The Eight-Week Semester as New Normal

Improving student success at a community college involves several orchestrated and deliberate strategies, which have been discussed here often. If you would like to see how the strategies can work in tandem at one school, please have a look at his article by Ruth Campbell, in the Odessa American.

Odessa College utilizes an advisement process you will recognize from discussions of Guided Pathways. Student ambassadors are employed to stay in touch with struggling students. The article is a nice look at the particular situation with part-time students, and the case of the “disappearing male” when young men drop out in higher proportions than females—a national phenomenon, reportedly driven by economic conditions. Odessa is in the oil patch, of course, which may be a factor.

With a multitude of changes in play, it will be hard to determine which are most significant, but one of the noteworthy strategies at Odessa College is the eight-week semester:

[Vice President for Institutional Effectiveness Don] Wood said he would recommend that every community college that has greater than 50 percent part-time students and wants to increase part-time student performance to transition to eight-week terms.

“Everybody gets better. You’ve given them a much better way to go to college. You’ve given them more on-ramps,” Wood said.

Under this system, Wood said a student can take classes in Fall 1, work during Fall 2 and go back in the spring and work in Spring 2, for example.

“It’s the only way that you reduce the number of courses a student has to take to graduate in a particular period of time without increasing the cost of college and without increasing the time to degree. The students love it,” Wood said.

Asked if the college has considered four-week terms, Wood said eight weeks seems to be the sweet spot.

There are some 16-week classes, but most of them are in allied health fields, Wood said.

Some faculty members say that, with certain subjects such as math, the eight-week semester is inappropriate, since the pace is so fast. We can relate to this sentiment, and have observed how incremental progress in small doses often works better in some situations. However, the case of Odessa should be watched carefully.

With previous shifts in course offerings, such as the 5-week summer session, weekend and evening classes, and “mini-mesters,” those who enroll may not represent typical community college students. A normalized eight-week semester is different and gets to the heart of the community college student profile. In addition to part-timers, Odessa College enrolls a lot of at-risk students, which underscores its significance for the rest of us.

Many schools are experimenting with the eight-week semester. We should probably expect the trend to continue.