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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

How often do classes meet? How often should they meet?

A very informal survey/information request:

How often do you your classes meet in a week? In other words, for a four-hour class, do you meet four times (50 minutes each), three times (70 minutes each), or twice (105 minutes each)? For a three-hour class, do you meet three times (50 minutes each) or twice (75 minutes)? And is this a matter of school-wide policy or is it left to individual faculty to state their preferences for the associate dean to accommodate? What are your preferences? And what are the prevailing trends?

In my small corner of the teaching world, I see an increasing move towards twice weekly meetings, even for four-hour courses. I believe all of our four-hour 1L classes are being done that way this semester. Are other schools seeing a similar trend? This move, by the way, is driven equally by students and faculty: Students want to limit how many days they have to come to school and especially want to avoid coming to school on Fridays, so they would rather do fewer meetings of greater length. Faculty would rather teach twice per week, which gives them an extra day to write. I will teach Civ Pro in three sessions next spring (my strong pedagogical preference) and I know someone will ask me (probably on the first or second day of class) to switch.

Update: Two additional points. In the case of my school, some (although not all) of the movement comes from the evening program, where classes have to be taught in two-day blocks to avoid having classes on Friday nights or weekends. The full-time program then moves to become more like the part time (because the other direction is not possible), especially when professors are prepping classes for both sections (sometimes simultaneously). I'm also curious if schools/faculties have had conversations (especially recently) on the subject.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 20, 2013 at 10:29 PM in Howard Wasserman, Teaching Law | Permalink

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At Ohio State, this is a matter of professor preference. I have taught 4-credit courses in 4 days and in 3 days and my long-term preference is in 3 days (70-min per class). I have also taught 3-credit course in 3 days and 2 days, and I am not especially content with either approach.

Posted by: Doug B. | Aug 20, 2013 10:38:45 PM

At GWU, most 3-credit classes meet 3x a week, 55 minutes per class for 13 weeks. I'd prefer to teach 2x a week with a longer period class, but my understanding is that this option isn't available because of scheduling constraints.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Aug 20, 2013 11:57:09 PM

At Suffolk, class scheduling is done by the associate deans and the registrar. Most classes, whether three or four hours, are in two sessions a week, although there are some that are 55 minutes per class.

I have taught 55, 75, and 100 minutes classes during the day and in the evening. For me, 55 is too short and 100 is too long, particularly in the evening. 75 is just about right.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Aug 21, 2013 9:21:16 AM

Almost all the educational research show that smaller chunks are preferable for learning, FWIW.

Posted by: I. Glenn Cohen | Aug 21, 2013 10:59:51 AM

I think Glenn's point is particularly important for first year classes. As much as I would like to teach on fewer days for my 5-credit fall Civ Pro class, I try not to have classes last longer than 50 minutes. I have sometimes asked for a schedule in which I held two 50-minute classes on one day, separated by a few hours. I actually found this to be quite useful, and more effective than holding one 100-minute class.

As for how scheduling is done, it is a combination of professor preferences and scheduling logistics.

Posted by: Alex Reinert | Aug 21, 2013 12:22:46 PM

I agree with Jeff that 70-75 is about right.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 21, 2013 12:47:41 PM

"Almost all the educational research show that smaller chunks are preferable for learning"

Glenn -- Would you post some of these sources? Some of us at my school have been discussing this question of pedagogically optimal time block length, and would find these studies very helpful. Thank you.

Posted by: anon | Aug 21, 2013 6:35:54 PM

I much prefer one hour class meetings, since I doubt that my students or I can stay sharply focused for much longer than that. When I teach longer classes, I usually try to incorporate some kind of interactive component (beyond the standard Socratic method) into each class to break things up a bit.

Posted by: Cecelia Klingele | Aug 21, 2013 6:38:59 PM

Do the studies on the pedagogical superiority of shorter class period adequately control for for the presence and duration of breaks? For example, one hour might be the optimal time and two hours may be a disaster, but 55 minutes, followed by a 10 minute break, and then another 55 minutes, might completely solve the problem. I don't know for a fact, but it's not like students don't already have two classes with a ten minute break in-between. So, the sitting still problem and the concentration/focus problem might be obviated. Perhaps having the same subject matter is the problem, either because you have to prepare too much material in advance or because there is some additional mental strain from focusing on one topic rather than different topics, but that's not really obvious to me.

Posted by: Anon | Aug 21, 2013 7:27:22 PM

The general (not law school specific) studies suggest that in a typical lecture, students begin to tune out after 20 minutes at most. Joan Middendorf and Alan Kalish summarize this in "The 'Change-up' in Lectures." They were focused on undergraduate education, but they also discussed research with adult learners. The data are consistent enough across time and students that it seems pretty reliable. Middendorf and Kalish suggested a "change-up" during class -- some kind of cognitive break from the lecture in order to restart the students' minds.

Of course, most law school classes are not lectures, and perhaps the stimulation of a dialogue with students provides enough of a change up to keep students tuned in. I can't find any research that evaluates that contention specifically. I have read material on law school pedagogy that recommends trying to divide the class into smaller chunks (about 15-20 minutes) and think about what you want to accomplish during each "chunk." This is consistent with the research I discussed above. The reason I tend to think that shorter class time is even more important for first year students is because of this literature and also cognitive and neuroscience literature that discusses how people process information, especially when they are beginning as novices. i think it is asking a lot of first year students to process two hours' worth of Civ Pro (or Torts, etc.) in one sitting. And in general, law schools already sacrifice too much in the way of pedagogy in service of the convenience of professors -- so I think we should try to avoid doing that in class scheduling.

Posted by: Alex Reinert | Aug 22, 2013 9:26:43 AM

I looked into this last year and one thing that was striking is the 55 minute class is pretty rare outside of law school (or high school). Colleges and grad schools tend to be at least 90 minutes and not clear why law students have such shorter attention spans. My sense is to the extent a preference still exists for the hour-length classes, a desire among Professors not to alter class notes is a significant factor and one that should receive little to no weight. To me, 75-90 minutes makes for a much smoother class, and reduces the amount of repetition that now occurs at the beginning of classes.

Posted by: MLS | Aug 22, 2013 11:14:19 AM

I fidn a significant generational divide on this issue at my school - newer profs more willing to examine non-standardized time slots, with the others believing 50 minutes as the apopropriate standard.

Posted by: anon | Aug 22, 2013 2:42:59 PM

What a wonderful example of directionlessness. Faculty like two two hour blocks so the can get their teaching schedules down to two days a week. Students like it so that can avoid Friday. In fact, when asked, a few have confided in me that they are burnt out after about 15 minutes of the second hour but they just want to get it over with. As a couple of commentators have noted, there are studies on this but as far as I know not one law school administrator or faculty member has attempted to determine what is best for learning. Instead, as usual, it's "what I prefer." But, that's nothing new: http://classbias.blogspot.com/2013/08/vanity-law-school-hiring-and.html#links

Posted by: Jeff Harrison | Aug 22, 2013 8:39:06 PM

At Loyola Chicago, 4 credit courses are taught in 2 hour blocks. I provide a break about half way through. I also break up the time with i-clickr hypotheticals, followed by discussion, and small group discussions of hypotheticals or basic policy questions, again followed up by discussion with the whole class involved.

I think the endurance capacity for students is quite varied. I try to walk around the room so at least the students' eyes move if they are hanging in there. People zoning out or buying shoes at Zappos becomes more apparent.

Posted by: Mike Zimmer | Aug 22, 2013 10:46:24 PM

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