Augustana assesses innovative academic calendar

Lars Hallström, professor and director of the Alberta Centre for Sustainable Rural Communities, shares an update on the new academic calendar which Augustana implemented in the Fall of 2017.

Tia Lalani - 12 April 2019

Augustana's innovative calendar, 3-11, allow students to participate in more experiential learning opportunities, like these environmental science students who toured Halkirk Wind Farm last Fall.

Since the Fall of 2017, Augustana has operated on an innovative schedule-a new academic calendar (colloquially referred to as 3-11) wherein students take a three-week block course followed by a more traditional eleven-week session each term.

These changes set out to address the disadvantages produced by a traditional academic calendar that would seldom allow all student access to experiential learning opportunities. The calendar was also implemented to address a call to action from the greater U of A community to "strengthen Augustana as a living laboratory for teaching and learning innovation, to the benefit of the entire university" (For the Public Good).

With such large steps towards innovation, Augustana has made it a priority to not only implement the changes but to assess the implications of the new calendar for students and faculty members, as well as what these changes mean for Augustana more broadly.

Professor Lars Hallström, director of the Alberta Centre for Sustainable Rural Communities (housed at the University of Alberta's Augustana Campus), has gathered an extensive mix of data under a Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund to determine some of the patterns that have emerged from the new calendar thus far.

"This is the first real step that Augustana has taken towards institutional analysis," Hallström explained, although it will likely be another two or three years before we have a meaningful sense of the entirety of the calendar's impact.

"From what I've seen so far, it works really well for some, but creates complications for others," he said, "But a large part of that is communication and getting everyone on the same page, something that we are getting better at as we go along."

In terms of general feedback, the study saw a difference in response from the first year 3-11 was implemented to the second. "There was a lot of negativity, particularly from students in their third-and-fourth years, in 2017." Much of that negativity was attributed to frustration about workload, a lack of communication before the change was made and a general reluctance to change.

In the second year, "dissatisfaction from students declined significantly," said Hallström, who also mentioned that some of the "growing pains" faculty had also been through seemed to be easing. "From a curricular standpoint, [the new calendar] is a positive intervention," he said, as structural changes have made professors re-think the content they are delivering, which has led to fresh ideas and more engagement.

Roxanne Harde's Native Children's Literature three-week block course took a trip to Nipisihkopahk Elementary in Maskwacis to interact with school children.

On the student engagement and interaction side, major improvements have been made, especially within the First Year Seminars, which had a positive response from year one. Student feedback has shown that the First Year Seminars, which include orientation activities and act as a way to introduce students to not only high-impact learning but to a peer group in order to forge connections over the three-week block, has been a great way for students to adapt to their first year of univeristy.

"Having one class during the three-week makes a lot of sense," said Hallström. "We've heard anecdotally from students that being able to immerse yourself in one thing and not having to spread your brain across four or five courses while meeting new friends right at the beginning of the year is very positive. Yes, it's intense, but intensity can be good."

From a mental health standpoint, there have been mixed results. "We had generally assumed that splitting a full course load into 20%, followed by 80%, would decrease stress, but some students said that by day two of the block course, they were at a very high stress level, and stayed that way for the whole semester," Hallström explained. He also offered that change in itself causes stress, and that ongoing adjustments are being made in terms of days off and breaks to alleviate some of that initial pressure.

Although more time is needed to examine other factors, like student performance, Hallström sees the change as a positive endeavour. He has also received encouraging feedback from parents who see 3-11 as a way to give students a different set of pathways to get to the end of their degree, to do something that will differentiate them once they graduate.

"Ultimately, change is good, for both students and faculty," Hallström said. He is continuing this research for another year or two, at minimum, and hopes that the campus will continue to address the ongoing question of how we are doing what's best for our students and faculty as an institution.