January 8, 2009
More students taking courses over winter break
Enrollment is up 3 percent at SUNY Cortland in the 45 courses it offers in two-week period
Angela Kandora has been trying to make sure she graduates from college in the spring of her senior year, not a semester later.
Kori Sickles wants to get a general education requirement out of the way, in her science concentration within the elementary education major.
Matt Blake, also an elementary education major, seeks to get three credits of elective study, also to stay on track.
All three SUNY Cortland juniors have chosen the two-week winter session as a way to get three credits. In this case, the three are enrolled in Scott Anderson’s geography course titled “Will the World Provide?”
As they waited for Anderson to arrive for the first day of class Monday, the three joined the other eight students in the course in speculation about how the course might work. It meets for four hours a day, from 1 to 5 p.m., for 10 days, instead of for 50 or 75 minutes, two or three times a week for 13 weeks.
But Sickles, Kandora and Blake said they were eager.
“It’ll be interesting to see how this teacher approaches this,” Blake said, referring to how Anderson, the geography department chair, would compress three credits worth of material into a short format.
The answer is that winter session professors break up class into lecture, discussion, individual presentations and, in Anderson’s case, a 50-minute film. With no time for field trips or other activities that add variety to the course during a semester, they focus on essential material and adapt how it is covered.
They also find that students, immersed in just one course, learn just as much and possibly more, said Anderson and Joy Mosher, director of the college’s winter and summer sessions.
“It’s not four hours of lecture, that’s for sure,” said Mosher, a 21-year teaching veteran. “You have to convey information but also allow students to discuss it, present it, right away. So it’s processed in different ways.”
The courses are chosen by departments because they can be adapted to two weeks and because many students want to take them. Some are “service courses,” taken by students from many majors, not just the sponsoring department.
Faculty do not need to be veterans, necessarily, just people who want to try this sort of course format. The pay helps too, as full-time faculty are paid $3,000 and adjunct faculty are paid $2,500 for two weeks.
Winter session enrollment is booming. Mosher said 571 students are enrolled, a 3 percent increase over last year and a huge jump from 175 students in 1997.
The session offers 45 courses this year, most of them for three credits, some for one or two credits. They cover virtually every department from art to math to psychology.
Mosher said students take winter session courses for many reasons. They may wish to get ahead in coursework and take a less demanding course load the next semester. They may think that focusing on just one course will improve their grade.
Others are like Kandora and Sickles, squeezing in degree requirements.
“Students struggle to meet the state’s requirements, because some courses might be difficult to schedule during the semester,” Mosher said. “Getting through a program in four years can be really challenging.”
Mosher thinks winter session simply provides immersion in a subject and fewer distractions.
“When a revision is due in two days instead of three weeks, you are more engaged with that document,” Mosher said. “There is intense engagement with the topic and other students. Lectures are not forgotten, because they happened yesterday. I found my summer classes were more dynamic.”
Students sometimes expect that grading will be less intense during a winter or summer course, that professors will relax their standards. But Mosher and Anderson said faculty still look for mastery of material.
“There is a limit to the rigor,” Anderson said. “I can’t expect a 20-page research paper, so I assign an outline and have them present their findings. It’s a compromise, no question. But I think students retain more information.”
Anderson spent his course’s first two sessions Monday and Tuesday talking more than he wanted to. He asked students to answer short research questions, offering his own thoughts on how education, wealth, food supply and global economics affect how people live around the world.
He continually told the students how the winter session would differ from a semester-long course. He said, for example, that each student would research a specific question and, instead of using many avenues for finding material, would stick with online research to save time. They would read a chapter each day from the textbook. Instead of a paper, they would produce an outline and spend 20 minutes each presenting their research findings on the last day of class.
Anderson said his department offers three or four sections of this course during the semester, with 40 students apiece, since the course fulfills all students’ requirements — a service course.
Winter session offers Spanish courses each year, taken by students who want to fulfill the SUNY foreign language requirement.
Mosher said that immersion in a language for two weeks is simply a different way to learn it. Anderson said his advisees consider winter session “the most painless way to take a language.”
Blake, a lacrosse player from Syracuse, thought Anderson sounded like a professor he would like to take a course from. Besides homework, he has been working out in preparation for his team’s season.
Sickles, 31, commutes from Endicott. Winter session presented a chance to focus on one course.
Kandora, who is from Norwich, said she needed the course for the sciences concentration in her childhood education major. She said that when she transferred from SUNY Alfred, many of her credits were not accepted by SUNY Cortland, so she was trying to catch up.
“I think this course will be challenging but worth it,” she said.
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