As colleges continue to pursue advances in equity and accessibility across the country, they are examining operations inside and outside the classrooms. Many institutions, looking to better serve a diverse set of students, are changing how they offer instruction altogether by deconstructing the traditional semester structure and transitioning to shorter, seven- or eight-week terms.
This spring ATD released Preparing for Shortened Academic Terms, a guide designed to support institutions making the shift to shorter terms. The guide is informed by the experiences of colleges that have already made the transition, and includes a workbook and six college spotlights that detail how and why institutions have shifted to shorter terms. The below is excerpted from the Trident Technical College spotlight. The complete document, the guide, and five more college spotlights are available for download here.
Trident Technical College (TTC) has been active in the ATD Network since 2007 and earned Leader College status in 2012, the same year when they began the transition to seven-week terms. After looking at their student success data, which showed that the college’s course success rates had been trending down from 1991 to 2011 — a time frame that coincided with a change at the college from a quarter term format to a semester format— leadership knew they had to act. Beginning their plans in fall 2012, TTC transitioned to almost all courses being offered in seven-week terms two years later.
“How could we look at the data and not act?”
Early data from the college has been promising. TTC saw their student course success rates increase from 63.2 percent to 75.3 percent by the fall of 2017. During that same time frame, their withdrawal rates decreased from 15.8 percent to 9.4 percent, and their graduation rate increased by 8 percentage points. Here’s how they made the transition:
TTC took almost two years to prepare and launch their new academic calendar. Initially, faculty were concerned about how they would fit course content into a shorter format. It soon became clear that success would depend on having conversations not simply about converting content into a shorter term, but completely redesigning courses, content, and competencies. To help with preparation, the dean of arts asked all instructors to teach at least one course in the shortened format. This strategy was helpful for their division, and it became clear that launching to the shortened terms was more difficult for areas that did not pilot first.
Access to professional learning was a critical part in getting the faculty ready for a seven-week schedule. When TTC was making their preparations, there weren’t many other institutions converting to shorter terms at the same time. To make sure faculty were prepared for the transition, senior leadership set aside professional learning funds for faculty to bring in experts and attend conferences — funds that would help them explore best practices in pedagogy for their courses. Faculty looked to infuse more active learning strategies, problem-based learning, and flipped classroom structures. They flexed the use of their digital platforms and materials to be sure students had everything they needed on the first day of class.
EXCEPTIONS THAT MAKE SENSE
While the college initially aimed to convert as completely as possible to a seven-week calendar, some exceptions had to be made to accommodate TTC’s unique courses and programs. Large animal veterinary courses were exclusively field trip–based, and it was too difficult to make that experience fit into two trips per week for the students. The health science division looked closely at all program areas and found that respiratory therapy assistant clinicals required 15 weeks to give students enough exposure to different patient cases. Horticulture was one other area that struggled to create the same hands-on experience for students in seven-week format. Overall, the college centered the discipline and the student experience when making decisions about exceptions.
TTC realized that many of their deadlines and turnaround times would need to be adjusted during the shift to two seven-week terms. In order to begin framing what this might look like for students and the offices that serve students, TTC created and marketed a “Seat-Ready” campaign as part of their rollout.
Creation of the Sea- Ready campaign began with the end in mind and meant that students had all onboarding and enrollment processes complete, to be ready for learning on the first day of class. Offices such as admissions, the registrar, billing, and financial aid considered the amount of time they needed to process applications, materials, and requests and drafted a timeline for students that indicated ideally what deadlines should be for students to be “seat ready” by the first day of class. Actions in one office impact process in other aligned offices: To ensure a systemic approach, the VP of academic affairs convened a cross-college team weekly so that changes were collaboratively.
COMMUNICATION IS MISSION CRITICAL
To ensure that students understood the impending changes, TTC created many opportunities for students to learn about the seven-week terms and to ask questions about the impact of these changes on their circumstances. Besides the Seat-Ready marketing campaign, the college also held numerous listening sessions in which faculty and staff from across the college were available to answer questions.
With the New Schedule for Success Campaign, TTC worked to ensure all students were aware of and understood the change to shorter terms. Photo courtesy of Trident Technical College.
TTC reflected that even after their robust marketing campaign and many listening sessions that were conducted across the college, they still saw a gap in student comprehension that required staff to do a lot of one-on-one sessions with students. Communicating with current students required a different approach than with new students, and it was important to make sure that students heard the information more than once and in multiple formats.
Counselors reported that students living with disabilities were initially anxious about this change in the schedule when it was first announced. Students were concerned that the pace would be unmanageable for them and worried about their ability to be successful. In response, the counselors worked individually with students to help them identify academic strategies and college supports. Timely communication to faculty was also important at the beginning of the semester to ensure supports and accommodations could be in place at the beginning of the term for students to be most successful.
Control the narrative: Trident Tech could not emphasize enough the power and impact of good communication practices. Missteps in communication can cause long-term trust issues that can be difficult to recover from. Being intentional about communication will keep a college from constantly being reactive and doing damage control.
Flexibility is key: Some things are impossible to plan for. For example, the college planned a timeline that would help students be ready by the first day of class. However, even the most proactive timeline can be disrupted in a dynamic system where we are dealing with human beings. For example, dropping a class or having a class get canceled at the last minute can send a student into a panic to find a suitable course and remain financial aid eligible.
Customer service issues take the most time: Despite their best communication efforts to students, TTC realized that there were times when one-on-one communication is the most effective. The Registrar encouraged everyone to “Put on your student hat” to not only answer a student’s questions but also think ahead to what they might ask or need next. This insight comes with experience.
Preparing for Shortened Academic Terms is a new guide from Achieving the Dream designed to support the growing number of institutions across the country that are shifting to scheduling courses in shorter academic terms. The guidebook, and accompanying workbook, is shaped by the experiences of colleges that have made this transition, including six college spotlights that provide an in-depth look at different colleges’ approaches and processes. Learn more.