Published on 2017/12/06
The EvoLLLution | Home for the Holidays: How a Winter Term Could Drive Persistence and Completion
By piloting a winter session, the University of Louisville is trying to find out whether offering year-round course will support their goal to drive student persistence and completion.

At most colleges and universities across the United States, the doors lock after the final fall term exam and do not open again until the New Year. This means most students do not have an option to continue earning credits and progressing towards their degree for a month or more. This year, the University of Louisville is piloting an innovative Winter Term—set to run when the institution is typically closed—allowing students to take an online course and move towards earning their credential. In this interview Gale Rhodes and Kimberly Kempf-Leonard reflect on some of the reasoning behind launching the winter session and share some insights into what it took to get the project off the ground.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How did you and your colleagues come up with the concept of a winter term?

Gale Rhodes and Kimberly Kempf-Leonard (GR/KKL): From a university perspective, as we discussed ways to help students stay on track we discussed the possibility of offering a winter session. Provost Billingsley asked us to explore what it would take to run an online-only winter session. After staff researched how other institutions offered successful winter sessions, we proposed piloting a winter session this year.

Many colleges offer courses in a short session between fall and spring semesters, and the student popularity of online courses has increased the demand for year-round availability. The university has intended for several years to increase summer-school offerings; if the pilot shows that a winter session can be successful, the interest in year-round availability, especially from students who are eager to complete their degrees, will be addressed in a new way. The enrollment and revenue thresholds for this pilot session are modest: to cover the cost of the session by the tuition paid—although of course the pilot may show that students are clearly taking advantage of this opportunity, leading to a return above the threshold targets on the university’s investment of faculty time, expertise and support services.

Evo: What impact do you expect the winter term to have on persistence and completion?

GR/KKL: The University of Louisville has been on a steady path of improvement in terms of undergraduate retention and graduation rates, but we are still striving to be even more successful. The six-year graduation rate has increased 10.8 percentage points from 2007 to 2017. We have added several strategies to increase student success: late-start classes during the semester for students who need to drop a course but risk loss of financial aid, living learning communities, freshman orientation courses, proactive advising, and clear degree program completion checklists. We are hoping that a winter term will function much like summer classes, which have long been viewed as an opportunity to help students succeed in “bottleneck” courses they need for progression toward the degree. We offer several types of summer classes, including a three-week May term that is one day longer than the new winter term.

After the completion of the winter session, we intend to survey students who participated and those who did not. For those students who participated, we want to learn about their experience to inform us regarding future winter sessions. For those who did not participate, we want to learn why they did not and solicit input for future winter sessions to make it even more successful.

Evo: From an academics standpoint, what preparations were needed for the winter term?

GR/KKL: Even though professors encourage their students to be prepared to problem-solve, innovate and adapt to new challenges, it is surprising how difficult it is to implement change within university structures. Knowing the scrutiny given to new ideas, and that the University of Louisville has never before offered classes between fall and spring semesters, we approached this decision cautiously. First, we sought out information from comparable universities where winter sessions appear to thrive and asked about what has been successful, problems, and advice about logistics. The benchmark data convinced us that students are likely to be interested in enrolling in a winter session.

Working out the logistics of adding a new session, recruiting faculty, deciding the optimal course selections, and identifying the dates have been our biggest challenges. Because of the prominence of the Kentucky Derby in our city early in May, our academic calendar is pretty tight and fitting in the hours necessary for a winter term was tricky. We’ve accomplished it with every conceivable day except December 25. We also are restricting our offerings to courses that are already offered online to maximize flexibility. To appeal to the greatest number of students, the majority of the classes are either those that satisfy general education requirements for all undergraduate majors or serve as core classes in degree majors.

Our university has a unique resource in the Delphi Center for Teaching and Learning, and the instructional design staff have been especially helpful to faculty with course preparation for this concentrated online delivery.

Evo: How are you preparing from a student services and student support perspective?

GR/KKL: Because we are starting the winter session immediately after the fall semester ends, classes will be in session for one week prior to the university holiday break. Students are likely to experience problems early in the session and support personnel will be available to troubleshoot issues to include technical, registration problems, financial aid, advising and tutoring. Once the university closes for the holiday break, the IT Helpdesk will be open daily from 7am to 5pm to address issues that emerge. If they are unable to solve technical problems with Blackboard, the Blackboard staff will be on call to assist. If there are student emergencies, there are staff members who can be contacted. Students will be reliant on their faculty members to help solve any other support issues that emerge.

If students want to drop a course or have any financial aid issues, they will be required to address these issues on January 2 when the university reopens. Since the drop date will have already passed, students would be required to petition to drop a course anyway so there isn’t anything that could be done to accommodate their requests while the university is closed.

Evo: What are the biggest challenges you’ve had to overcome in the process of getting set for winter term, and how did you overcome them?

GR/KKL: A decision was made to embark on a winter session in mid-July so there wasn’t much time to coordinate everything that needed to be accomplished. We first met with the academic deans to determine which colleges would be interested in offering courses during the winter session and the decision was made to offer online courses by faculty members who had previously taught online. During this pilot, we had hoped to offer 10 to 15 courses, but ended up with 34 courses.

We initially thought we would offer a completely separate term but once we started discussing this with the financial aid office, we realized that there were some significant federal regulations that needed to be considered, so our only option was to offer this as a session that would technically be considered as part of the fall semester. Due to the fact that there were significant technology changes that would need to be made to the system in order to integrate registration with our SIS system, it was determined that student registration would need to be processed by hand.

We formed a committee to address all of the issues comprised of the following offices: financial aid, advising, registrar, enrollment management, admissions for both undergraduate and graduate students, information technology, bursar, academic planning and accountability and the Delphi Center. Members of the Delphi Center facilitated the process but all of the above-mentioned offices had to make accommodations if the winter session was going to be successful.

When considering which students would be allowed to take classes, we decided that students would be limited to only one course unless approved by an advisor to take more than one class. There was also a cadre of students who were not going to be allowed to register as determined by the advisors. We then had to consider how students would be required to pay for their courses since all payment dates had passed for the fall term. The bursar agreed that students could pay for their classes until the first day of winter session classes and for those students who didn’t pay, a hold would be placed on their account for the fall 2018 registration since they would already have registered for the spring semester.

We then had to decide the types of student support services that were needed, create a marketing plan to both educate everyone about the new winter session and entice students to register for courses during this period. We had to create a registration process before student registration before the spring semester began, and the process needed to be as simple as possible. The financial aid office needed to determine how they would process financial aid for this additional course if students requested financial aid.

The Winter Session Committee met weekly starting in September to iron out all of the issues and we launched student registration on October 16, which was about 2 weeks before spring registration. We were very pleased with the initial results. Within the first 2 weeks we had over 360 registrations.

We have no idea what issues will emerge once the winter session begins, but we believe we have planned as thoroughly as possible to accommodate all of the issues we could think of.

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Key Takeaways

  • Offering a winter session will allow students to enroll in courses critical to their degree completion during a time that’s typically left empty.
  • The university had to work to find ways to ensure IT support, LMS support and other student services could be made available to learners who register for courses that they would be taking at a time when most universities are closed.
  • Since the SIS is not designed to process winter session registrations, all registrations are being done by hand. An array of other administrative elements, ranging from financial aid support to future account holds, also needed to be thought through and designed.
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