As this term comes to a close, you may find yourself looking ahead toward teaching a summer course. Though you may still find that you encounter many of the same challenges teaching during the summer months that you would otherwise, it can also pose its own unique challenges. Among them, you may find that students find it even more difficult to focus on being in class when they’d like to be enjoying a summer break, or that you have less time to get them up-to-speed with course content. One of the other challenges that can be unique to summer courses is that they often span a shorter period of time than courses offered during other times of the year.

How can you keep students focused on what’s essential to learn when you have less time to cover it? In McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, the authors write that when planning for a course you’ll “begin thinking about the practicalities of what you must give up in order to achieve the most important objectives within the limits of time, place, students, and resources” (Svinicki and McKeachie, p. 14). When condensing a course for summer instruction, considering key outcomes can help lend a focal point your efforts.

In her guest article, Retention Strategies: Tackling Common Challenges, Sande Johnson writes that “Students who have requisite skills upon entering a particular course should not have to repeat studying those skills to successfully pass the course. Diagnostic assessments can facilitate an accelerated path as appropriate for each unique student experience.” Because you don’t have a lot of time at the beginning of the course to get students up to speed on skills they’ll need to build on to reach key outcomes in your course, you may consider administering a quick assessment at the start to ensure students have the skills needed to move forward in an accelerated course. If they find they’re lacking in certain skills or knowledge, it can be an opportunity for them to do some additional review work and consider whether they’ll be able to keep up with a fast-paced summer course.

Because you must focus so keenly on your core course outcomes in an accelerated course, it’s also important to be able to link any course activities back to those central outcomes. By doing so, you’ll ensure that what students actively accomplish in these activities parallels an expected outcome. In Optimizing Learning Activities for Student-Centered Learning, Jason Lancaster writes, “Create activities that correctly align with outcomes. While this might seem obvious, many times a student activity is designed to demonstrate something drastically different from what the objective intends to elicit from students. This not only causes confusion, but also hinders the learning process, which could lead to issues later in the course. Further, students might become disengaged, passive learners. Keep students actively engaged by always keeping in mind expected outcomes as you design activities.”

If you haven’t yet formally identified the critical student learning outcomes for your course, you might revisit Worth Hawes’ article, Improving Student Learning Outcomes: The Thing Itself. In it, he presents a clear, actionable process that you can employ to formulate strong learning outcomes for your course. Once you have established these outcomes, building out directly correlated activities and assessments that fit within the limitations before you will help ensure you have a condensed summer course ready for learners. Keeping them engaged while their friends are sharing pictures from the beach? That’s a topic for next week.

What common challenges have you encountered as you’ve prepared for and taught summer courses, and how did you address them? Share your perspective and ideas with us below.

Reference: McKeachie, Wilbert J. and Svinicki, Marilla. 2014.  McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, Fourteenth Edition. Belmont: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.