Block Scheduling Not Helping High School Students Perform Better in College Science, Says University of Virginia Science Education Professor

April 28, 2006 — Students who had block scheduling enjoyed no advantage in college science compared to peers who had traditional class schedules in high school, according to Robert Tai, assistant professor of science education at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education. In fact, they performed worse, he said.

In an article published in the April/May issue of High School Journal, Tai and co-authors Kirsten Dexter, a biology teacher in Greene County who earned her master’s degree at the Curry School, and Philip Sadler of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, looked at a national sample of 8,000 introductory college science students from 31 states, many of whom went to high schools that use block scheduling.

Block scheduling is a way of structuring the school day so that students have fewer classes for longer periods of time. The most common type comprises classes that last for 90 minutes alternating two or three days a week, in contrast with the traditional schedule of classes that run 45 to 55 minutes and are held every day. Increasingly adopted over the past 15 years, the schedule remains a subject of debate. Claimed as a way to help prepare students better for college, Tai found that was not the case when students in introductory biology, chemistry and physics courses were surveyed.

“Final college course grades are a real-world measure with longterm impacts,” Tai said. “Even when students had teachers who used instruction methods specifically geared toward block scheduling, the students who had a traditional schedule had better grades in college.”

“With the additional pressure of the No Child left Behind Act, schools are trying to help all students graduate and pursue an education beyond high school,” Dexter said. “We need to create an educational environment that helps facilitate success in college, and if something is inhibiting the preparation, it needs to be fixed.”

Block scheduling was sold as a way that students would learn much better, especially in the sciences, Tai said, but they’re doing worse.

It may be harder for some students to grasp the material in a longer block of time, he said. Plus, if a student misses a class, he or she misses more of the subject matter. Even peer tutoring didn’t end up helping the students in block scheduling.

“An hour and a half is a long time for high school students to stay in one class,” said Dexter, who teaches high school biology and has taught in a variety of schedules.

The 90-minute classes also are hard on the teachers, she added. It takes more energy and more time to plan enough activities to fill the period. Although many teachers regard longer laboratory sessions as beneficial, students report that teaching methods differ little whether in long or short classes.

Over the school year, block scheduling also costs the students class time, the researchers found. A 50-minute class held every day for two weeks equals 500 minutes of class time, whereas a 90-minute block class held five times in two weeks (on alternate days) equals 450 minutes. In addition, more time may be lost in the class period as a teacher changes from one activity to another.

“This is not advantageous,” Tai said.

The survey sample comprises the higher-performing students who went to four-year colleges and controls for students’ backgrounds. And if these top high school students are doing worse, Tai continued, we could extrapolate that it must be even harder for struggling students. Block scheduling does not appear to be a better option. When schools go through all the changes of switching to block scheduling, even if there was no difference, it wouldn’t be worth it. Harvard’s Sadler adds, “Instead, schools should invest in changes that have been shown to produce large student gains and that are backed by rigorous research studies.”

The April/May 2006 issue of the High School Journal is available online. Scroll down the contents page to find html or pdf access.