The modern lecture hall is a bastion of multitasking. And very little learning. It turns out that the prefrontal cortex, unlike your laptop, is a serial processor: It does one thing at a time. Numerous studies have demonstrated that multitasking degrades performance while simultaneously promoting an "illusion of competence"—not optimal for a successful educational paradigm.
Most professors have built their careers by devoting sustained attention to a challenging problem, first to master what is known and then to contribute incrementally to enhancing our knowledge. Why, then, do we suppose that far-less-experienced students will cultivate disciplined analytical habits of mind by juggling four or five different courses simultaneously (not to mention maintaining their peripatetic social lives, real and digital)?
Having spent eight years in the semester system as a student and more than three decades in it as a professor, I must confess it never occurred to me to question the scheduling model on which most universities operate. It was thus with considerable skepticism that I began to explore Colorado College's one-course-at-a-time "block plan" when I joined a small group planning Canada's first private, nonprofit secular university. My reaction was typical: "Well, I see how this could work in a humanities class. One could read a Shakespeare history play, explore the history itself, study the linguistics—even put on the play! But it will never work in physics (my discipline)—it would be impossible to cram a semester's worth of material into one month."
That's because (1) I shared the deeply conservative inclination of most academics, and (2) I had never tried the block system. After six years of teaching at Quest University Canada, however, it is hard for me to imagine teaching any other way. Students with only one thing to do get engaged—with the material, with the discipline, and with the habits of mind we want them to master. With three hours a day, five days a week of class time, and a minimum of five hours of work outside of class expected each day, the results are extraordinary. Refereed journal articles commonly emerge from second-year undergraduate classes. A truly remarkable depth of learning takes place, for strong students and for weaker ones.
Maybe that's why four other Canadian universities are now experimenting with block programs, and the University of Montana Western recently shifted to this system. It works.