TITLE: A Quick Thought on Minimesters AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: November 26, 2007 8:05 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Yes, that is a word used by an accredited institution of higher education. In my previous entry, I discussed what lecture was good for. One of the best uses of lecture, I concluded, was to motivate students for the work that they would do outside of class. The best use of class time, whether lecture or not, is to support students in the work they do at home and in the lab. That's because learning takes time, and 150 minutes a week in class just isn't enough. After the wedding I mentioned last time, I took my family out for dinner. While dining, I could not help overhearing some of the conversation in booth behind us. An instructor from the local community college was describing her unabashed love of the minimester. "The students were so focused!" "Minimester" is a portmanteau that refers to a very short and concentrated term of study. In recent years, our local community college has begun offering eight-day courses in the interim between real semesters. Eight days. The appeal to students is obvious. They can knock out an entire course in a couple of weeks. To students looking to get out into the workforce quickly, or to transfer to a four-year school as soon as possible, the minimester is a boon. The students are so focused... They have to be, or the course will be over in the blink of an eye. But do they learn?? Like lecture, this is an idea that may sound good but does not work in practice. It may work great for the professor, who can free up a teaching slot during a traditional semester for other activities. It may work great for the school, which can sell courses to students who might be unable to commit a whole semester to a course. But I do not think that minimesters work for students -- at least not the ones who want to learn something. The minimester course reminds me many of the one-week OOD/OOP courses offered by consulting groups for professional developers. No one should think that these courses do anything more than introduce students to the topic and prepare them for a lot of work afterwards, learning on their own. Too many managers seem to think that these one-week courses are sufficient on their own. Stretching the idea in the other direction, there is a private four-year college in our state that teaches all of its courses in terms of three weeks. Its faculty believe that this sort of immersive experience benefits student learning. Three weeks is quite a bit different than 5 or 8 days, but it still seems to be so short... So I got to thinking, what sort of course can be taught -- learned -- effectively in such a short period? Without much experience teaching these courses, though, my mind quickly turned to the sort of course that cannot be learned effectively in such a short time frame. Not design. Not creating. Not writing. Not programming. (Just ask Peter Norvig!) Let's see. Students can retarget existing knowledge in a short course. A student can learn a fourth or tenth programming language in a short time, if she already knows another language like it. Most students can't even approach mastering the new language in a week, but they can be prepared to master the language with practice at home. And if the new language is in a new programming style, all bets are off. A week or two almost certainly isn't enough. Students can learn some facts in a short period, so courses that are heavy on facts are a possibility. But then, that takes us back to the discussion of lecture. If the course is "just the facts, ma'am", why not just give the student a book to read? The thing is, learning facts is only one of the desired outcomes of even a fact-laden course. It is also the one most easily achieved. The problem with minimesters is that one cannot very easily learn practices, or any behavior that take time to develop and become habitual. Practice takes, well, practice! And practice takes time. The one benefit of a three-week immersive experience is that the deep focus it affords allows the learner a chance to get a good start on a new habit. Students who take 5 courses in a traditional 15-week semester often are stretched so thin that they have a hard time creating new habits in any of them, unless they make a concerted effort. Many of us at the university detest the notion of students transferring credit for one of our courses from a community college if the course was taken during a minimester. But there is not much we can do. Fortunately, the community colleges aren't doing CS courses this way -- at least yet. Most people know that training the body takes time (though some students hope against hope). We need to respect the same truth about how the mind works. -----