Austin, A., & Gustafson, L. (2006). Impact of Course Length on Student Learning. JOURNAL OF ECONOMICS AND FINANCE EDUCATION, 5(1), 26–37.
Condensed or time shortened semesters are becoming more common as more non-traditional students seek higher education. Many universities now offer full semester courses over two or three weekends. Also, inter semester courses of one to three weeks are also becoming popular as university administrators seek to find ways to increase student enrollments. While there is much anecdotal evidence that grades during summer semesters tend to be higher than during the fall semester, we must ask if condensed semester courses actually provide students with the same learning experience as a traditional 16-week semester?
Overall we find that there is a significant improvement from taking shorter courses that cannot be explained solely by student characteristics. Using a very large database and by using more robust models this study provides more definitive results than have been achieved in past studies. Compared to a sixteen week semester, there is an improvement at 8 weeks, 4 weeks, and 3 weeks. We also find that those benefits differ, peaking at four weeks. 10 This complements the results of Scott (2003) who finds that classroom relationships and classroom atmosphere are two important factors that explain why performance is better in intensive courses than the traditional format i.e. there is a better bond between teacher and student when they meet every day than just two or three times a week. While 4 week and 3 week sessions both meet daily, the three week session, with just 11 teaching days, may be to short a time span for that bond to fully develop. More importantly, we also find that the improved grades are not meaningless – they do reflect greater learning.11 We find that the grades given for a shortened intensive course have the same significantexplanatory power for future performance as those earned during a traditional 16 week semester. This combats the popular perception (among students anyway) that the bar is lowered in some manner during the shortened sessions. This is clearly not the case as we find no evidence of any correction for those grades. There are some obvious policy implications from this study. Universities wishing to maximize learning with limited resources might consider changing their course structure from predominately sixteen week to four week semesters, a more modular system. A full semester load (12 hours) can be taken in the same time (16 weeks) by taking a traditional semester, or 4 four weeks sessions. Both cases would involve the same amount of class time per week, and so the modular structure would place no additional burden on a student.