Analyzing trimesters: GW learns from other 4×4 models

GW officials are looking at other institutions that have reduced the number of courses students take each semester as models for the University’s proposed credit change reform.

GW administrators are considering switching to a four-by-four system instead of the current five courses at three credits each term. Officials are studying Tufts University in Massachusetts and Oglethorpe University in Georgia, which have similar systems to the one GW is investigating.

Chris Ames, former chairman of the English Department at Agnes Scott College in Georgia, oversaw the college’s switch to a four-by-four credit system in 2001. After the change at Agnes Scott, Ames left to become provost of Oglethorpe University, where he currently works. Oglethorpe switched to a four-by-four in 1996.

“At both institutions the driving force behind the change was to not spread the time and energy of students and faculty so thin,” Ames said.

He said the four-by-four system is usually found at more selective institutions. As selectivity increases, the ratio of time spent on independent work, such as readings and writing papers, to actual class time goes up.

Ames said both schools revamped their curricula to make them more challenging, noting they “put a little more burden on students to work independently.” Ames added that by switching over to a new system, faculty “take a fresh look at how they teach.”

“At both institutions the curriculum committee(s) oversaw the revision of course content to meet the appropriate demands of a four-credit course,” Ames said.

Academic departments submitted changes to the curriculum committees, and the entire faculty voted on proposed changes.

GW officials said they would be changing the University’s curricula so professors would go more into depth in each subject, making the classes worth four credits each.

Sol Gittleman, a professor of literature at Tufts University, was teaching there when the school switched to a four-by-four system about 30 years ago. He said the faculty and administration at Tufts felt students would get more out of their classes if they only focused on four each semester.

But Gittleman said the nature of courses once Tufts changed to a four-by-four structure remained relatively the same.

“It was just a major convenience for everyone,” he said. “But now there’s so much more that needs to be taught in each class.”

Representatives from GW met with Ames and officials from Tufts to discuss their experiences with the credit changes.

“I was impressed,” Ames said. “The people at GW seem to be doing this for the right reasons.”

Gittleman said he believes that regardless of what system schools are using for scheduling, students will still be learning, noting “No matter what we do to screw up higher education in America, it’ll still remain the envy of the world.”

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