Determining Summer Session Needs More Accurately Begins with Communication

Mardell A. Wilson, Danielle E. Lindsey


The literature includes various studies that address students’ summer course needs and preferences, but little has been published about the types of data used and the factors influencing institutions’ planning and decision-making processes for summer session. The purpose of this study was to conduct a needs assessment that would result in the development of a model to help institutions identify and acquire the necessary data to determine the summer course needs of students. The study, conducted at Illinois State University, included both quantitative historical data and qualitative data derived from focus groups with department chairpersons and advisers, who are familiar with student needs and other contributing factors that may affect summer session. The focus group data were analyzed and various themes emerged, but the results did not produce a distinct formula for addressing summer course offerings. Instead, using the needs assessment process as a theoretical framework led to the identification of a strategic communications plan that addresses core elements of summer session planning as the program’s most eminent need.

Summer session administrators lack broad-based input that clearly and collaboratively defines what core mission students need from summer courses to aid their efforts to expedite time to degree. The term core mission students denotes those students enrolled in traditional on-campus degree programs. “Balancing the academic and financial purposes of summer sessions is critical, and not necessarily a straightforward exercise” (Doane & Pusser, 2005, p. 53). The purpose of this study was to conduct a needs assessment that would result in the development of a model to help institutions identify and acquire the necessary data to determine the summer course needs of students more accurately.

 Integrating the planning of summer session into the traditional two- and four-year academic plans has become a crucial element for matriculating students, as institutions carefully consider the accessibility and affordability of higher education (Fish & Kowalik, 2009). In addition, aligning resources for summer session to the true needs of the students can be quite challenging as faculty might continue to focus on past practices that could have been based on faculty desires rather than students’ needs. However, purposeful and intentional planning can result in a situation where all parties—the students, the faculty, and the institution—ultimately benefit. Identifying the optimal summer session may actually allow for meeting the needs of students and the opportunity for creative courses and programs that enhance and/or complement the curriculum.

 Although various studies (Alexander, 1997; Doane, 2003; Doane & Pusser, 2005; Fish & Kowalik, 2009; Martin, 1996; Taylor & Doane, 2003) have been conducted of students’ summer course needs and preferences, little has been published about the types of data used and the factors influencing institutions’ planning and decision-making processes for selecting summer course offerings.

 Undeniably, three elements influence decisions on summer course offerings: students, faculty, and administration, both central and within the academic units. Each is important, but clearly any effort to ensure viability of the summer session must remain focused on meeting students’ needs. Although faculty may have varying agendas, their participation may or may not align with the students’ needs. The faculty’s availability, their willingness or desire to teach certain courses, and incentives for developing new courses or implementing other pedagogies (such as distance education) are all factors that affect how a summer session is populated with courses. In addition, central administration places emphases on expediting progress to degree completion, easing enrollment peaks in certain academic programs, and providing opportunities for students to enroll in courses not available during the fall/spring semesters secondary to supply and demand issues. Administrators from the individual academic units may see summer as a time to also provide unique learning opportunities for majors and possibly fulfill commitments to faculty regarding summer salaries made during recruitment without regard to demand or student needs (Doane & Pusser, 2005). The literature confirms the importance of conducting a needs assessment to develop a comprehensive yet manageable method to pair institutional data with key stakeholder information to determine a summer session that truly meets the needs of core mission students.

A needs assessment is a logical and orderly process of gathering and analyzing data, through which needs are identified and ranked in a priority order. A needs assessment can identify the gaps between what currently exists and the desired outcomes (Adelson, Manolakas, & Moore, 1985). Triangulation of needs assessment data is preferred over one single data point or type (Lockyear, 1998). Collecting needs assessment information may include the use of surveys, objective data sources, focus groups, and interviews (Hauer & Quill, 2011). Steps in the process may consist of (1) distinguishing the purpose of the needs assessment, (2) identifying stakeholders, (3) including relevant issues to be addressed in the assessment, (4) distinguishing appropriate data sources, and (5) analyzing and prioritizing the primary need or needs (Adelson et al., 1985; DeSilets, 2007). These steps are essential to distinguishing and justifying needs and determining priorities among them (Pratt, 1980).





Full Text: