One Course at a Time

What is One Course At A Time?

One Course At A Time is, at its core, the adaptation of intensive learning as a core method of education.

But what does that mean?

In a nutshell, students take one class, every day, for 18 days. Typically, classes start on a Monday and run three and one-half weeks, closing no later than noon on the 18th day, usually a Wednesday.

Most classes meet 9–11 a.m. and 1–3 p.m. Monday through Friday. Some meet longer than that (though classes must be restricted to the hours between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. to allow for campus activities and athletics), and some meet less. It’s as if every class were a January-term.

There are nine blocks every year, and students are required to take eight per year in order to graduate in four years, though many choose to take all nine.

How does One Course At A Time work with ...?

One of the most frequent questions asked of admission counselors is “How does studying music work on the block plan?” or “How does it work to study a language in One Course At A Time?” or “Does learning physics on the block plan even work?”

The answer to all of those questions, and others like them, is, quite simply, that it does.

Granted, the answer is different for any given subject. Languages practice immersion through clubs, labs are set up outside of class and don’t have to be taken down, music lessons are given on a modified semester system, and all classes are out by 3 p.m. so that athletic practices can be held regularly.

It’s often a jolt to the system to realize that things don’t have to be done the exact way they’ve always been done. But it’s important to remember that One Course At A Time is simply a delivery system. The means and methods of that delivery are still up to the faculty, as they are under traditional semester systems.

Cornell has had 30 years to practice and refine its methods of teaching under the block plan. There is nothing the talented faculty and staff cannot do. After all, we can do anything in 18 days.

Block breaks

“… and then you get half of the last week off. Every month!”

It seems like every explanation of One Course At A Time ends the same way. We take classes for three and one-half weeks, and then get the rest of the week off. Every. Month. This point can’t be emphasized enough by some students.

Thirty years in, “block breaks” have become a staple of Cornell culture. Every block ends no later than noon on the fourth Wednesday of the class (with some holiday-related exceptions). Almost immediately, students scatter in every direction. Some head for their dorms to relax away their latest final/paper/project, some take off for home for the weekend, and many times students partake in campus activities with other Cornellians.

Pledging, for example, has long been held during mid-fall and mid-spring block breaks. Often times you can hear chanting and singing throughout campus for those five days, or watch a parade of similarly dressed pledges tromping around campus wearing signs or puff-paint T-shirts. For social groups, pledging block breaks aren’t breaks at all, and can be more exhausting than classes!

Why doesn't everyone?

In “An Open Letter to the Students of Cornell College,” then-President Philip Secor told Cornellians that change of any kind required some risks, and warned them not to be driven by “an emotional fear of change.” The letter may as well have been written to others in higher education, as only a few schools since Cornell have taken the leap to the Block Plan.

But that’s just it. It’s a leap. And not one to take lightly.

The transition itself is hardly easy. Changing from the semester to the block schedule involves reworking and rethinking everything, from registration to meal times to athletics to admissions.

The demands on the faculty, for example, are greatly increased. They must reorganize course plans, change their methods of teaching, and alter their use of time. Few faculty are willing to make such changes and sacrifices for a new calendar.

It also puts strain on teaching spaces. Under One Course At A Time, professors have an entire room to themselves for the whole block. Under a semester system, rooms can be used by as many classes as can be scheduled.

There are further demands on both the bookstore and the registrar. Instead of ordering all books once or twice a year, the bookstore restocks every month. And instead of handling registration only twice a year, the registrar’s office must deal with a change in scheduling nine times a year.