At most high schools in the U.S., students take anywhere from four to eight courses at a time. Some students enjoy the variety, but for others, managing that many classes and subjects is difficult. What if, in college, you could take just one class at a time, diving deeply into a subject without having to balance your studies with several other courses?
At a handful of colleges in the U.S. and Canada, you can do exactly that. These schools have what they call a “block plan,” a schedule in which students take one course for 3-4 weeks, after which they typically have a 3-4 day break before starting the next class. Over the course of a school year, students take a total of 8-12 courses.
The following colleges operate on the block plan:
- Colorado College, Colorado Springs, Colorado
- Cornell College, Cornell, Iowa
- Maharishi University of Management, Fairfield, Iowa
- Quest University, Squamish, British Columbia, Canada
- Tusculum College, Greenville, Tennessee
Students who are considering these colleges might be struggling with the question of whether the block plan will be a good fit for them, since most have not had that type of schedule in high school. I attended a college with a semester schedule, so rather than outlining the pros and cons of the block plan myself, I sought input from two of my former students who go to block plan schools:
- Alex Barone-Camp is a rising senior at Colorado College, where she is majoring in microbiology and is on the pre-med track.
- Teddy Loof is a rising sophomore at Quest University, where he has not yet declared a major (or as Quest calls it, a question).
Below are the questions I asked Alex and Teddy, as well as their responses:
What are your favorite things about the block plan?
Alex: I think there are many positive aspects of the block plan, however for me, the most beneficial has been that the year seems more evenly paced. When I was on the semester plan in high school, it seemed like every year, all of my classes would be riding on one week of the semester during finals. The block plan can be rigorous, but because you’re only taking one class at a time, you only ever have to study for one final, and once you finish a class, you’re done and can move onto the next. Another one of my favorite things about the block plan is that just like your block is the only one you’re taking at that time, it is also the only one your professor is teaching. This enables professors to dedicate the majority of their time towards their students, making them very available and invested. Finally, the block plan has allowed me to complete more classes in a shorter amount of time.
Teddy: My favorite part of the block plan is being able to focus on one class at a time rather than having to juggle assignments and exams in multiple classes. I absolutely hated having to prioritize assignments in high school based on what classes I was more competent in. This has made the academic part of the college experience way more worthwhile and enjoyable for me. This is especially true for classes I was eager to take (which was most of them!). The block plan also forces you to improve your time management skills. There is often a large amount of work outside of class, and it takes a bit of time to figure out how to balance personal life with academics. Intro level courses helped me balance the scales, so to speak, and prepared me for more demanding higher-level courses.
What are your least favorite things about the block plan?
Alex: I think that with any academic system there will always be trade-offs. While the block plan has worked extremely well for me, there are some caveats. First, students only have three and a half weeks to learn essentially an entire semester’s worth of material. This can create a very steep learning curve, particularly in some of the hard science courses I’ve taken. Sometimes the sheer amount of information learned each day (comparable to a week on the semester plan) can seem very overwhelming. A second issue I’ve come across learning on the block plan is that although it’s nice to get classes done and out of the way, it can make it easier to forget information as the year goes on.
Teddy: The block plan compresses a semester’s worth of curriculum into three and a half weeks, which, depending on the class, can be quite demanding. I took micro-economics after taking an intro-level economics class in my first year. I went to class in the morning for three hours a day, five times a week, and worked pretty much non-stop from 1:00 pm to 10:00 pm every night to finish all of my course work and to study for exams. It was difficult, no doubt, but extremely rewarding at the same time. If you are not prepared to work hard all the time, the block plan can be harsh and punishing, but if you are prepared to work towards getting a good grade, it is worth the extra effort. The other main downside I found is that if you don’t enjoy a class, it can be pretty painful to complete it and get a good grade. I took a general-ed evolution course that wasn’t extremely difficult, but because I didn’t find the material to be all that engaging, it was difficult to finish the three and a half weeks while maintaining a good grade. However, knowing that it would be over in less than a month was incredibly comforting.
