August 20th, 2008

Scheduling Courses for Flexibility and Student Success


With the growth of distance education and changes in student demographics, the traditional class schedule, when a class meets two or three times a week, may no longer be what students want or need to meet their educational goals. In its place, institutions are offering online, hybrid, and accelerated courses, which provide greater flexibility and can improve student learning and retention.

There are two areas to consider when it comes to course scheduling: flexibility and student success, says Lane Glenn, vice president of academic affairs at Northern Essex Community College in Massachusetts. Glenn sees great potential for improving course scheduling practices to meet these two goals.


When it comes to course schedules, students’ main concern is whether a course is offered when they need it. If it is not available on campus when they need it, students have the option of taking it at another institution either in person or online (assuming the credits will transfer).

Part of the solution to meeting students’ scheduling needs involves using the enterprise resources planning system on campus to better anticipate which courses they will need. “We can generate, for example, three-year rolling enrollment reports and put them in the hands of department chairs and curriculum coordinators,” Glenn says, “so they’re not relying on partial information or misinformation, but actual statistical information to show the registration pattern from the day registration opened until that class filled.”

Glenn is working with the IT department to create what he calls “program progress reports”-essentially batch degree audits that will allow him to take a snapshot of all the students in a particular major to see which classes they have taken and which classes they need to take, and when.

Another way to meet scheduling needs is to offer different types of courses, such as online, hybrid, accelerated, or weekend. The particular type of flexible scheduling a program adopts will depend on the culture within the department, available resources, and, most important, the students’ pedagogical needs, Glenn says.

Student success

Offering different kinds of courses is not a simple matter of taking the content and dividing it in ways to fill an unusual time slot. Imagine converting a lecture-based course that normally meets three times a week to a block format that consists of a single four-hour session. The instructor might be a great lecturer, but it’s unlikely that he or she could engage students for hours at a time.

“There is a world of difference, or there should be a world of difference, between teaching a class that meets three times a week for fifty minutes, teaching that same class that meets once a week from eight until noon, teaching that class in an accelerated format that meets three or four days a week, or teaching it online,” Glenn says. “As we get better at offering these different formats, hopefully we get better at delivering the instruction in these formats.”

In courses that meet for three or four hours at a time, instructors can try strategies such as case studies and group projects that are not possible in classes that meet more frequently for less time. But then students don’t see each other for an entire week. “A week goes by and life intervenes, and it’s harder to build community that way,” Glenn says. “When students are seeing each other two, three, or four times a week, particularly if they are in a four-, six-, or eight-week accelerated format, the experience is a more intense one. You’re seeing these people every day, every two days, or every three days. You come to rely on them more. You communicate with them more. And what we know from surveys like the National Survey of Student Engagement or, in our case, the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, two of the most effective and powerful ways of determining students’ engagement and their potential for success is their level and quality of interaction with instructors and the level and quality of interaction with peers. It seems kind of obvious, but so many of our systems and practices don’t pay attention to that.”

Recent research indicates that an accelerated course schedule (more meetings per week for fewer weeks) can help undergraduate students, particularly those who are underprepared or who face other challenges. “Life is the biggest obstacle-transportation, work, kids,” Glenn says. “When you accelerate the course from fifteen weeks to twelve, eight, or six weeks, there’s less of a chance for life to get in the way of that course. It may seem counterintuitive to take someone working full time and make him or her come to class three or four times a week instead of once or twice, but underprepared undergraduates often perform better in an accelerated environment, largely because of the community-building, I think.”

Another crucial consideration in student success is counseling. When students have options, they need to make informed decisions about which course format is best for them. “Some institutions have been very successful at training their advisors to assess students’ abilities and to have that dialogue with students to genuinely discover what [each] student is prepared to do,” Glenn says. “We’re getting better at this in the online environment, and I think colleges that do a lot of online teaching have some kind of self-assessment on their websites that students can take to determine for themselves, or in conjunction with an advisor, if the online environment is right for them. We do need to get better at creating tools and having conversations with students to determine if an accelerated course is right for them or if an open-entry, open-exit, self-paced modularized curriculum is right for them.”


Despite students’ need for flexibility and research that indicates the benefits of an accelerated schedule, there is still some resistance. Faculty members and students who are used to doing things a certain way might find a major scheduling change upsetting because of the adjustments they would need to make. Faculty would have to choose the instructional strategies that are most appropriate for the course format, which might require some professional development.

One way to overcome resistance is to recruit faculty members who are open to trying new course formats. This might mean hiring at a lower salary level to attract candidates who are likely to be younger and perhaps more familiar with new technologies and innovative instructional strategies, Glenn says.

Another obstacle is what Glenn calls “systems resistance”-lack of technological resources or lack of ability to use existing resources to provide information on guiding the course scheduling process. Glenn hopes to overcome this obstacle with the program progress reports.

Action research

Glenn recommends reading the literature on course scheduling, but he cautions that not all scheduling solutions will work at every institution. Because each institution has its own culture, he recommends experimenting to determine which scheduling techniques and course formats are most appropriate for the institution.

“Action research can help you decide as an institution what changes in course scheduling practices will be best for your institution,” he says. “You can always do the research and go out and read what others have done; that’s very important. It might give you ideas for where to start, but in terms of convincing others, you need to show some small wins along the way.”

At his previous institution, Oakland Community College, Glenn used action research to address the problems associated with students who enroll in courses late. “Talk about a scheduling problem,” he says. “We know from decades of research that students who start a class late are far less likely to finish the class or finish with a satisfactory grade. Some colleges have stopped late registration. That’s one step in the right direction, but over time you find people allowing students to drift into these classes anyway.”

Instead of allowing late registration, the college created the Right Start program, a group of classes that starts in the fourth week of the semester to accommodate students who enroll after the first day of regular classes. “The only way to get into these classes was to wait until the other classes had begun. We required these students to see a counselor and that they complete a one-credit student success course or a self-paced ten-module take-home tutorial, not because we thought these students were academically poor students. They are not necessarily academically challenged students,” Glenn says. “More often we find that they are life challenged. We spent a year offering classes this way and tracking these students in these courses to see if they did succeed at a higher rate compared to late starters in previous years. We found that, yes, in the small population we were working with, there seemed to be a 15 percent advantage gained in terms of student retention and grade success.”

Contact Lane Glenn at