Moselio Schaechter

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March 28, 2013

Short Courses for Long-Term Learning

by Phoebe Lostroh

A view of Colorado Springs, the home of Colorado College, where the author teaches.

Good microbiologists question assumptions. How about the assumption that semesters are the best calendars for learning? What would happen if rather than taking four courses concurrently during a semester, students instead took those four courses successively, one at a time? This describes the Colorado College “block plan,” first implemented in 1970. We teach every undergraduate course, from Arabic to Zoology in periods of 3.5 weeks.

You may wonder how such a calendar works for science courses with laboratory or field components. But in fact, microbiologists already believe in this model of immersive science education. Consider the short courses offered at the Marine Biological Laboratories, or Cold Spring Harbor. These, however, are courses for advanced students. Would undergraduates learn anything in such a small period of time? The fact that Colorado College graduates go to medical and graduate schools at the same high rate as that of most liberal arts college graduates suggests that they learn their lessons well. And sadly, there is all too much evidence that students learn precious little in most undergraduate science courses. Why not try something different?

In science classrooms, focusing on student learning is more valuable than focusing on what the professor “covers.” I used to “cover” one chapter of a typical microbiology textbook each day on the traditional plan, making my way through 16-17 chapters. My students crammed and passed the exams, as they would have on any calendar. I don’t do that any more. Instead I teach immersive courses that focus on student learning, with less lecturing, more in-class activities, and lots of lab.

Of course student-centered pedagogies can be implemented on any calendar (see Scientific Teaching by microbiologist Jo Handelsman). But my experience is that the semester schedule gets in the way of innovation. It is too familiar, too predictable, too comfortable. Students and faculty alike rebel against changes in the expectations for what should happen during 50-minute “lecture” sections. The block plan productively disrupts these expectations. It helps faculty embrace student-centered pedagogies, not least because they keep the joy in learning. Happy, engaged students can be challenged and challenge is a necessary prerequisite for learning.

Why does any of this matter? First, many colleges have January or May terms that last about a month, so there are opportunities to try teaching a ‘real’ science course in a ‘block.’ Second, block plans are reproducing and evolving. They can be found at Cornell College, the University of Montana-Western, Quest University, and in some summer offerings at a number of schools. Perhaps blocks are not for everyone, but maybe semesters aren’t for everyone, either.

What are your experiences with block-like courses? Have you designed a microbiology course for a “block,” whether or not it was called that? I look forward to learning from your experiences.


Phoebe is an Associate Professor of Biology at Colorado College.


Hi, everybody,

Thanks for the comments.

I agree that a diversity of styles and schedules would serve the broadest group,of students. And it is certainly true that' "total commitment" is needed to do a block of microbiology. While I do not think it would work well for many married or parenting students, every once in a while some such person graduates from Colorado College. Many of our students with jobs are employed by the College, which is a particularly understanding employer!

It sounds like I would really enjoy talking more with all of you about teaching!


Block formats are great for lab activities. I taught a block microbiology class for k-12 teachers one summer - it was great because each student cared for a culture of their own like a pet and they used their own cultures for the lab activities.

Interesting idea. I love it when educators think outside of the box. I would be interested in finding out the proportions of students that are traditional vs. non-traditional at Colorado College. I teach a 3.5 week Intro Biology course over the summer that is very intense. The students have to completely commit to the course in order to be successful. I am afraid the block method would not allow for flexibility for non-traditional students with jobs and families.

Phoebe, that is a nice post! I know many CC alums, and they loved the structure. A diversity of approaches is probably best, given the diversity of the student styles we face. Best wishes!

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