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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Goodbye Trimesters... and Goodbye Classroom Contact Time?

Madison High School is ending its decade-plus-long experiment in trimester scheduling. In the 2010-2011 academic year, my alma mater will adopt a semester block schedule. Short form: each day will have four 90-minute class periods. Classes alternate day by day: Monday, a freshman might take English, Algebra, Art, and Band, then Tuesday, that student might have Science, Wood Shop, P.E., and Study Hall, and back and forth from there.

Getting rid of trimesters is good. Semesters align better with other schools in district and out. Students can transfer more easily. Students taking year-long classes like Geometry and Biology won't have that bothersome gap where they take the first half during first trimester, then wait until third tri to take the second half. And an 18-week semester gives teachers more time to cover material than a 12-week trimester...

...or will it? I certainly felt more rushed teaching in Madison's trimester system than I did in Montrose's traditional semester system. One day at Madison, I broke down the contact time available in the trimester system and found trimesters gave us 180 minutes less contact time with students. But as I recall and update that chart, I find the new semester block system will not reverse but continue this trend of decreasing contact time:

Semester Trimester Block
Weeks 18 12 18
Minutes per class period 50 72 90
Class meetings 90 60 45
Total contact time (minutes) 4500 4320 4050

The trimester system reduced contact time between teachers and students by 180 minutes, more than three and a half class semester-size class periods. The block system only makes that gap worse: Kids who take algebra at MHS will have 450 minutes less contact time with their teacher than kids who take algebra at a school with a semester system. That's like missing nine days out of a regular semester (and at Montrose, I think missing ten days a semester meant you flunked). Sure, kids can squeeze in an eighth class each semester, but they trade off almost two weeks from every other class to get it.

Now we could argue that what we lose in contact time, we make up for in the quality of longer meetings. For instance, as Principal Knowlton notes in Tuesday's MDL, students in the health science classes will be able to use the longer periods to do more work outside the classroom (I would assume that means visits to the hospital, nursing home, etc.).

And suppose that five minutes of every class period is lost to administration and getting going. (If you're really, really good, you can get class going immediately... but realistically, start-up take time.) Over an entire semester of daily 50-minute classes, you lose 450 minutes of instructional time. Under block, meeting 90-minutes every other day, you lose "only" 225 minutes.

But block also sacrifices that daily contact with students. There's something to be said for being able to monitor students' progress every day. There are also some activities that work better in small doses every day. For example, when I taught English, I did weekly vocabulary lessons. Monday, I'd hand out the list. Tuesday we'd go over definitions. Wednesday we'd do one worksheet. Thursday we'd do a second worksheet. Friday we'd have the quiz. Each day, 5–10 minutes, quick repetition to make the words stick, and then off to the next activity. If I spread those same daily lessons out over a block schedule, each vocab lesson would take two weeks, and we'd only cover half as much vocab. If I cram those activities into two or three meetings a week, the kids get less repetition and possibly less retention of the new words.

I think math teachers can make a similar argument. On some math topics, kids need to learn and drill just one specific topic for a day before moving on. Some days, it's nice to just give a test, let the kids concentrate, and wait until the next day to start something new. The trimester pressures teachers to do a couple lessons a day, or to give a test during the first part of class and then cover new material during the last part. The block schedule will only increase this pressure.

The block schedule has its advantages, and it seems to be an improvement over our wacky trimesters. Block done right may even be good for the music program. But I'm still not convinced we've found an improvement over good old semesters. We'll see what the teachers and kids think in 2010.

More reading:


  1. Just start lacing the water with adderall, that will solve the problem.

  2. I've taught in the block scheduling that Madison will be going to. I really like it because it provides some continuity for classes, which will help the fine arts programs. Also with a 90-minute block, you're forced to become more flexible... more interactive learning activities and not so many lectures!

    In terms of help, the nice thing about the block schedule is it allows time for students to work on their assignments in class, which means the teacher is right there to offer advice and help if necessary.

    All in all, I think the kids will do quite well in the block scheduling format.

  3. Everybody's always so negative about lectures...

  4. If you were 17, would YOU want to hear a 90-minute lecture? LOL

  5. If I were 17, would I want 90 minutes of anything in class?

    90 minutes is a long time for any one activity. But I contend lecture done right can be as captivating and educational as any other classroom activity. Teachers (and educational school professors) ought to spend less time rolling their eyes at the term "lecture" and more time learning how to make great lectures.


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