Course Acceleration: What, Who, Why, and How?

A research-based guide that explains accelerated (7-8 Week) online courses from the learner and faculty perspective    

Table of Contents

The What

What is Course Acceleration?

Course acceleration describes the process of transforming a traditional, online or face-to-face 16-week semester course into a shorter course format, typically 8 or less weeks in length or are compressed 25% or more (Pastore, 2010). Accelerated courses maintain the same level of academic integrity and course rigor but are “presented in less time than the traditional number of contact hours” (Wlodkowski, 2003). As stated in Wlodkowski and Westover (1999), the accelerated course format has been critiqued for valuing “convenience over substance and rigor” (pg. 3). However, the research focused on accelerated online courses explains that learner satisfaction, learning effectiveness, achievement of learning outcomes, instructor ratings, and student retention are not negatively impacted by the compressed courses (Anderson & Anderson 2012; Austin & Gustafson 2006; Carman & Bartsch 2017; Eames, et al., 2018; Kucsera & Simaro 2010; Vlachopoulos et al., 2019; Shaw et al., 2013; Sheldon & Durdella, 2009; Wlodkowski & Westover, 1999). In fact, some studies reveal that students enrolled in Education, Business, and Nursing accelerated courses score higher in capstone courses and on exit exams than students enrolled in the equivalent traditional course modalities (Thorton et al., 2017).

What is not Course Acceleration?

If you have an existing online course of traditional length, it can be tempting to simply compact existing content into an accelerated structure. While utilizing existing content after thoughtfully examining alignment to course and program standards is encouraged, only compacting content can negatively impact the student experience and may feel disjointed for the online accelerated learner as it is not delivered in a format that is tailored to their course length and specific needs (Boyd, 2007). A learning outcome focused course “potentially creates opportunities to plan more effectively to teach in compressed formats […] instructors can focus on what needs to be learned and plan accordingly” (Kops, 2014, pg. 3). 

Using this model accelerated courses shift from lecturing to facilitating. A change to compressed course format requires a paradigm shift for instructors as well as students. There are mutual responsibilities to make an accelerated course work effectively. Key areas for an accelerated course is inclusion of great interaction, significant self-learning, and increased responsibility (Marques, 2012, pg. 103). Students enrolled in successful accelerated courses have indicated that certain teaching methods make for a more successful learning experience including active learning, classroom interaction and discussion, and a clear, purposeful course organization (Scott, 2003, pg. 32). In accelerated courses where these methods were used, students reported that they experienced “more concentrated, focused learning, more collegial, comfortable classroom relationships, more memorable experiences, more in-depth discussion, less procrastination, and stronger academic performances” (Scott, 2003, pg. 32). 

The Who & The Why

The Adult Learner

The online, accelerated format is appealing to many online learners, particularly those that are non-traditional students juggling full-time jobs, families, and other responsibilities, because of the flexibility and convenience of online learning. Accelerated courses appeal to these non-traditional, adult learner populations as they employ andragogical principles instead of pedagogical ones. Andragogy, coined by Malcom Knowles in 1992, “describes a learner-centered approach to learning” (Stavardes, 2011). Marques (2012) articulates the theory of Andragogy with six focus points:

  1. The need to know, which should be clearly explained to adult learners.
  2. The learner’s self-concept: this is often shaped by the way he or she is treated.
  3. Encouraging students to integrate their work and life experiences in their learning.
  4. Readiness to learn. Adult learners have made a conscious choice to be in school: they have a readiness to learn, which should be stimulated through interesting course strategies.
  5. Orientation to learning. Most adults learn best when new information is presented in real-life context.
  6. Motivation is greater when students are given responsibility and ownership.

The accelerated format enables adult learners to engage in self-learning due to reduced session times while discussing personal perspectives and learning from peers under the guidance of a faculty member, this model provides an effective solution to the needs of the adult learner.

Additionally, offering all courses in a degree program in an accelerated format can expedite program completion lengths for students, thus making it an appealing alternative to traditional-length degree programs. Adult learners are more likely to be motivated by factors such as early course completion and flexibility (Collins et al., 2013) and students are generally “attracted to a program (or format) that will accomplish what they need in the shortest amount of time.” (Ferguson & DeFelice, 2010).

