student success

Are 7-Week Terms Key to Student Success?

By Ellen Ullman

For Trident Technical College, in Charleston, South Carolina, the answer is yes.

When a statewide mandate forced Trident Technical College (TCC) to change from quarters to semesters in the early 1990s, student grades began dropping almost immediately. They continued to decline incrementally for the next 15 or 20 years, but the college was growing, so it was easy to ignore the fact that students were not succeeding.

In 2007, TCC joined Achieving the Dream and began studying its student-success rates, which it defines as a student earning an A, B or C. “We didn’t look so good,” says President Mary Thornley. “We became part of a national benchmarking project at the same time, and in terms of student success, we did not compare favorably.”

Digging into the data

The college looked into the various ways it offered courses — 14 weeks, seven weeks, five weeks — and discovered, to its surprise, that the shorter the term, the more successful the student. No matter how they disaggregated the data (by race, gender, age, academic program, PEL eligibility, college readiness, etc.), the results were the same: shorter terms equaled improved course-success rates.

Although the college knew it would be controversial, it decided to move to a compressed term. As Thornley says, “How could you look at this data and not make a bold change?”

Moving to a new schedule

Transitioning to a compressed schedule turned the college upside down, changing the entire culture and affecting everything from drop/add policies to science-lab scheduling to student advising.

On the plus side, there has been a decrease in absenteeism and procrastination and an increase in class completion. Students have learned to adjust their study and work habits and ask for help much earlier than in the past.

In 2011, the student success rate was at 62 percent. In fall 2014, when the seven-week schedule began, the success rate increased to 76 percent. The next fall, it was at 75 percent. First-time freshmen with full-time enrollment persistence rates increased, too, from 49 percent to 61 percent, fall to fall, between 2011–12 and 2014–15. “The results have been powerfully good,” Thornley says.

Working through challenges

Critics of the compressed schedule say faculty are “dumbing down” their courses or handing out A’s and B’s to make sure their students fare well. Thornley says this is not likely. Every year, the college evaluates its faculty. The student-success objective counts for 10 points, and there are 33 different ways faculty members can get their student success computed to see whether they have acceptable scores. Only six of 305 faculty members did not receive an acceptable score last year. “If that handful remains the same year after year, there are other reasons,” she says.

Many courses have a common final exam. In psychology, the passing rate was 70 percent in fall 2013 and 74 percent in fall 2014. Nursing and health-program scores on licensure tests have remained high as well.

Perhaps the biggest trial with moving to a compressed schedule is that people just don’t like change. To combat that, TCC set aside $100,000 for professional development so that faculty could attend conferences or take classes to assist in the transition. They also had two full years to get ready.

Moving forward for student success

Other colleges interested in the compressed term have been visiting TCC for observation and advice. Thornley is quick to point out that compressed schedules are not for everyone. “We did not take a vote. Employees and students would have said no. The data compelled us to do what we truly believed was right for the students at Trident Tech.”

Ellen Ullman

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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