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The three letters that are stifling academic innovation

M, W, and F.

I had a sort of epiphany this semester. Modern higher education is premised on the idea that every academic topic can be fit into a three hour teaching box once a week for 15 weeks (or 10 in a quarter system). This has two significant results:

  1. It assumes that all topics are equal (Architecture? 15 weeks. Theory? 15 weeks? 19th Century British poets? 15 weeks. Composition? Oh, that’s too much for 15 weeks - let’s make that two 15 week boxes.)
  2. It sends students a message that knowledge can be comparmentalized. We then spend a great deal of time countering that message by addressing issues of integration. It’s self-defeating.

Turns out I’m not the first to think of this. Robert Barr and John Tagg wrote a paper for the Carnegie Foundation’s Change Magazine in the Nov/Dec ‘95 issue that addressed the same subject. The title - From Teaching to Learning — A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education. They were proposing that we move from an Instruction Paradigm to a Learning Paradigm:

We now see that our mission is not instruction but rather that of producing learning with every student by whatever means work best.

It’s that “whatever means” business that is so hard to reach. And the “whatever means” is held back by MWF. Barr and Tagg again:

The teaching and learning structure of the Instruction Paradigm college is atomistic. In its universe, the “atom” is the 50-minute lectur, and the “molecule” is the one-teacher, one-classroom, three-credit-hour course.

“Faculty members [and everyone else, we might add] have so internalized that constraint that they are long past noticing that it is a constraint, thinking it part of the natural order of things.”

That last quote from Barr and Tagg actually comes from two professors at Community College of Pennsylvania, Dennis McGrath and Martin Spear. And it couldn’t be more true.

Sure, other folks try innovative things, like team teaching, Learning Communities, four-hour and two-hour classes (OK, those aren’t particularly innovative), but the constraint is always there, driving our scheduling, our curriculum, our teaching assignments, everything.

Besides organizational inertia, what keeps us from letting go of MWF? Well, I expect it’s an efficiency issue. It’s efficient for scheduling, curriculum, and teaching assignments for everything to be in 3-hour chunks, forty or so of them over the course of four years. It’s efficient as well for student and faculty evaluation. Anything else looks like a management nightmare.

But I think it’s high time to think about how we could really implement a Learning Paradigm (Barr and Tagg’s paper is eleven years old now, for heaven’s sake).

Try a little thought experiment. Delete the MWF model from your mind. Remove the other constraints, like grades and hours needed for graduation. Think about what college is supposed to be accomplishing (remember my little Question of the Day a week or so ago?), and imagine the best way to reach that goal (”whatever means”). What does it look like?

(By the way, Barr and Tagg’s paper is worth reading in its entirety.)

2 Responses to “The three letters that are stifling academic innovation”

  1. Suzi Says:

    Students wouldn’t get out of a class until they actually knew the material and could show that they did. Some students would finish composition in a week and others would take years.

    Maybe that’s why it won’t change. No one wants to have the same student failing for years.

    Plus, what do you do with all the students who are done? Were there classes less good? If they weren’t, then why are we changing? If they are, do they have to come back to school to get accredited?

    It’s a huge paradigm shift.

  2. David Says:


    Universities change their curricula all the time (although I wonder how much is just rearranging the deck chairs). We are even now in the midst of discussing a pretty major change to our CS major (though nothing so radical as the changes implied by Barr and Tagg). This won’t negate any of alums’ degrees.

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