Analyzing trimesters: GW investigates 4×4 course structure

Quietly hidden in a group study room in the Gelman Library, freshmen Ksenia Guvakova and Rydhwana Hossian pour over a set of densely highlighted biology textbooks, a familiar scene for most students preparing for midterms.

“We’ve been doing bio for the past two weeks,” Guvakova said. Hossian described her approach to her work as “Finish bio first and then work on other courses.”

Students like Guvakova and Hossian may have more time to concentrate on each of their courses if the University switches to a new credit system currently under consideration. Students would enroll in four four-credit classes each semester instead of the five three-credit courses they currently take.

Officials said taking four courses each semester would allow students to fully focus on each of their classes, allowing for more in-depth study of subjects. Several students currently take one easier class each semester because they cannot manage five demanding classes.

The four-by-four system would also allow the University to better utilize its classrooms because fewer courses would be held each semester, creating more flexibility in scheduling.

“I am in favor of a four-by-four,” said Donald Lehman, executive vice president for Academic Affairs. “It could really benefit what we’re trying to do with academic engagement, but it costs money to make that change. It could not be done overnight.”

Lehman also said GW is looking at scheduling more Friday classes out of necessity.

Under a four-by-four system, students would be required to take 31 or 32 classes over eight terms to graduate, rather than the 40 currently required.

Lehman said each of the University’s schools would have to look at their curricula and how general curriculum requirements and major and minor requirements would have to change.

A question facing administrators is how to make coursework reflect a credit increase.

One option is to increase time spent in class. The University’s committee to study the alternative calendar wrote that such an increase “is probably not feasible.” The committee, created by University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, released a report in June outlining the pros and cons of changing GW’s current credit system and academic calendar. GW is also considering a switch to a mandatory summer session for rising juniors.

Administrators said class time could be increased.

University Registrar Dennis Geyer said one credit currently represents 50 minutes of class time each week over a 14-week semester. The definition would likely change if in-class time is not increased in the proposed four-by-four system, he said.

Some faculty members said a four-credit class warrants more time spent in class.

“It seems to me students might get more depth and would do more reading but wouldn’t actually get any more time in the classroom,” said Marie Price, associate professor of geography and international affairs. “It doesn’t seems like quite a fair tradeoff.”

If seat time is not increased, faculty could treat topics with a more in-depth approach to account for the fourth credit. The University would devise a more demanding curriculum and students would likely be assigned heavier reading assignments, longer and more frequent papers or more intricate projects.

The report states a move would trade “breadth for depth.”

“Some faculty think that’s possible, but others feel you would need an increase in class time to achieve those results,” said religion professor Paul Duff, who chairs the Educational Policy Committee of the Faculty Senate.

Some faculty members said having students concentrate on fewer courses could be beneficial.

“One of the rationales is that we’re stretching students too thin. There’s some real merit in getting students deep into subjects,” said Gregg Jackson, associate professor of educational policy.

According to the report, a change to a four-by-four system could reduce average class size by 10 percent and, along with a required summer, would reduce teaching loads for faculty by 12.5 percent.

The University would also need to consider costs and a time frame.

Lehman said the Banner system, which registers students for classes online and stores transcripts and records, would need to be converted to carry four-credit classes. He said it is too early to estimate costs of a four-by-four but that reprogramming Banner alone would be “expensive” and a “massive task.”

The Faculty Senate and Student Association are submitting their opinions on the proposed changes on Nov. 1. The Faculty Senate’s response to the report will be presented at its Oct. 31 meeting.

Lehman said “everything will be studied for a while” but could not give an exact time frame, noting, “We need a full fiscal analysis of a four-by-four system.”

Andrea Nurko contributed to this report.

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