The 12-week plan for building courses

The 12-week plan for building courses
Photo by Hanna Morris / Unsplash

Right now, faculty are regretting the course design choices we made for Fall, and trying to make better ones for Spring.

I'm in that process myself, building my Winter semester course on linear algebra and differential equations. Last week I was splitting time between working on the syllabus and calendar for this course, while entering the home stretch on my current classes. I sent a quick tweet about a rule I have for building courses which I'll call the 12-week plan:

I was not expecting such a big response to what seems to me to be a very simple idea. But we're in that time where ideas for building courses are in demand; and often the simplest ideas are the ones that resonate the most.

So I thought I would expand on this, with details of what I do and some responses to the questions and issues that the replies to my tweet raised.

Designing courses on the 12-week plan

To begin, assume you are working with a 15-week semester. (If you aren't, keep reading.) Typically, faculty approach planning a course by filling those 15 weeks with content. My plan does this instead:

First: Go through the content of your course with a critical eye. Cut topics that aren't necessary; consolidate topics that work better or take less time if done together. Also cut and and consolidate unnecessary class activities (e.g. shorten or eliminate lectures) to use class time as efficiently as possible. Cut and consolidate until the main body of the course fits into a 12-week schedule. (If you believe this isn't possible in your situation, keep reading.)

Second: Take one of the three weeks that you just freed up, put it at the beginning of the term, and use it for onboarding. This term is stolen from the business world and refers to activities that help students get acclimated to the systems and culture of the class: Getting to know each other, learning about the focus and culture of the course, forming teams, learning the syllabus, practicing with the course technology, and so on. In other words, spend the week getting them "on board" your class.  

Third: Take the other two weeks and put them at the end of the course. Use those two weeks for catch-up, shut-down, and reassessment activities. These can include reassessment opportunities if you are using alternative grading, completion of portfolios, project presentations, and any other sort of heads-down, get-things-done work that students never seem to have time to do otherwise.

Where this idea came from

This is not my original idea. It was planted in my head by a colleague who mentioned offhand once that he planned his Fall courses so they are done by Thanksgiving (the US holiday near the end of November). It was actually around Thanksgiving that he mentioned it to me, and at the time, I was at my limit trying to race through content in my classes before final exams.

That thought resonated with me. Like a lot of faculty, I'd seen students come back from Thanksgiving break absolutely done with learning new content. I continued to teach new material right up until the last day of classes at times, but I might as well not have. It wasn't their fault; it's just hard to do difficult intellectual work when you're that spent.

Later, I taught a few courses in my university's summer session on a 12-week schedule. I came to like the pacing. A 15-week course taught on that schedule is just a little faster than usual, brisk without being frantic, like driving 70mph in a 60mph zone. It forced me to make better choices about what to include in my course and in how I organized learning activities. And interestingly, students liked the pace too, mainly because they found it made them stay on task better. When you have less time to waste, procrastination is less of an option.

At one point I thought, what if I just built my regular-semester classes on the same 12-week schedule as the summer courses, and used the extra time for something else, like giving students time to breathe and focus when they need it? So I tried it, liked it, and that's how I do it today.

Why I use this plan and what happens when it's used

I've never conducted any kind of study on this 12-week plan (although that would be interesting). But I see some real benefits with my students.

At the start of the semester, my class roster is in constant flux for about a week with students dropping and adding. I've decided there's no point trying to cover essential content in that week. Students who add late are behind from the beginning, often on the most foundational material (which is not necessarily easy to learn on one's own, even if it's review). They are also behind in fitting in to the community of the class, and out of sync with their classmates. Often, I ended up having to re-teach this material to the late additions or else they have to teach it to themselves. None of this is ideal. And the students who aren't adding or dropping definitely benefit from a thorough look at the systems of the class, particularly my grading systems.

For example, I might spend Monday doing nothing but the Setting the Stage activity and discussing an interesting question that sets up the main theme of the course. Then on Wednesday, do nothing but learn the grading system, and practice using it. Then on Friday, do nothing but learn how to use the course technology (Perusall, Poll Everywhere, Jupyter notebooks, etc.). This is all stuff that a student adding late can be reasonably expected to learn on their own if needed; and by investing serious time in week 1, I rarely have to bring it up again.

At the end of the semester, students don't need more content. They need to breathe, and focus on getting things done. Because we're using specifications grading, there is often a backlog of reassessments to do. And regardless of grading setup, there is always something big to get done: projects, essays, revisions of essays, presentations, and so on. We want students to be fully present with those tasks and to do well on them. It makes sense, then, to give focused time in which to do it. Two week's worth of it at the end of the semester seems just the right amount. It improves not only the quality of the work that they do, it also improves students' overall mental and physical health. It also makes you better since you are dealing with relatively happy and focused students.

Some FAQs about the 12-week plan

Q: What if I am on the quarter system, or teaching on a 6-week or 4-week schedule etc. where I don't have 15 weeks?

A: Then this plan may not fit your situation. But, you might try scaling this to fit what you have. For example on a 6-week term, a reduction from 15 to 12 weeks would roughly correspond to a reduction from 6 to 5 weeks, which would give you 2-3 classes rather than 2-3 weeks to play with -- one class for onboarding and another 1-2 classes for reassessment/closeout.

Q: What if I have so much material to cover in the course that I can't possibly reduce the footprint by 20% like this?

A: Then this plan may not fit your situation. But, if it were me, I would be thinking carefully about just how much material is really necessary in the course -- like, really necessary, not just there because some other person said it should be. I've found in many cases, some of the "required" content in the course is nothing more than some other person's pet topic.  I've experimented with cutting that content, or giving only minimal coverage. Not only did it not cause problems, nobody even noticed. Take a look at the course, ask Five Levels of Why about every topic, and see if the results allow you to cut and consolidate.

Q: Doesn't this lessen the rigor of the course?

A: I am not at all sure of the meaning of the term "rigor" and am pretty sure it has no meaning. If the definition has to do with the amount of time used for content coverage in a course, then I guess "rigor" is lessened simply by definition. But if you also use "rigor" as a synonym for "academic legitimacy", then basing this on the portion of the calendar used for content coverage feels like basing the review of a restaurant on the number of hours per week it's open. It's not a great definition, in other words.

On the other hand, if "rigor" means the level of cognitive tasks given to students and the level of quality expected in their work, I would say that the 12-week plan increases both of these. If you devote two whole weeks at the end of the course for students to work on either reassessment or a major project of some sort, then again by definition, they are working on tasks in the upper third of Bloom's Taxonomy, and given just a little time and space to focus on that work, you can expect great things from them.

If you are covering content right up until the fifteenth week of a semester -- and often the most complicated topics are at the very end -- then I'm not sure you can reasonably expect a human being (which is what a student is), especially one who is not an expert learner, to comprehend that material on that time frame and do work that is evaluative or creative. This might be "rigorous" but it is also a dream.

My students are doing their best work on the most difficult tasks during the last two weeks of the semester -- because the schedule is open. I don't know if that's "rigor" but I am not going to argue with the results.

I definitely understand that the 12-week plan might be difficult or impossible for some. I'm not 100% successful so far implementing it with next semester's class, which is a service course stuffed with content that the department it serves wants us to cover; and since it's a new prep, I'm less certain about what's truly essential content. I've so far only been able to carve out a week and a half. But, I'll continue to look for ways to optimize. And like always, we work with what we've got and keep students in mind.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.