TITLE: A Quick Thought on Minimesters
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: November 26, 2007 8:05 PM
Yes, that is a word used by an accredited institution of
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
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
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
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.
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
hope against hope).
We need to respect the same truth about how the mind works.