One Course At A Time turns 30 (page 2)

The changes were implemented for the very next school year, 1978-79. Yet among the faculty, things still were not quite settled. Some took early retirement or left entirely, convinced the system would fail. Others who voted against the proposal stayed on.

Either way, by the 1984–85 school year, the faculty had mostly settled in. Those who stayed realized the promises made in the debate, and then some. The enrollment issue dissipated with the new system, as the student population topped 1,000 for the first time in the college’s history and continued to set new records into the 1990s. Today, the incoming class is one of the largest the school has ever recruited.

But the change was far more than cosmetic.

"Something different was happening"

“After a year of trying it out, it became apparent that things didn’t just collapse,” said Thomas. “Something different was happening.”

That something different was the realization of all the promises made during the debate. The arguments in favor of the block plan not only came true, but began to define the Cornell experience during the next 20 or so years.

“The biggest discovery I made about One Course At A Time,” said Allin, “was that over time I came to appreciate that I could plan the calendar around the course rather than the course around the calendar.”

That sort of flexibility was one of One Course At A Time’s strongest selling points early on, and continues to be so. In fact, that flexibility is one of the primary reasons Quest University modeled its calendar after Cornell’s (see “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”).

In the first years after the switch, that flexibility meant daylong geology fieldtrips, combinations of classroom and practicum activities in education, architectural tours around the Midwest, and internships taken nearly any time of the year.

Even while staying on campus, professors found their interactions with students to be deeper and more fulfilling. Allin said he actually doubled the number of contact hours with students in some of his classes, and now feels he couldn’t move any of his classes to a semester system without losing the things that make them effective courses.

Professor of Biology Robert Black, who experienced teaching on the semester system before coming to Cornell in 1987, found the student-teacher experience far more rewarding.

“There are conversations and interactions on the block plan I never got to have on the semester plan,” said Black. “That bond inspires students to work harder than they ordinarily would have.”

Not only do the students work harder, according to several professors, but without other classes serving as distractions, students actually become more interested in classes they may normally gloss over to “steal time” from classes within their major.

Allin said that prior to One Course At A Time his introductory classes would often be taken by pre-med students who, despite being some of the brightest in the school, were often his worst students. These students would borrow time from his class to supplement the time they needed for classes in their major. Once the block plan was implemented, suddenly that same type of student became his best, and they often found a love of politics in place of the mild disinterest they had before.

“The focus gives a leg up to achievement-oriented students and the intellectually curious,” said Vice President for Enrollment and Dean of Admission Jonathan Stroud, who added that students who were individually motivated typically found the block plan suited their needs better than a semester system.

The more things change, the more they stay the same

In the past decade or so, a period most attribute directly to President Les Garner, Cornell has evolved and expanded its commitment to utilizing the many strengths of One Course At A Time. The most obvious example is off-campus opportunities. While the inception of One Course At A Time increased such opportunities almost immediately, the last decade has seen an astronomical rise.

Today, it’s nearly impossible to graduate from Cornell without studying abroad, taking a block off for an internship, or simply traveling with a class to one of many established field stations. Off-campus study has gone from a perk of the calendar to something built into it intrinsically. It’s a part of the Cornell experience.

Another part of that experience has been the creation of the centers and programs: The Berry Center, Dimensions, Cornell Fellows, and others. Each of these programs emphasizes off-campus study and experiential learning, and each one is funded by donations from alumni. The college has, in recent years, thrown its weight and money behind these types of opportunities.

“There has been much better institutional support,” said Black, “not just for student studies, but for classes to take advantage of the block plan.”

Black’s observation speaks to the overarching adaptation the college has made as a whole. After 30 years, Cornell really knows how to teach and learn on the block plan.

For example, students who want to go to law school don’t just take the required classes. They’re assigned a pre-law advisor through the Cornell Pre-Law Program. That program funds and hosts activities and extracurriculars all year round.

And pre-med students don’t just learn during the pre-selected lab times. They go back to the labs throughout the block, as professors have the ability to leave them intact for the length of the class. Then, those students can find guidance on entrance exams and meet with alumni doctors through Dimensions.

In fact, faculty have adapted their style so much that, like their semester system brethren before them, many couldn’t fathom teaching on another calendar.

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