Iowa State’s winter sessions are here to stay


Jacob Rice

Snow covers the outdoor seating in front of Hamilton Hall, Jan. 19.

Students at Iowa State recently wrapped up the winter session, which allows them to catch up on credits, get ahead on their studies, or test out new fields of interest.

Iowa State’s winter session was first offered during the 2020-2021 winter break. Since then, the university has continued to provide academically substantial courses, compressed into a four-week session.

Alec Gardner, a sophomore in biology, said his spring schedule was already packed, so he chose to take genetics, a common biology course, to save himself some trouble during the new semester.

“I thought it would be a lot, but I think it just depends on the course because the one that I took, a lot of it was review from an introductory biology class I had taken,” Gardner said. “Each week was divided into a unit, so that unit might only take you a month in a normal semester, but now that’s a week because you’re only doing one class.”

Gardner said he typically spent about 30 hours a week studying and learning for his course. Out of those 30, Gardner said 10 or 12 were spent on learning new material, while the rest had to do with reviewing topics he was already familiar with.

“I’d say it was a lot easier because I could do everything at my own pace,” Gardner said. “They already had the lecture videos posted. There were review sessions that were optional, and I didn’t need to attend them because I already knew what I was doing.”

Chris Jimenez, a sophomore in mechanical engineering, said he took a winter session course to gauge whether a new minor was meant for him. Jimenez said he wanted to add the computer science minor because it would increase his potential for future earnings.

“Well, actually, I was thinking about adding a minor, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to,” Jimenez said. “So I ended up taking a practice computer science class to see if I liked it. And I did like it, so now I did add that minor.”

Jimenez said the course was different from those students work through during a traditional semester because it was more compressed and streamlined. Jimenez said the course he took was also different because the only due date was set for the end of the session.

“This class was different because there were no due dates,” Jimenez said. “Everything was due at the end of the semester. [The professor] gave us like a schedule to follow, but it was just up to us to turn it in whenever we want to.”

Jimenez said the course also required fewer interactions with peers and professors than a traditional one. He said he didn’t think he ever received any messages from the professor, and while there was a Discord provided for the class, students seldom used it.

Sophia Norman, a senior in animal science, took a course on human sexuality and Agronomy 342 over break. Norman said she chose to enroll in the winter session so she could keep her minor without having to take an extra semester before graduating.

“It was pretty easy because most of the content was pretty much laid out for you,” Norman said. “It’s just really concentrated so like, it took a longer time to get through it than I think a normal class would because it was it all at once.”

Having taken two separate courses over break, Norman said it was a challenge to keep track of the different classes and their due dates. Norman said while one class was set up with deadlines throughout the course, another simply had one due date for all assignments at the end of the course.

“So I definitely preferred the first method, where she spaced it out for us,” Norman said. “The class that had like everything due on one day, I ended up like cramming for that stuff, whereas it was more spaced out for [the other] class.”

Despite the compressed material and the fast pace of the course, Norman said the winter session courses were easier because they were online.

“You weren’t going to lecture, so they had to kind of give you all the material,” Norman said. “And I guess the professors for my class were really lenient with like, you can use your references, use your notes from watching the PowerPoint videos and stuff like that.”

Administrative Perspective

Iowa State offered its first winter session during the 2020-2021 winter break, which was considerably longer than typical breaks due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Interim Senior Associate Registrar, Denise Timberland, said the university administration and an executive committee began discussions of a winter session as a means of taking advantage of the extra-long break.

“It posed an opportunity to test it out, and a lot of discussion across campus involved associate deans and others from the various colleges to talk about what approach to take, looking to possibly continue offering it in the future,” said Associate Registrar Diane Rupp.

Assistant Registrar Andrea Ibeling Peck said the management of the 2022-2023 winter session was passed on to the office of the registrar, instead of the committee which had organized it in its first two years.

Timberland said the types of courses offered in Iowa State’s winter session set it apart from similar terms offered in other schools.

“A lot of institutions have what they call j-terms, where there’s kind of this interim session, and they’re kind of fun classes,” Timberland said. “But I think one of the things that the executive committee really wanted and the provost office really wanted was for these to be academically substantial for the students.”

This means the university chose to focus on offering courses that would apply to students’ degree programs. Specifically, courses that apply to a wide range of degrees which may be holding students back from taking other courses in their fields.

Timberland said one challenge of offering academically substantial courses during the winter session is making sure students receive all the necessary curriculum in the shortened time. One way the university has assured this is by limiting course offerings to three-credit courses, as opposed to the four-credit courses that were offered during the original extended winter session.

“And so [faculty] are very thoughtful and purposeful about what courses they offer; not everything will fit into a winter session,” Timberland said. “And so that’s why that faculty is so important in deciding what courses will be taught and their curriculum.”

Additionally, Ibeling Peck said many of the courses offered are selected because of their relevance to a large number of students’ studies.

“That’s really at the discretion of the colleges and departments who are currently offering courses or would be interested in offering courses in the future,” said Ibeling Peck. “If you note the course list, it’s a lot of those sorts of broadly interesting courses, but not by the content of interest, but that students in numerous majors might need these courses for a degree requirement.”

Ibeling Peck agreed that the winter session represents an alternative to the traditional two-semester, in-person style of education. The winter session offers students the opportunity to learn online at an accelerated pace outside of the typical semester, allowing for greater control over their academic schedules and content.

“And it’s, of course, the only semester in which that’s the case at Iowa State, where [classes] are exclusively delivered as online sections,” Ibeling Peck said. “But as online and distance education has grown, more courses are delivered that way. And certainly, COVID created opportunities for more courses to be delivered as distance education offerings.”

Timberland said the winter session might not be for everyone; while the courses may offer students an advantage in upcoming semesters, the compressed content and faster pace may pose a challenge for some students. Timberland said students should be mindful of their academic standing and talk to their adviser before enrolling in a winter session.

“Currently, everything is limited to undergrad students; we haven’t ventured into the grad or the professional realm; I don’t think there’s any anticipation that they will,” said Rupp. “It’s been fairly successful working with the undergrads and really looking at giving them an opportunity to utilize not only their break but to get a little bit ahead on credits for the spring term.”

Rupp said the university had hit its stride in how it is going to offer the session and disperse information regarding it. Rupp also said the university would have additional flexibility with presenting the course offering to students once the university goes live with Workday Student.