Global Connections: Thinking outside the box on block scheduling

Photo: Victoria University in Australia.

The block model for academic scheduling is an age-old idea that has recently found international appeal.

Notably, only a handful of mostly private, small liberal arts colleges and universities in the U.S. currently use the block model, including Cornell College (Iowa), Colorado College, Tusculum University (Tennessee) and University of Montana Western. But a recent Australian version may provide new inspiration and spur more out-of-the-box innovation here in America as U.S. higher education institutions — including community colleges — evolve and continue to seek promising practices that can increase student retention, success and completion.

Under a traditional class schedule, students study four subjects at the same time over the course of a 16-week semester. The block model differs in that students study only one subject at a time. Each subject (a block) is taught more intensely over a shorter, four-week period.

In Australia, Victoria University (Vic Uni), a public institution in Melbourne, recently adopted a version of the block model after a change in policy toward more open-access admissions resulted in a dramatic decrease in their student retention, success and completion rates. Their student data indicated that the new admissions policy attracted more first-generation students from lower socio-economic levels, who tended to be older, had full-time jobs and/or significant family obligations — which mirrors the students body of most U.S. community colleges.

Balancing school and life

In their search for possible solutions, university officials believed that the block model would successfully allow students to juggle their academics with their other, out-of-class life obligations and to reduce their exposure to student debt. Vic Uni officials ultimately implemented a new version of the block model that incorporated other promising practices and is more closely tailored to their institution and student demographics.

Under the Vic Uni block model, classes are held only three days per week and on no more than two consecutive days, which helps students to successfully manage their competing life obligations. Labs and other related activities are also held on the same days. Students have only one teacher per subject/block.

To encourage persistence and timely completion, students who do not do well don’t have to wait an entire year to retake prerequisite courses. They can take the same block again later in the same academic year or often within the same semester.

Pedagogy is enhanced to facilitate collaboration and immersive learning. Professors incorporate blended learning and flipped classroom models to maximize in-class discussions. It also saves students time and money.

Streamlined on attaining skills

Blocks incorporate complementary activities to enhance students’ knowledge and skills and to help students move more quickly from remedial to standard academic levels. Courses are structured to maximize students’ acquisition of employability and 21st-century skills — foundational skills (literacy, numeracy, cultural and civic); competencies (critical thinking, creativity, communication, collaboration); and character traits (curiosity, initiative, persistence, adaptability, leadership, social and cultural awareness).

Assessments, both formative and summative, are frequent and contained within the block to provide students with timely and impactful feedback so that, before incurring an entire semester of debt, students have a good sense of how well they are doing or whether or not they like college life at all.

The Vic Uni block model has received high accolades, including the 2018 IEAA Excellence Award for Innovation. The block model was so successful at the university that officials have decided to expand it beyond the first-year class and are planning to eventually convert the entire university, including career and technical education programs, to the block model.

Under the Vic Uni block model, the number of first-year students receiving the two highest grade levels jumped by more than 43 percent. More than 50 percent for international students. The first-year student retention rate climbed to 88 percent.

Because Vic Uni’s success was largely inspired by the American block model, university officials hope to share this new, international version of the block model with U.S. institutions.

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About the Author

Wayne Wheeler
is director of international programs and services at the American Association of Community Colleges.