What is one class that you think worked really well with the block plan?
Alex: When I was planning my classes for junior year, I realized that second block, nothing fit into my schedule. I decided to take a class completely unrelated to my major: Buddhism. As it so happened, my professor, David Gardiner, had invited several Buddhist Monks from India to come to the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center during the block. It was incredible to be able to witness the creation of a sand mandala and learn about Himalayan Buddhist culture. Over the block’s three and a half week period, Professor Gardiner also invited his former mentor, Professor Robert Thurman, Buddhist author and friend of the Dalai Lama, to lecture to Colorado College students and the Colorado Springs community. The experiences I had during this block I felt captured the true essence of what the block plan was intended for. My classmates and I were able to immerse ourselves in Buddhist history while simultaneously getting to see real life examples of what was in our books.
Teddy: I think all of my classes worked really well with the block plan, but perhaps my Biodiversity of British Columbia class stood out from the rest. We studied a number of different ecosystems and environments within B.C. by conducting studies ourselves out in the field. Being on the block program allowed us to go on a number of field trips and research the intertidal zone, measure biodiversity in the Squamish estuary, and measure biomass and biodiversity of forests at different elevation gradients in the Squamish Valley. The block plan helped us go into further depth and have access to extraordinary opportunities that wouldn’t be possible in a traditional program.
What is one class that you think didn’t work well with the block plan?
Alex: Some classes, particularly science classes, can be quite intimidating. With most science classes entailing both a lecture and lab portion, it can seem impossible to be able to accomplish everything in such a short period of time. Sometimes I felt classes like organic chemistry or biochemistry simply asked too much of undergraduates who weren’t used to college-level chemistry, let alone college-level chemistry on the block plan. However, looking back, I can confidently say that organic chemistry was one of my favorite classes. I had an incredible professor and the camaraderie between everyone in the class fostered a wonderful, eccentric learning environment.
Teddy: None of the classes I took didn’t work well on the block plan. Ultimately, it is up to the professor (or tutor at Quest University) to design a course that is engaging and works well on whatever system the university works off of. All of my tutors did a phenomenal job at making this happen.
Have you had any special opportunities because of the block plan?
Alex: One of the reasons I initially chose to go to a block plan school was because I wanted to do research and gain experience working in a professional lab. In many science classes on the block plan, you spend many hours everyday with your professor. This gives your professor the chance to watch you work, gauge your enthusiasm for the subject, and observe how you work with others. During one of my lab classes in molecular biology, at the end of the block my professor asked my lab partner and me if we would be interested in working in her lab over the summer. The next year, my partner and I were able to continue working on the research during the school year by taking a research block that also gave us credit.
Teddy: The block plan really does create special opportunities for students. In addition to being able to conduct research in the field in Biodiversity of British Columbia, a peer and I were able to work with the hereditary chief of the Squamish Nation to assess the impacts that hydroelectric dams have on both the environment and on indigenous peoples in B.C., Washington and Oregon, as well as to talk about solutions to the problems that dams created. In my Energy and Matter course (basically physics and chemistry combined), we were able to develop and test desensitized solar cells, one of the leading technologies in the solar industry due to increased efficiency over standard PV panels.
Do you feel like you’ve missed out on any opportunities because of the block plan?
Alex: No, I personally feel that the block plan has given me far more than it has taken away. Being able to focus on one thing at a time and get a four-day weekend to recharge every three and a half weeks has played a huge role in giving me the best college experience. Of course, there are times when I’m in a particularly difficult class where I feel like I’m missing out on other, more fun college experiences; however, there are eight blocks in the year and making sure to take at least one carefree, non-stressful block has undoubtedly helped me to balance work and fun.
Teddy: With all of the benefits the block plan has to offer, I didn’t really miss out on any opportunities. It is really up to you as a student to take advantage of all the opportunities the block plan has to offer.
Overall, it seems like Teddy and Alex have both had great experiences with the block plan. That said, this type of schedule isn’t ideal for everyone, and it’s up to each individual student to decide if it’s right for them.