TEACHING AT PITT: Tips for handling the challenge of six-week courses


Teaching a compressed course, like a six-week summer course, provides unique educational opportunities for students and instructors.

Students can study a topic in an extremely focused way. Long meeting times can provide time for varied activities, with less time lost for warm-up and wrap-up. And the condensed format can foster greater student rapport and “learning community.” Of course, students appreciate the ability to move through their program more rapidly or to remediate without lengthening time to degree.

Compressed classes also provide significant challenges. It can be difficult to build in time for reflection/processing. Getting students to complete as much as twice as much reading in the same amount of time is not easy.

And what about those long classes? Yes, you can do more, but how will you fill that time and maintain students’ attention? Will you simply lecture for three straight hours? (Hint: you shouldn’t!) How can you maximize the opportunities that a six-week class presents while meeting the challenges?

At Pitt, Summer 6-Week-1 runs mid-May to late-June, while Summer 6-Week-2 runs late-June to early-August. Four-week and 12-week sessions also run during the summer. Classes are generally longer (commonly 2 hours and 50 minutes) and may meet twice or even three times per week. Often, the classes carry smaller enrollments.

What kind of students take these courses? They may be particularly motivated or, alternatively, remedial students. They can be traditional Pitt students, familiar with the Pitt system, or undergrads from Pitt’s regional campuses, community colleges or other institutions. You may have non-traditional, “Third-Age” or high school students. This may be their first compressed class, and they may be taking more than one accelerated class at a time.

Prior to the semester, take steps to increase your likelihood for success. Identify your goals for yourself — what skills do you want to hone and add to your portfolio? How much work can you responsibly handle? Plan your assignments accordingly. Allot time to work on your course and measure your success by doing the best you can do within the reasonable time frame you have allotted.

Provide your syllabus and readings to your students as soon as possible. Let them know upfront the implications of the intense workload. If attendance will be important, consider making it mandatory. Missing one class may be like missing two, three or even four classes during the fall or spring semesters. On the first day of class, administer a pre-assessment: Why are they taking the class? What are their goals? Plan to teach the whole class session that first day as a model of how classes will be run.

Instructors of six-week courses often ask, “How will I cover the material from my 14-week class in only six weeks?” While coverage of content is important, we suggest starting instead with learning objectives.

What skills do you wish them to acquire and leave the class with? This question is related to, but distinct from the question of content, and can help you address questions like how much reading to assign.

If your goal, for example, is for your students to be able to conduct a deep-level analysis in a particular area, you might reduce the amount of survey/background/contextual reading you assign. Class schedule also can determine reading loads: more reading in between your Wednesday and ensuing Monday class than in between your Monday and subsequent Wednesday class. If you really want students to do the readings, design class to depend upon their completion.

Use multiple, frequent opportunities for reflection/assessment. Administer a quiz or individual writing assignment as early as the second class. Notify students immediately of early missed assignments and remind them of the additional challenge of falling behind in an accelerated class. Provide timely feedback, ideally before the next class/next assignment. Provide clear rubrics. Administer a mid-term survey during week three.

During those long class sessions, let learning objectives structure your lesson plans and lecture notes. You have already identified your broad, course level learning objectives — now break these into component skills. What do you want your students to be able to do by the end of an individual class session?

Start each class with a guided review, drawing upon the learning objectives from the previous class session, and conclude class with an informal assessment like a brief writing activity. Vary your learning activities. Think in 7- to 10-minute chunks, and change your teaching mode, which can mean something as simple as pausing from lecture to ask a targeted question, or something more involved like an individual writing or small group activity.

As the semester progresses, keep a teaching journal: what worked and what didn’t? Talk to other people — in your department, at the Teaching Center — to get feedback. And when you hit those really trying times, remember, it’s only for six weeks!

Joel Brady is program coordinator and consultant at the Center for Teaching and Learning and part-time instructor in Religious Studies and Slavic Languages & Literatures.