For Trident Tech students, a SHORTCUT toSUCCESS Results inspire effort to offer shorter courses

Trident Technical College automotive technology students Daniel DeVore (from right), Samantha Aldridge, Sean Larson and Nick DuBois listen to listen to program coordinator Walter Varella as he explains a computer analysis (displayed on a screen on the car's hood) of Samantha's car's engine. The students had just completed one of the school's FastForward classes -- Wednesday June 27, 2012. (Wade Spees/postandcourier.com)

Trident Technical College leaders have unearthed a simple strategy to help more students successfully complete classes: shorter courses.

The school’s Institutional Research department reviewed student data from the fall of 2008 through the summer of 2011 and found the surprising fact that most of the time, the shorter the duration of a course, the higher the percentage of students who successfully complete it. For instance students who completed a semester’s worth of work in a three-week “Maymester” course generally outperformed those who covered the material in 14 weeks.

Trident Tech currently offers mostly semester courses, but it offers seven-week classes in some programs, such as nursing and automotive technology.

Trident Tech President Mary Thornley said college leaders and faculty members are working now to come up with ideas to offer shorter but more intense courses. “How could we not respond to this data?” she asked.

Nick DuBois, 24, an automotive technology student, loved the seven-week courses he has taken in his program. A problem in a 14-week course, he said, is that “after a while, you zone out.”

But that hasn’t happened to him in seven-week courses, he said. “I like it because it keeps everything fresh.”

Some for-profit training programs operating in the local area appeal to students because they offer courses and programs in nontraditional ways including shorter courses, which allow for more open enrollment periods.

Thornley said perhaps it’s time for Trident Tech to be more flexible, while continuing to follow the state’s rule for Technical Colleges, which allows them to offer shorter courses as long as the number of classroom hours is the same as in a 14-week semester course.

Thornley said the state’s Technical College System before 1992 offered shorter courses on the quarter system instead of the current semester system. But it changed to become more compatible with the state’s four-year institutions, to which many technical college students transfer.

The idea to begin offering more short courses came from faculty after reviewing data on student performance, she said. School leaders found that “we tend to lose students late in the semester.” To combat that, “let’s be less traditional because, doggone it, that’s who we are,” Thornley said.

Cathy Almquist, director of institutional research, said the finding was astounding. And it applied to students of all ages and races, she said. “It lifts all boats.”

Pat Roberston, vice president of academic affairs, said it likely will be about two years before staffers decide which changes to make and put them in place. But that is the direction in which the school is moving, she said.

Students in Trident Tech’s nursing program already take seven-week courses.

Nursing student Cynthia Biondo, 33, said she likes the shorter courses but acknowledged that they are more intense and can be quite challenging, especially for older students who return to school after being away from academia for a while.

Lateasha Henderson, 28, another nursing student, said she also had to adjust to the fast pace. But now, she likes the shorter courses because she completes two classes in the time it used to take her to complete a single class. “If I had to chose, I would definitely go with seven weeks.”

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.