Summer School

Hazy but by no means lazy days.

Posted May 09, 2012

My spring semester ended two weeks ago. I gave and then graded my finals a week later. So, now my endless summer begins, right?

Wrong. I am teaching a summer course this May. In fact, I often teach a course in May. The course already began—it did so three days after my last final. I am now well into the course (we’ve met three days in a row) and tomorrow, after a 2 or so hour lecture and discussion, my students will have their first exam. Huh? That’s right—three and half days and then time for a test. The first exam is being given after only 3.5 classes?! The second one will be a week later (in class session 8), and the final exam a week after that (number 12). And then my summer begins!

As you can see, the blessing and the curse of summer school is that time is compressed. What would normally take somewhere around 14 or so weeks wherein the members of the class meet two or three times a week takes place in just three weeks. (May term classes are short, as they occur in the month of May. Other summer sessions run for 4 to 6 or even more weeks in June, July, and even August, depending upon the college or university schedule, and so on.) My course is meeting four times a week for 4 hours a session (16 hours in our short “week”). That’s a lot of lecture, discussion, and in class activity in a small time frame, which is why I call summer school both a good and a bad thing. It all depends on why a student is there.

The other blessing and curse of summer school classes, then, is their pace. While not quite the speed of light, they go fast—a few weeks. Students can enroll in a summer class and be done with it quickly (a good thing, maybe). But will they both learn and retain what was taught quickly in the compressed time frame (a bad thing, maybe)? Hard to know.

Students who enroll in summer school courses tend to fall into two broad categories. Some are there to get ahead (“If I get this basic psych requirement out of the way, then I can register in the fall for an advanced course”) or to catch up (“I had to drop a class in the spring term—if I take the summer class then I can still graduate on time”) or even remain in school (“My GPA is too low—if I don’t get a good grade in this summer class then I will have to leave the university”). Of course, there are no doubt other motivations for taking summer school (I live in hope that the love of ideas is one of them, for instance) but as a faculty member I most often teach students from Camp Working-Hard-to-Get-Ahead or Camp Fear-of-Falling Behind.

Unless you’ve taken a summer class yourself, you should be asking yourself whether this compressed schedule and brisk pace are a good idea pedagogically. Again, it depends. Some students flourish in summer school. They have the opportunity to work hard for whatever reason and because they are likely to be enrolled in only one class, they can focus on the class to the exclusion of all else and “shine” grade wise. At the same time, however, I need to acknowledge that summer school is best for disciplined self-starters; that is, those students who can keep up with the frenetic pace of the course, study the usually copious amounts of material in the time available (not much!), do well on exams or whatever assessments are administered, and subsequently retain the material for future use in other courses.

Summer school is different, then, than the regular academic year. It usually precludes the amount of time for reflection, discussion, and deeper processing of material that is associated with the timing of the semester and regular academic year. So, why it may not be an ideal educational venture, it is nonetheless useful for students for understandable reasons.

What about faculty members? Well, I actually like to teach a May term class because I sometimes teach an offbeat course that really doesn’t fit the standard 14 week semester. I always meet very interesting students in the summer—some from my college as well as some from other schools. I would be lying, too, if I did not admit that I like the brevity of summer school—it begins and then before you know it, you’re done. AND then it’s time for the endless summer to begin . . .

So, summer school may be hazy but it is anything but lazy.

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