As part of my exploration of pedagogies that constitute immersive learning, it is hard to ignore Elon University’s robust use of a specific curricular structure: our winter term. Every January at Elon, students can elect to enroll in a single, three and a half week course in which they attend the same class five days a week for several hours at a time. Classes are offered both on campus and away; in fact, a significant number of Elon students participate in a study abroad/away course during the winter term.

Elon isn’t particularly unique in using a winter or January term. Many other schools implement similar shorter, block terms. Often these courses are sandwiched between the fall and spring semesters and thus happen in or around the month of January. Other institutions, though, offer May-mesters: similarly short terms offered at the end of the longer spring semester. Recently, our close neighbor to the west, Guilford College, created a unique curricular structure: in the fall semester students take a single three-week block course followed by a twelve-week semester where they take multiple classes. Then, after the winter holidays break, this structure is repeated only in reverse, with the block term course coming at the end. On the further end of this spectrum are institutions that employ a block approach as their primary method for delivering instruction. Colorado College is probably the most well-known school to do this, at least in the US. In their Block Plan, which has been in place since 1970, courses are offered via a curricular structure made up of eight back-to-back, 3 1/2 week terms. To my knowledge, the University of Montana Western is the only public institution in the US that offers something similar; their block plan is called Experience One. And, in Canada, a relatively new university in British Columbia, Quest University, was established in 2007 on the concept of a block structure, which they also call the Block Plan. Clearly these institutions believe strongly that educating their students using a course-by-course block approach offers distinct advantages compared to the traditional two semester structure of most higher education institutions.

Typically, block delivered courses are set up to meet every day of the week, Monday through Friday, for three to four hours at a time. In my view, this type of course structure can be valuable to the teaching and learning process for many reasons that relate specifically to the benefits of immersion:

  1. For both students and instructors, the opportunity for dedicated focus within a single time-bounded course can be something of a relief in comparison to the frenzied, multi-tasking, “multiple balls in the air” nature of a more traditional fall or spring semester where student take four or five classes, and where instructors often have a two, three, or even four course teaching load.
  2. The singular nature of a block-structured class allows for a deeper and more sustained exploration and examination of course material. Instead of spending the typical 50-90 minutes in class (dependent on the number of class sessions per week), block classes typically meet for two to three times that amount of time per session. Students are given the opportunity to dedicate extended amounts of uninterrupted time to class discussions of course material, working on relevant assignments, and spending extended time with engaged activities in ways that can be harder to achieve in the shorter time spans of a more traditional class.
  3. The continuity of learning afforded by attending the same class five days a week can also be a benefit. Instructors are able to create a flow of teaching that isn’t interrupted by the time gaps that occur in a typical two classes a week setup, where the distance between the last class of one week and the first class of the subsequent week can be separated by up to four days. For students, the block structure means greater opportunities to connect the knowledge and skills gained in one class session to the next without as much time passing in which learned information can fade.

As part of my research into immersive learning, I plan to visit some of the institutions mentioned above where purposefully designed instructional structures that leverage the benefits of this pedagogy are part of the curriculum. My hope is that these visits will help me better understand what instructors and students each think about the strengths—as well as perceived weaknesses—of unique curricular structures and what they offer to the learning process. I particularly am interested in opportunities to discuss this with faculty or students who have experienced traditional curricular structures (such as a transfer student or an instructor who has taught at a different institution) and can therefore compare and contrast those experiences with block structures. I will follow up this post in the near future with a report on what I learn.

Phillip Motley, associate professor of communication design, is the 2019-2021 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. His CEL Scholar project focuses on immersive learning.

How to cite this post:

Motley, Phillip. 2020, February 13. Curricular Structures That Facilitate Immersive Learning. [Blog Post]. Retrieved from