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Black Hills State University-Rapid City will soon offer 18-day block courses. 

Journal file

Most college courses come with a M-W-F or T-Th schedule. Making either fit within the overstretched life of an unconventional student can cause some headaches.

Black Hills State University-Rapid City will soon introduce 18-day block courses for students who like to do one thing at a time, do it well and then move on. The school says it’s a first-of-its-kind offering in South Dakota.

These three-hour block courses will meet on mornings or afternoons for 18 consecutive business days, immersing students in general education courses like algebra, composition and psychology. Four-day breaks will separate the start of one block from the end of another. Four blocks in one semester qualify a student as full time.

Beyond the issues of convenience, evidence suggests that as much if not more learning occurs under this approach as under traditional Monday-Wednesday-Friday or Tuesday-Thursday schedules, said Gene Bilodeau, director of BHSU-RC.

“The whole idea behind the block is to allow students to focus on one subject at a time,” Bilodeau said. “It’s imperative that students leave knowing the material. It’s not about shoving it down people’s throats; it’s about learning the material.”

BHSU-RC has committed to offering seven 18-day blocks between Jan. 8 and May 2. If enough students favor the option, more blocks will be offered next fall.

The BHSU-RC commuter campus of 1,030 students mostly serves working families and single parents. Most courses are offered at night, although some students attend full time and during daylight. More might join them if daytime schedules were accommodating.

It can be difficult for someone with a job to adjust when a class meets M-W-F in fall semester and T-Th in spring, Bilodeau said. A traditional 16-week college course also deters military students, who are subject to being deployed on short notice. Predictions of 18 days hold less risk.

To encourage students to try 18-day blocks, there is a $100 course discount this year. The school receives no state funding, so each three-credit course normally costs $1,000.

The question remains: Now that BHSU-RC has built it, will students come?

BHSU-RC daytime students were surveyed last spring, and feedback ranged from curiosity to excitement. Few have signed up so far, but most students don’t register until three weeks before classes start.

There are some potential downsides to sipping education from a fire hose. Miss a few days of class due to illness, and you’ve missed nine hours of instruction. Online materials will help those who miss a single day catch up.

Time constraints also will reshape the nature of instruction, especially for some topics. The initial offerings will be these: biology survey, fundamentals of speech, intro to sociology, college algebra, composition 1 and 2, and general psychology.

Faculty expressed some concern about squeezing 16 weeks of instruction plans into 18 days, Bilodeau said. Most concerns were voiced around teaching science, math and English composition. Instructors were offered a stipend to develop innovative approaches.

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“There’s no way you can have a block schedule and go in three hours a day and do nothing but lecture,” Bilodeau said. A hands-on approach that helps students grasp the material will be required. When it comes to teaching composition, for example, there will be a lot of class discussion and working in groups.

“Students are so darn immersed in it,” he said, “they actually are able to grasp that material.”

The experiences of two colleges at the forefront of 18-day block instruction have modeled different approaches and fueled enthusiasm. Faculty using the approach at Cornell University in Mount Vernon, Iowa, have shared its advantages and their own observations. Meanwhile, the 18-day block is used exclusively at the University of Montana Western in Dillon, Mont.

Bilodeau recently spoke at length with a student-athlete in Montana.

“He didn’t have enough good things to say,” Bilodeau said. The school’s results also say something. Freshman students there complete 96 percent of their courses. “That number typically is in the 80 percent range,” he said.

In the past 10 years, he added, “They’ve seen an 80 percent increase in students receiving degrees.”

For BHSU-RC to have a chance of replicating those successes, enough students will have to take a leap. A minimum of 10 students is required for most classes, Bilodeau said, but block classes will go forward with as few as seven to promote the concept. Unfortunately, much of the concept’s success comes from the rich interaction of 20 to 25 students, but blocks will go forward.

“We’ve committed to these classes,” he said.

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