Learning blocks

UM-Western takes a chance with Experience One scheduling



Tony Feist had some ulterior motives when he decided to attend the University of Montana-Western in Dillon. Sure, there was the education. But the 19-year-old freshman from Plains, Mont. admits that the elk hunting is what tipped the scales. Feist has fond memories of being an ankle biter and traipsing after his father on hunting and fishing trips into the great wilderness that surrounds the tiny Montana university.

Feist says he still loves Dillon’s proximity to outdoor recreation, but it’s Western’s avant-garde Experience One program that keeps him in Dillon. Experience One, a pilot program for freshmen that started at the beginning of the fall 2002 semester, is a new scheduling system whereby students take a single class at a time.

Instead of the usual hodge-podge of classes thrown at university freshmen, Experience One has students tackling one course for three and half weeks running with each class meeting for three hours per day.

“In high school, I didn’t really work that hard,” says Feist. “It has kept me motivated knowing that one class was all I had to work on. I knew when I finished my homework I could get going and have fun.”

At the end of each three-and-a-half-week block, students are given a four-day weekend. The perfect amount of time to slip into the mountains and bag a buck.

The Experience One program came about after a small group of faculty members began researching the idea of block scheduling. There are a few small, private colleges—Colorado College and Cornell College in Iowa—that use the system, but it had never been tried at a public school.

“Initially this was all about pedagogy, about a better way to teach and learn,” says professor and Dean of Arts and Sciences Steve Mock, who points to Western’s tradition of experiential learning as an impetus.

During the fall semester of 2001, Western received a Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE) grant to experiment with block scheduling. Mock is one of the original faculty members who championed the idea. Now he’s the director of the pilot program.

At the outset, learning was on everybody’s mind. Since then the goal of better educating students has had to share the spotlight with the motive of improving Western’s financial situation.

“To be honest, small state-supported rural colleges are struggling right now,” says Mock. “And in fact small private rural colleges everywhere are struggling right now.”

In Montana, it’s not just the rural colleges that are besieged with bills. Currently, the four colleges that make up the University of Montana system—Western, Missoula, Montana Tech and Helena College of Technology—are being funded at the 1992 spending level. And with a budget shortfall of $230 million across the state, the university system is likely to take another hit.

“We need to create something distinctive that makes us different from Tech and Bozeman and Missoula other than just size,” says Mock. “We can’t be a mini-Missoula campus or a mini-Bozeman campus and survive.”

Mock believes that block scheduling can provide that distinction. Others on campus weren’t so sure when the idea was first suggested, but many are coming around.

When the small group of faculty members floated the idea in 1999, Mock says it was an “ugly scene.” Getting wind of the controversy before he even arrived on campus, incoming chancellor Stephen Hulbert decreed that block scheduling would never find a home at Western.

“I really was on a learning curve with this,” Hulbert says. “Over a period of time I worked very hard to be informed about block scheduling and I’ve become quite a proponent.”

Because the FIPSE grant meant the university didn’t have to shell out extra money, Hulbert saw no reason not to begin the experiment. Since Experience One began last semester, Hulbert has become an outspoken convert.

“We think that this in fact is niche marketing,” he says. “We think it’s a way for Western not to be identified as just another public university in Montana, but one with a specific niche.”

Mock and Hulbert see block scheduling as the best way to tackle the problems of enrollment and finances and, at the same time, do a better job of educating students. The students seem to agree.

Of the 73 who started in the Experience One program, only nine have dropped out (and 63 have petitioned the chancellor to begin block scheduling for sophomores as well, so that they can continue with the program as they advance from year to year). When compared to the 20 percent dropout rate among the general student population, that’s good news. There are also fewer students skipping class and—at least anecdotally—a higher level of knowledge retention.

Months after Feist has finished his geology block, he reminisces about the course’s four field trips, talking eruditely about folds and tarns and the process of glaciation.

“We were even able to hike into a little mountain lake around here that has been glaciated and we were able to see the glacier kill,” remembers Feist. “We were also able to see an area by Notch Bottom where there’s a giant fold that covers a square mile or something. We could sit up on a ridge and see a fold surrounding layers of rock and talk about how it happened and which ones were the basement rocks and stuff like that.”

It seems that Mock has made good on his promise that Experience One would increase hands-on learning. In geology it’s field trips, English students perform plays, and Feist was able to paint, sculpt and make a couple of short films in his fine arts block. Unfortunately, next up for Feist is linear math and statistics.

“It may be tough with math three hours a day,” says Feist. “It’s kind of hard to do hands-on learning with math.”

A Western task force is still in the process of compiling data on the efficacy of the program, and on its costs—the board of regents has given its blessing to the program as long as it doesn’t cost extra—but initial feedback looks positive. If the numbers back the anecdotes, Hulbert hopes to expand the program university-wide.

“I have read all the students’ evaluations of their [Experience One] classes, and no matter whom the student was in terms of their academic background, the vast majority of those students were positive about the outcome,” says Hulbert. “I think this has the potential to be Western’s future. I really do.”

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