A typical semester courseload is cognitive overload


It feels weird to just write a blog post. I’d just like to say* that I realize things are entirely not normal, and what makes it even more abnormal is how so many of us are expected go about our business as if things were normal.

The last time I was a student taking a full set of classes on the semester system, I was a high school senior. Where I went to college, a full course load was only three classes at a time. Even though my job is to (sometimes) teach courses on the semester system, it’s nothing I’ve experienced as an undergraduate.

A full semester course load is considered to be 15 units. Without any labs involved, that’s five three-unit courses. Holy crap, that’s a lot. I don’t mean that it’s a lot of work, per se, but it’s a lot to think about at the same time. Imagine taking a class in cell biology, one in sculpture, another one in Latin American Literature, and another in physics. And having to wrap your head around all of these all in the span of a few days. That’s a lot of cognitive whiplash! (And that’s only four courses I listed!)

Is this really the way we should be doing things? Is college best designed so that students have their attention divided so much?

The semester system is an extreme of disarray.

At the other extreme is the Block System. I’m aware of a couple places in the US that do this: Colorado College and Cornell College. At these campuses, you take one class at at time — full time — for just shy of 3 weeks. Then you get a few days rest, and then start a new block. Each class has a semester’s worth of material, but packed like jam into a glass jar. I can imagine this might make O Chem pretty difficult (and even if you call it orgo, which will always sound off to me), but imagine the things you can do when you’re dedicated to one class and nothing else.

In light of the pandemic, some institutions that normally teach in semesters are switching to a demi-block schedule, in which the semester is divided in half, and you only take two classes at a time. The one that I can name off the top of my head that is doing this is Albion College, but I’m pretty sure there are others.

And then there are schools that have been doing a similar thing for good long while. These are institutions that run on the schedule of the quarter system (having separate 10-week Fall, Winter, and Spring terms), but put a semester’s worth of work into those terms, and students are only expected to take three classes at a time. I did this when I was an undergrad. My first year of college, I had five hours of general biology lecture per week, 9am-10am for all three terms. And that was three semester’s worth of general biology. They shifted to the Semester system shortly after I graduated, but there are a bunch of institutions that are still doing this. The ones I know of include: Carleton College, College of The Atlantic, Kalamazoo College, and Lawrence University.

I have to say, I really liked not having to focus on more than three classes at a time. What seems special about being in college is that you get to dive into material just to learn, but if your time and your mind is so divided among other things (not to mention everything going on in life beyond academics), how can you really learn?

Learning takes work. While there are lots of folks out there trying to sell you some kind of get-education-quick strategy, the bottom line is that if you’re getting something out of a class, that means you’re putting something into it. This might not come in the form of filling out stacks of worksheets, or writing 100 pages of essays, or solving a jazillion problem sets, but nonetheless, genuine learning means genuine work. But that doesn’t mean we have to learn everything in parallel. Why can’t we learn in serial?

I started thinking about this after seeing how some high schools have changed their schedules to do online learning more gently. For example, some schools are set up so that only three classes meet per day. Synchronous sessions are interspersed with time for asynchronous learning. This sounds like a lot more humane, and also it provides greater opportunity for learning.

A lot of educators and institutions are adopting practices to lower stress and address equity issues that are exacerbated by the pandemic. Maybe they’ll realize that taking steps to reduce stress and support student learning are helpful all the time, even without a pandemic?

While the people who killed Emmett Till actual were charged with murder, the police who murdered Breonna Taylor in her own bed will not be experiencing consequences just got away with it. And pandemic is stretching out ad infinitum, our President is pulling out every stop to rig this election that his enablers let him get away with, and massive climate-change driven fires have swept the west coast. I’m personally exhausted, even though I’m so much more insulated than others, so getting through the day must be so much harder for folks who are bearing the brunt of these impacts. And I’m still getting paid for my day job, and when I have to email somebody, I have no idea how to even acknowledge the horribleness of All Of This before attempting to move on to items of business. Yet, somehow, the day must be negotiated. With all that in mind, here’s a post about something that’s been on my mind, about another way school can just be overwhelming.

9 thoughts on “A typical semester courseload is cognitive overload

  1. Hi – having taught intensive summer courses, I can tell you that ‘block teaching’ may give immediate, descent results, the there is no long term retention of the material. For the students, it is much better to learn 4 or 5 subjects over the course of 10 or 12 weeks to retain the information.

    • Agree! (see my post below about teaching on the “block plan”)

  2. My school shifted from a semester schedule to a demi-block schedule of 7 week sessions and the students were recently polled on this. As you might expect, the results were all over the place but an interesting pattern appeared–those students mostly in the humanities said they liked the 7 week sessions because they could focus on fewer classes while those in the sciences strongly disliked it because they were overwhelmed by the work load of lecture and labs. I teach my own class (a studio format lecture and lab) Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday – for 2-3 hour stretches each class. It is a mix of synchronous and asynchronous, and the students seem happy. But I would not be able to do this without having the summer before working my butt off putting this together. It is super hard to have that much class prepped with no in-between time. But then again, I also like only having to focus on one course, and in this situation where the prep is done for the most part, I am probably having my most balanced (work-home balance) that I’ve ever had. But I don’t look forward to having to change two new classes for the spring into this system without a summer in between. Super tough!

    • Totally agree — the workload disparity between STEM lab courses and humanities/social science/non-lab courses becomes even more extreme when you shift to any more compressed schedule, in my opinion. I’d be all for an all-lab course, like some campuses with an integrated core curriculum do, but I have seen it breed discontent in students to load them up with tons of lab time that doesn’t really respect the carnegie hours we claim to base workload around.

  3. I’m only midway through your post but thought I’d chime in. I taught “orgo” at Colorado College for 2 years. In my experience it’s a terrible experience for the vast majority of students. (I’ve taught it in semesters at other schools).

    That being said, the amount of “content” expected at private/public/CC/CSUs varies widely. Nevertheless, most people don’t WANT to take orgo, they have to… and spending 3 to 7 hours a day on it for less than a month is not good for spaced practice, interleaving, or work/life balance. I say this for students… I think if I had kept at it I would have had fewer late nights grading and prepping eventually.

  4. I have taught on the semester (15 w) and quarter (10 w) systems and also been a student on each (undergrad: quarter system, PhD: semester system). As an instructor I prefer the semester system and as a student I prefer the quarter system. I would quit (literally) if my University asked me to switch from the semester to the quarter system on top of switching everything from face to face to online instruction. This is hard for students but it’s also exhausting for faculty. I’ve had 3 days off total since the end of July. I’m taking an unpaid leave next semester because I can’t keep working as hard as I am right now anymore. I’m missing my toddler and infant’s childhood and working around the clock just to stay afloat. More change right now? No thanks. I quit.

    • Yeah, I wasn’t saying that we should change things up at the moment. I was more thinking about what’s better for student learning in the long run.

  5. I think this is an extremely interesting discussion. In Italy, we go for a mix of 3-4 courses per day over a three-month period (but still they call it semester). As a teacher, sometimes I feel I myself lose the connection between my lectures. On the other hand, with intensive courses, as some of you say, students may get bored or overwhelmed by a course concentrated over a short stretch of time. I’d love to see more studies and stats on the topic. Thanks Terry for bringing this up!

  6. This is something that I think varies a lot from person to person. That sort of variety of experience is one of the things I remember most fondly about undergrad. If I have to focus on one specific thing for an extended period of time, I will get bored and lose focus. Being able to switch things up between Field Biology, Orgo, Yiddish and something else was what gave me the focus to get my work done. I would have done much worse with fewer different classes at a time.

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