The Faculty Experience

Although the accelerated course format has existed for almost four decades, there is still quite a bit of debate about the value and quality of courses created in this format: “There is an interesting dynamic at play when it comes to intensive course formats: students generally love them, while faculty struggle with mixed feelings, and are often hesitant in acknowledging the validity of these courses.” (Marques, 2012). While students enrolled in these programs indicated that the experience is different to a traditional course, these differences do not include rigor (Kasworm, 2001). Faculty teaching in accelerated programs also describe a similar experience (Johnson, 2009). While they indicated that the experience was different than their experiences in a traditional classroom: “Many of them said that reduced instructional time led them to place more emphasis on the students’ role in the learning process” (Johnson & Rose, 2015). This re-emphasis on the student role can be difficult to adapt to and may require the faculty member to “reconceptualize” what it means to teach within their discipline (Johnson & Rose, 2015). For some instructors this means a dramatic shift from content- and lecture-driven courses to courses that emphasize self-reflection through case studies and application (Johnson & Rose, 2015). Upon reflection, the innovative changes made to their courses were the highlight of the transition to the accelerated format. In several studies conducted on instructor experiences in compressed courses, “all concluded that the experiences were positive but that they needed to adjust their teaching approaches and methods” (Kops, 2014).

Like findings in traditional, face-to-face courses, students in accelerated courses “consistently indicated that the instructor was the most essential component to a high-quality, intensive course learning experience.” (Scott, 2003, pg. 30). Not only do the students believe the instructor to be an essential component of the accelerated course, graduate students rate instructors higher on many different attributes including instructor satisfaction on student course evaluations for accelerated courses when compared to evaluations from traditional courses (Carman & Bartsch, 2017). Students in accelerated programs hope to enroll in courses where faculty display enthusiasm, knowledge, experience, and good communication, have a willingness to learn from and consult with students, and care and relate to a student in each course (Scott, 2003; Krevtovics, 2005). Maintaining this consistent level of energy can be more manageable over a shorter timeframe as there are often “lulls in traditional-length courses that do not happen in accelerated courses” (Johnson, 2009). Students in these courses also help to lighten the load for the faculty member as they form relationships with one another and create their own energized learning community: “When interviewed, nearly all faculty and students mention that some kind of cohesion develops in compressed classes that is accompanied by a kind of intense mental involvement. Students tend to become better acquainted, to work together more often, and to pursue understanding of course material more avidly. Faculty members often report these as personal experiences in their own educations” (Geltner, 2001).

The How

Consider Student Workload

No matter the course modality, it is important to consider student workload and time on task, in order to avoid unreasonable workload expectations. The credit-hour model is an existing benchmark, particularly for Title IV, used to quantify student learning and is a metric derived from the Carnegie Unit and “based on the number of ‘contact hours’ students spend in class per week in a given semester” (Toch et al., 2015). Contact hours encompass almost all of what we consider to be the traditional student experience in a course and include “instructional time, laboratory hours, studying, and homework time” (Shaw et al., 2013).

Accelerated courses require thoughtful design focused on course and program learning outcomes: “successful intensive courses are well planned, employ organized and structured activities, utilize a multitude of teaching strategies, and focus on learning outcomes and careful student assessment” (Kops, 2014).  This thoughtful design aims to ensure that while course length is shortened, students are not exceeding the reasonable approximations for an estimated workload. This can be a challenge for instructors who are redesigning their traditional course into an accelerated model. Through carefully mapping and considering each item in the course, it is easier to take stock of student time-on-task and prioritize student learning “that distinguishes between ‘must knows’ (prerequisite knowledge and foundational ideas), ‘need to knows’ (less critical at the moment but must knows later), and ‘nice to knows’ (can be put off without jeopardizing baseline knowledge)” (Kops, 2014). Mapping the course with consideration to student workload is appreciated by students, as faculty are more likely to stress the most important concepts and delve more deeply into major concepts (Scott, 2003).

After teaching the same course several times in any modality, it is natural to acquire new, relevant, and interesting resources to share with students. However, if new resources are added to the course over time without thoughtful consideration of learning objective alignment and student workload, your course content may begin to bloat. When mapping an accelerated course, the priority is on ensuring that you cover the learning objectives “while removing superfluous content and trimming the frills.”  (Kops 2014)


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