Intensives or Impossibles? Rethinking the AUC Language Courses

By Thea Bladt Hansen and Koko Christiaanse

Collage by Anna Sazonov and Charlotte Görl

It is common knowledge at AUC that intensives earn their name. This four-week period at the end of every semester is a time for students to intensely delve into one subject matter. Out of the six intensives in a three-year AUC curriculum, one is mandatorily dedicated to the Global Identity Experience, and two more to learning a language. The idea is that students can effectively learn a language through frequent and intense exposure of the four-week structure. However, a recent poll conducted by the Herring shows that the intensive structure is not as ideal as it seems.

According to the poll, 241 students believe AUC should offer more options for non-language based intensives, 174 students would prefer that language courses were given in the 16-week period of the semester (the extensive period), and 135 students indicate that they think language intensives are ineffective for achieving expected learning outcomes. Some students think that the content of language intensives is too dense, and a portion of respondents say the language level predictor test, which assigns students to language levels, should be improved. 

Several students shared their own experiences with language intensives in comments to the poll. A general opinion seems to be that condensing a 6-credit language course into four-weeks results in students having to cram and memorise rather than improve their understanding of the language. This makes the often quite long period of time between language intensives problematic, as students end up officially meeting the requirements for the consecutive level of a language without actually possessing the knowledge needed to improve their language skills.

Sára Gutvill has taught German intensives at AUC since 2012 and detects issues similar to those  identified in the poll. She says, “Information will stay in your short term memory when you start building on that knowledge the very next day.[…]For sure, you could learn more from a language course in the extensive period. I think there is no discussion about this.” Gutvill does point out that the contact between students and lecturer improves in an intensive and that she enjoys the group-building aspect of intensives. However, she adds, it is extremely demanding for lecturers to teach two parallel intensives—a problem faced particularly by language lecturers who teach different levels of a language during an intensive. 

According to Marianne Riphagen, Head of Studies Academic Core, and Dr. Michiel van Drunen, AUC’s Director of Education, AUC’s intensive structure is owed to the fact that AUC mimics the UvA and VU semester structures. UvA and VU have two eight-week course periods and one short four-week period in a semester. AUC decided to combine the two eight-week courses into one 16-week extensive and adopted the four-week period as an intensive. 

Coordinating with VU and UvA has practical benefits, according to Management. Other University Colleges, which do not employ the intensive structure, force students to squeeze another course into the extensive and increase the study load, says van Drunen. Intensives are furthermore well-suited for critical learning experiences, such as lab courses and field courses. Furthermore, adopting a similar structure to VU and UvA also makes it easier for AUC to hire lecturers from these universities. According to van Drunen, it is already difficult at times to find lecturers for the extensives, as professors from VU or UvA may teach courses elsewhere for half of this time period.

Van Drunen says, “I think language courses are by nature very well suited to in-depth intensive type of learning’. He explains that this is the case because students are exposed to a language very intensely without distraction from other courses. Van Drunen and Riphagen also cite that language courses are “ highly evaluated by students” and “lauded for the cultural components”, which AUC emphasises more than the language courses offered by UvA. In regard to the lack of non-language intensives cited in the poll, van Drunen says that “I think our offering of courses is sufficient.”

This said, both the effectiveness of language intensives and the current semester structure are under discussion. Riphagen says management is “very well aware” that the extensive break in between the two required language levels makes continuation difficult. For this reason, Dutch A2 and Spanish A2, the most popular language courses, are now offered as both intensive and extensive courses so that students can take these courses at A1 and A2 level consecutively. However, such a system may not be realistic for other languages due to enrolment concerns, as students are spread more thinly across the extra course options. According to Riphagen, two extensive language courses had to be cancelled this semester due to lack of enrolment. 

Riphagen and van Drunen mention the new initiative AUC Next – a “strategic vision exercise,” which will explore how AUC can better its profile, curriculum and programme to adapt to the changing university college landscape. AUC Next is set to examine possible changes in the semester structure, for example whether to abandon intensives or perhaps restructure the semester into shorter periods in which students take only two courses at the same time. Another topic under discussion includes whether GIE should be moved from the intensive to the extensive. The project is also going to look into AUC’s motto, themes and residential aspects. Any future changes to AUC’s semester structure will at the earliest be implemented in 2022.

Jules Declerieux, Co-Chair of AUC Student Council, agrees that language intensives and their effect on students should be debated. Student Council, which holds an advisory role regarding the curriculum and has one member on the AUC Next task force, currently focuses on minimizing stress and pressure amongst AUC students and faculty. Declerieux says, “intensives are a stressful period for a lot of people, and there have been conversations about how we can restructure our academic calendar in a way where people get a bit of a break.” This could be achieved through creating a break between the January intensive and the start of the second semester, a time when, according to Declerieux,“a lot of people are so tired and so done with studying”. Declerieux believes that it could also be part of a solution to make it easier for students to follow language courses at the VU and UvA.

The Board of Studies, which has approval rights on management plans, has two members on the AUC Next taskforce and is engaged in the structuring process of AUC’s curriculum. Bluma Brecher, vice chair of the Board of Studies, says, “some people on our board feel that the format of having a month long intensive isn’t the most conducive for learning, as you have to cram a lot of information. It’s effective for a lab course, but for a language, it’s not the most pedagogically effective format.” 

Brecher brings up the fact that when it comes to languages, students “go the safe route by doing a language they already know, because they don’t want their GPA to be affected.” She continues, “We don’t want students to take a course because they’re afraid to fail, that’s a bad incentive structure.” The Board of Studies received an email last intensive from a tutor who brought up the question of whether having to do two consecutive languages with a 16-week break in between is an effective way to learn. Brecher furthermore points out that for neurodiverse students, “cramming in a month is an unpleasant experience.”

The Herring’s Facebook poll pointed to the fact that students desire more non-language based courses, despite management’s view that the course selection is sufficient. This prompts the question: Which courses are ideal for AUCs intensive structure?
This January, Dr. Marco de Waard taught the brand new intensive course “Author in Context.”. According to de Waard, intensives are excellent for limited academic studies, for example studying the works of one author. De Waard describes how intensives are well-suited for interdisciplinary courses: “I’ve long been interested in the relationship between literature and the history of ideas, including social and political ideas, so Orwell’s work [the focus of this year’s Author in Context intensive] is great territory for me to explore.” In that sense, intensives can at their best provide opportunities for lecturers and students to engage in the interdisciplinary studies AUC prides itself with, but several issues with language intensives are yet to be solved.

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