Teaching Winter Term Courses (on campus)

At Elon, on-campus Winter Term courses are in the format known as short-term intensive courses. The format is challenging in some ways, but has many benefits as well.

“Winter Term gives us an opportunity to interact with students when they have fewer distractions. I have found that students bring more of their ‘whole selves’ to the classroom in Winter Term.”

– Olivia Choplin, French

What should I know about teaching in Winter Term?

Determining the content and ideas that we’d like to share with our students in a course that meets over a conventional semester is daunting enough, but doing so for an intensive, short-term course can seem to be an even more formidable task. Faculty teaching during Elon’s Winter Term might themselves wonder:

  • How can I stimulate significant learning in a course that is so short?
  • How do I plan for and keep students energized during significantly longer class periods?
  • How can I find time for grading and giving students helpful feedback?

Although these questions and concerns must be kept in mind when designing a Winter Term course, those very same challenges might also be viewed as benefits. Research has shown that intensive courses carry equally important opportunities for faculty and students:

  • Longer daily meeting periods mean the chance for more and different activities inside and outside the classroom — and deeper learning
  • Students tend to be more focused because they are taking only one course
  • Faculty and students can build rapport quickly, working to create a comfortable class climate
  • At Elon, various themes and extracurricular programming offer opportunities for activities, connection, and reflection between class and the broader campus environment.

How can I cultivate opportunities for effective learning in a Winter Term course?

When designing a Winter Term course, faculty might consider first, what is essential for students to understand; second, what knowledge and skills are important for them to know and to do; and third, what’s worth being familiar with. Once these priorities are identified, you can begin to think about how the course will unfold over the semester. As you plan, keep the following characteristics of effective learning in mind:

Students participate in roundtable discussions

  • Depth over breadth of coverage.
    • As Eric Bauer, Assistant Professor of Biology notes, “The very rapid pace of a Winter Term means that students do not have time to ponder the material or to form complex new mental frameworks. At best, whatever they learn one day must be put into use the next day. Sometimes it may even be as short as an hour later. In a normal semester a student may have days to really engage with a tough new idea.”
  • Activities which are engaging and meaningful. What students do in class is at the crux of a successful Winter Term course. As noted above, the three-hour meeting time allows for deeper engagement and focus on elements of the learning process that the full-length semester does not afford. Student success and motivation are linked to activities that clearly connect to the course’s goals and assignments. During the pandemic, you might consult a resource on how to adapt some of your usual face-to-face active learning exercises for a physically distanced or for a hybrid or online environment.
  • Opportunities to critically reflect on those activities. Reflection and metacognition are important to successful learning, and the Winter Term format offers both in- and out-of class opportunities for students to “take stock.” Help students consider the purposes and relevance of the content, activities, and assignments – by connecting them to course goals, other content they’ve studied, contemporary society, and/or themselves.
  • Variety in the processes of instruction and in learning materials. In her Early Childhood Development course, Assistant Professor of Psychology Sabrina Thurman offers students multimodal ways of engaging with ideas and concepts. She writes, “[I] lecture about emergent literacy 30 minutes, then have students walk around the room using the boards to brainstorm ways emerging literacy can be supported by early environments for 15 minutes, then watch a video about the topic, then go to the library and explore children’s books, etc. Changing up the method of instruction allows students to actively engage with the material in different ways, and allows faculty to take on different roles as they facilitate students’ learning in the course.”

Students perform French play

  • Instructor enthusiasm and interest in students and their learning. Since its earliest iteration in 2012, students in Professor Olivia Choplin’s French Theatre course have raved about their experience reading, producing, and performing a French play (in French!) helped them connect to passions that they might not have had the time to pursue at Elon while also challenging them.
  • Clear communication and organization. From the syllabus to the daily lesson plan, clarity is key. This is always important, but especially during a fast-paced course where students can get behind quickly, and especially during the stress of a pandemic. Redundancy and communicating in a couple of different modes – orally, on Moodle, or on a handout or slide, for example – increases the odds that your messages are heard. For tips on how to use Moodle and other technological resources to communicate and organize your course, check out TLT’s page on Instructional Technology.
  • A collegial classroom environment. While creating a classroom climate that is welcoming and inclusive is always important, the compressed format of Winter Term often means that students can get to know each other quickly and well over the fourteen-day semester. Because students can help one another learn and because positive social interactions can increase motivation, considering having students discuss and work together in small groups and teams to leverage the benefits of community. During the pandemic it may be even more important to intentionally find ways to increase motivation and feelings of belonging and demonstrate your concern for students’ learning and well-being. Prof. Thurman observed that when her students became comfortable with one another, “they take ownership of the material, and take greater responsibility for their own learning.” For ideas about how you can foster a supportive and engaging environment, see CATL’s classroom climate page.

