Monday, 28 February 2011

Teaching patterns

Yet another reflection evoked by Philip's daily accounts is the differences in teaching patterns in Scandinavia, the USA and the UK. In Massachusetts, I taught one class three times a week, 50-minute sessions, and I remember I thought it very strange because the session ends just as you have come into a good discussion. I enjoyed the luxury of discussing a book for a whole week or more rather than five books in a two-hour session as I was used to from Sweden. But I have never understood the idea of assigning Chapters 1-7 for the first session and Chapters 8-15 for the next one. I cannot discuss books in chunks. If I have three sessions to spend on a book, I'd rather discuss three different aspects of the book at each class.

I taught another class on Tuesday evenings, because half of the time I showed movies, and the sessions were flexible depending on the movie or the novel. I didn't know then that this Monday-Wednesday-Friday and Tuesday-Thursday business was universal in the USA. I took me some time to recognise the pattern when I was planning my teaching in San Diego. I didn't realise that choosing the days of the week also determined the length of your sessions. American students and professors must take it for granted and never question it, but it is a strange pattern. I wonder when and why it started.

In Sweden and Finland, sessions are normally two hours, occasionally three. I have always hated three-hour sessions, because you cannot do substantially more in three hours than in two, and you lose your precious classroom time. You can teach any day of the week and any time of the day. You can even teach on Tuesday one week and on Wednesday the next, and the world will not explode. As long as I expressed my wishes well in advance I could always have classes whichever days of the week that suited me. In Sweden, most courses are in modules of five weeks. Students take one course at a time, so there can be no conflicts in schedule. In Finland, I repeatedly taught intensive courses of twice two hours a day, five days running. I was very tired by Friday afternoon, and so were the students.

Here in Cambridge we teach part-time students on Wednesdays. You just could not offer a course to part-timers on any other day of the week. I am sure there is a very good reason for it. If we have both full-time and part-time students in the same course, one session a week has to be on a Wednesday. Unless they are PhD students, because then it's Tuesday.

Our masters sessions are two hours, but the undergraduate sessions are 75 minutes. Apparently, undergrad's attention span is judged to be shorter.

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