushed harder.

    Yours Sincerely,
    Caleb

  8. Thanks for bringing attention to some of the differences and limitations of the block system, Todd!

    My experience:

    During three years in the block system at Quest, none of these issues came up for me. Compared to semester long courses I’ve taken elsewhere, including a PhD seminar course at U of T:

    - I spent more out-of-class time discussing material with peers at Quest since I was a table with them every single day for a month
    - I wrote and read at least as much; in the block program it’s not uncommon to submit an essay and receive feedback on previous work 4 times a week
    -Overall, I felt like it was easier to engage with the material

  9. Dear Mr. Pettigrew,

    First let me say that I am so thankful to call the commenters above my classmates– I agree with everything that they have said.

    I am wondering about what gives you the authority to comment on the risks associated with instituting the block program? Have you ever taken a course on the block program? Have you ever taught a course on the block program? (Other than these summer courses. I have taken several summer courses at other institutions and they are really quite different).

    At Quest we are taught to Question everything, so I commend you for raising this question. However, we are also taught to support our ideas with evidence, and to thoroughly research a topic before we present (let alone publish) about it.

    Innovative ideas are always hard to promote, and systems are always hard to improve. It is actions like yours that often make them so.

    In the future, I implore you to do your research. For example, perhaps it would have been beneficial to speak to a student studying on the block plan before writing your article. You may have been able to settle your hesitations about it, without unnecessarily condemning what many of us believe to be a beacon of hope for post-secondary education.

  10. Thanks for bringing attention to some of the differences and limitations of the block system, Todd!

    My experience:

    During three years in the block system at Quest, none of the issues you brought up were problems.

    Compared to semester long courses I’ve taken elsewhere including a PhD seminar course at U of T:

    - I spent more out-of-class time discussing material with peers at Quest since I was a table with them every single day for a month. It was also easier to meet out of class at Quest because we didn’t have competing academic schedules.
    - I wrote and read at least as much; in the block program it’s not uncommon to submit an essay and receive feedback on previous work 4 times a week
    -Overall, I felt like it was easier to engage with the material when I as immersed in it every day

    That said, everyone should be cautious when choosing the best program for them.

  11. Dear Professor Todd Pettigrew,

    I hope this message reaches you well. I’m writing this message because I’m currently a student in Professor Erin Millar’s journalism class at Quest University. In this class we are required to write one major article piece, and I have decided to write mine on the mental health effects of the block program on block program students.

    I would like to gain further insight and include your perspective into my piece seeing as how your article has sparked quite a bit of discussion on our small campus. Your insight would provide a lively commentary to highlight the perceived–or actual–downfalls of the block system program.

    I realize that you are quite busy so I propose that we conduct a short 15-20 minute phone interview. If you were able to then we could negotiate a time and date, I am quite flexible.

    Finally, I’m sorry for the public offer. I realize this should be done privately but I had no way to be in contact with you. So if you are interested in discussing this matter further, please email me at jose.colorado@questu.ca

    Also, please let me know should you require any further clarification. I greatly appreciate your time, effort, and consideration in this matter. Take care!

    Sincerely,

    Jose C.

  12. I agree with Dr. Pettigrew that the block program should be approached with caution, and he brings up valid arguments and concerns regarding being a student on the block program. Regardless, while I was at Quest, I found that I learned really well on the block, and many of the comments from my classmates highlight these benefits. However, I think that it is could also be due to the structure of the seminar learning style, dedication of the students and faculty, and cohesiveness of the academic program at Quest.

    During my undergrad, I went on exchange to a european school which also offered a few blocks, and I am working towards my MSc, and my new university also offers two blocks per academic year in January and February. My experience on the block at these other institutions has been very different than at Quest. First of all, the students in my class are not used to condensing the information into a four week period, they find the work load intensive and difficult, and many students struggle to adapt to the block when it is offered. The classes and teachers do not adapt the teaching style to benefiet the students, for example, we are still in large lecture alls with 200 students (my current situation) and in this block I am spending most of my time in a computer lab working by myself with four TA’s to assit 200 students if they are struggling, If this is the case I personally see no benefit in teaching a class in one month when I could have spread out my course load over a traditional semester system. I think that the success of the block program is deeply rooted to the university system it is being taught in. It is an incredibly valuable way of learning if it is applied properly, and it should be approached with caution.

    I feel very privileged to have studied at Quest in such an inspiring and innovative education system, which utilizes the block program for all it’s advantage, but this definitely not “a one fits all solution” for all universities.

  13. I hope the Questers’ professors will be grading their English on this assignment. Whatever the effect on their psyche, the block week format has not (for the most part) perfected their writing abilities.

    • Miranda Anderson,

      I’m calling you out on your comment: it is quite unfair to judge Quest students’ writing abilities based on their comments on this blog. In my experience as a peer tutor (a hired student working in the resource center), Quest students’ writing improves exponentially as they enter different blocks, and learn about different writing styles.

      To assume that Quest students attempt – and thus fail, you say – to write “perfectly” in a Comments section of a blog is entirely ridiculous.

      The Block program doesn’t claim to perfect writing skills (Dr. Pettigrew does not assert this either), and I would encourage you to provide us all with examples of students (or professionals, for that matter) that have perfected their writing abilities.

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