How can I give meaningful grading and feedback (and get enough sleep)?

As with the conventional, full-length semester, strategies like determining whether the giving of grades or feedback for activities and assignments is most valuable and creating rubrics to support clarity and efficiency remain useful and applicable. Time-saving strategies such as allocating pieces of work to be completed in peer groups, grading samples of student work (rather than every single item), contract grading, and others can help to reduce stress around grading during Winter Term.

  • In his Southern Politics course, Associate Professor of Political Science and Policy Studies Jason Husser embraced the fact that there wouldn’t be time for extensive grading outside of class. To help students both receive feedback and to learn how to give feedback in a pre-professional setting, he broke the class into eleven teams, each of which was assigned a topic and set of concrete tasks, so that “by the end of the course, students had exposure to many different areas of course content as well as developed skills in providing effective feedback for their peers.”

On how to teach writing in a compressed course format, check out research-based tips from a 9-minute video from Bates College’s Writing Program.

For additional information, see CATL’s web page on grading and feedback.

Here are some additional tips, many of which connect to the characteristics above.

Focus on what your students will be doing, not what you will be doing or the material you will be covering.

  • In most disciplines, students need practice in using and articulating the content, and/or honing certain key skills. Help break down exactly what students need to do to learn the content. Don’t just say, “study,” but specify what that means. Use the longer class periods to offer opportunities for “doing” the discipline and for giving students formative feedback on whether they’re on the right track.

Think about scaffolding student work and learning.

  • What supports and structures do they need when they begin, and how can you remove that scaffolding as they become more proficient?
  • As David Gooblar notes about student work, “As important as their finished products is the work they do to get there.”
  • How might larger conventional and/or culminating course assignments be reinterpreted as “small wholes,” offering students iterative opportunities to practice and perfect skills?

Think about both small and large scale work.

  • Consider both the short, daily activities that students do to practice/learn component parts of your goal, and also the bigger, longer-term integrative activities that students do to put it all together.
  • Be clear with students about why you’re doing what you’re doing. Longer class meetings with more and varied activities require more segues and more explicit attention to the purposes of different student work.

Do less better.

  • We often try to cram in too much. As you proceed, ask yourself if students might be able to go deeper if they were to do more focused work.

Mix it up.

  • Long class meetings require a lot of attention, so changing the type of thinking, the style of interactions, etc. can be a good idea.
  • Look for courses whose focus might align particularly nicely with your own. For example, Associate Professor of Human Service Studies Judy Esposito and Assistant Professor of Psychology Sabrina Thurman hosted a panel discussion for their Winter Term courses on fatherhood and early childhood development.

Plan to recalibrate as Winter Term unfolds.

  • Things rarely go as planned. (Sometimes there’s a snow storm!) One strategy is planning a “bonus” activity, something purposeful and reinforcing (and perhaps fun) that you can insert if class is going faster than planned and that can be eliminated if you are running behind.
  • In 2021, you can assume that some students will be ill and/or quarantined. In addition to having a clear plan for how those students will learn the material and/or make up assignments, it’s probably wise partway through the term to assess whether the workload is reasonable.
  • Schedule time late in the first week of class to gather and respond to student feedback about what is (and isn’t) helping them learn in the course so far.

Works Cited & Resources

Jeffrey S. Anastasi, “Full-Semester and Abbreviated Summer Courses: An Evaluation of Student Performance.” Teaching of Psychology 34:1, 2007, 19-22.

John Bean, Engaging Ideas; The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (John Wiley and Sons, 2001).

David Gooblar, “The benefits of intensive summer courses.” Chronicle Vitae. Retrieved from https://chroniclevitae.com/news/1016-the-benefits-of-intensive-summer-courses (2015).

William J. Kops, “Teaching compressed-format courses: Teacher-based best practices,” Canadian Journal of University Continuing Education 40:1, 2014, 1-18.

Virginia S. Lee, “A Rose by Any Other Name? Learning in Intensive Course Formats,” National Teaching and Learning Forum 15, no. 6 (2006).

Patricia A. Scott, “Attributes of High-Quality Intensive Courses.” New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education 97 (2003), 29-38.

Craig Swenson, “Accelerated and Traditional Formats: Using Learning as a Criterion for Quality,” New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education 97 (Spring 2003).

Barbara E. Walvoord and Virginia Johnson Anderson, Effective Grading (Jossey-Bass, 2010).

Raymond J. Wlodkowski and Margery B. Ginsberg, Teaching Intensive and Accelerated Courses; Instruction That Motivates Learning (Jossey-Bass, 2010).