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Pilot Project Boosts Retention With Compressed Classes

By April Ellis

Tuesday HambricOne size does not fit all when it comes to community college students. Recognizing that, Dr. Tuesday Hambric and a few other Eastfield faculty members are trying to boost student retention through a pilot program that offers classes in a nontraditional format. The Online Scholar-Mester Project applies the compressed format of a mini term to the longer Fall and Spring semesters, and so far the results have been promising.

The project was inspired by online retention discussions held a few years ago among Eastfield College Learning Framework faculty.

“Overall, retention rates for online classes were extremely low — around 50 percent,” says Hambric, a Learning Framework faculty member. “But during Maymester and Wintermester, retention rates were never lower than 80 to 90 percent.”

Hambric knew from personal experience that a compressed class format could be beneficial. She completed two years of college studies in just one year at the University of Central Texas by taking accelerated classes.

So Hambric wondered if the compressed format could help retain students at Eastfield and boost their success during the long semesters. She decided to pilot the idea by offering a three-week-long, online version of the Learning Framework class during the regular Fall and Spring terms, beginning in 2011 and continuing for three semesters.

“There was a significant difference in retention,” Hambric says. “We retained students in these classes at a rate of 75 percent or more.”

Next Step: Assembling a Team

With that early success under her belt, Hambric then assembled a team of faculty to help her take the experiment one step further. In Spring 2014, the Online Scholar-Mester Project officially launched. Hambric and three other faculty members taught Core courses in the compressed format. Students had the opportunity to complete 12 credit hours in one semester, one course at a time. Classes lasted three weeks, with a one-week break before the next session began.

Initially, Hambric and her fellow faculty members intended for students to enroll and progress through the classes as a cohort. That met with some resistance as some students were not interested in all of the four courses and didn’t want to be locked into the entire sequence. So as the semester progressed, students were allowed to take the classes “a la carte.”

Fifteen students enrolled in the Learning Framework class Hambric offered in January, and each of the following classes had about 20 students each. “The classes are so intense that I think you need to keep them small to retain students and ensure quality instruction,” Hambric commented. “I want students to leave these classes being able to think critically and learn at the next level.”

The accelerated format isn’t for everyone. The Online Scholar-Mester Project website asks students to consider if they are self-disciplined and “willing to read a lot and intensely learn for about 15 days straight,” among other expectations.

However, Hambric notes, “Some students say, ‘This is exactly what I need. I can get through school if I can take just one class at a time and then get a break.’”

Program Gets a Passing Grade

Thus far, Hambric has been pleased with student success in the classes. In most of them, the percentage of students earning a C or higher has been above average. Plus, she says, “The quality of students’ work is so different when they can focus on just one class at a time.”

The Online Scholar-Mester Project offers benefits for instructors as well, according to Hambric. Teaching the compressed classes for just 12 weeks out of a regular 16-week semester means professors have four weeks remaining in which they can focus on research, professional development or concentrated interaction with students in their on-campus lecture classes.

Hambric plans to continue the pilot phase of the project for one more semester. During Fall 2014, Online Scholar-Mester class offerings will expand to include classes from each tier of the Core Curriculum. If the project continues, Hambric hopes instructors will commit to teaching classes in the compressed format at a certain time each year.

Learn more by visiting the Eastfield College website: Online Scholar-Mester Project.