By Statistics Professor Ann Cannon

Imagine that you were introduced to someone new at a party and when you asked them what they did for a living they responded with “I’m a statistics teacher.”  What would your response be?  Be honest.

I can pretty well guess, as I am that statistics teacher. The response in those conversations is typically one of the following:  “Man, I hated that class in college!”   “Wow, I’m glad someone can do that!”  “Geez, you must be really smart!”

I honestly think that the block plan is one of the best ways to combat the negativity usually associated with the field of statistics. At Cornell, students take only one course at a time. That means their full attention is on that one topic. At other schools students often have to prioritize their time and can easily rationalize not spending as much time in one of their courses (for example, statistics) by saying things like “I need to spend more time on the class that is in my major.”

But at Cornell I have the students’ full attention. My class is their focus for 18 days. They do the homework, they come to class prepared, and they listen.  And it works. Do I convince all of my students that learning statistics is not only worthwhile but also interesting? No. Do I convince many more than I did when I taught on the semester system? Absolutely! And I love it!

What else is great about the block plan? I get to really assess what students have learned. If you are limited to teaching in 50-minute periods, you are also limited to 50 minutes for exams. While I used to think that my 50-minute tests were good indicators of learning, I now believe that they were actually good indicators of what students can quickly regurgitate.  At Cornell most of my exams do not have time limits. This means that I can ask, and expect well-reasoned answers to, questions that require thought. For example, I can ask questions that mimic using statistics in the real world by giving students a new data set (with real data, collected by a researcher with a serious question), asking them to analyze some aspect of the data using statistical software, and write up a coherent response.  I don’t expect the responses to be completely polished, given that they are working in a testing environment, but it does give me a very good sense of how they are putting the knowledge they have learned to good use.

For these and many other reasons, teaching on the block plan is a blessing; one I’d have a hard time giving up.