Making Summer and Special Sessions Successful: 4 Key Factors

illustration of a news article


This is the first in a series of articles from Ken Smith, Virginia Tech’s vice provost for resource management and institutional effectiveness. Smith has both chaired and staffed multiple committees charged with overall improvement of special sessions operations at Virginia Tech. He holds a PhD in Educational Leadership from Virginia Tech.

You may also be interested in Smith’s recent podcast, “Approaching the Academic Calendar More Creatively.”

More colleges are considering offering special sessions outside the traditional academic calendar. In some cases, institutions are moving beyond summer and winter inter-sessions to provide condensed terms in May (immediately following spring term) or August (immediately preceding fall term). There are even “spring break” sessions that offer opportunity for very compressed but innovative courses.

Special sessions not only provide the institution with financial gains by generating additional tuition revenues; they also offer opportunities to improve student success, completion rates, and job readiness.

For example:

  • Special session courses can help students stay on track to timely degree completion. For non-traditional students who may be balancing work and family commitments, special sessions are an especially critical tool, allowing students to spread the coursework across the full 12 months of the calendar year.
  • Regular participation in special sessions can allow students to obtain additional majors or minors during their academic career that can make them more competitive in the job market.
  • Special sessions generally have smaller sections sizes. This, along with the intensive schedule, can provide increased opportunities for more direct student to faculty interaction.

For faculty, special sessions can offer not only extra pay but also an opportunity to try out innovative approaches to teaching a course. Because of the shorter time frame, many special session courses are delivered with a mix of on-line and in person instruction.  Certain types of courses, such as a travel study course, a foreign language immersion course or an independent research experience, may work well for intensive study during a special session.


Many public universities are being asked by their legislatures, boards or senior leadership to demonstrate “year-round” operation of facilities. Responding to these mandates by altering the academic calendar or restructuring curricula to trimesters or other forms of 12-month programing may not be possible or even beneficial for many institutions. By treating non-traditional segments of the academic calendar as special sessions,  and taking informed actions to increase enrollment in those sessions schools can accomplish the same purpose while also retaining all the benefits that accrue to the institution, the faculty and the students.

4 Key Factors to Consider

If you are to realize the benefits of special sessions (both in terms of revenue and impact on student success and completion rates), these sessions have to be planned strategically; they can’t be an afterthought.

Institutional leaders who want to increase participation in special sessions should:

Know who your potential special session students are and how course offerings can meet their differing needs.
Traditional and non-traditional students have very different needs, but special sessions can be structured to meet both. The research shows that traditional-aged students are generally not planning to participate in special sessions. In a special session, these students may be attracted and served by courses and experiences that allow them to do more while they are enrolled during their four years as undergraduates. In contrast, older undergraduate students need access to the courses that can help them stay on track to completing their degree.
Take a student-centered approach to course planning.
This means ensuring that the courses you offer in a special session are the courses that students want to enroll in. Sometimes special session course selections are driven more by faculty or by academic interests than by student need. You need to understand student demand and let that drive course selections for special sessions. The information you need — information that identifies pinch points and oversubscribed courses — can be readily derived from student information systems. Surveys are another way to understand better why students do or do not enroll in a special session.
Establish incentives for partnership between academic departments and enrollment management.
Thoughtful financial models and creative faculty contracts can create incentives for academic departments and their faculty to partner with enrollment managers in creating a set of student-centered courses. When the institution, the academic department, and the faculty all see a financial benefit for increased enrollment, their interests can readily align. Revenue sharing is a common practice for management of summer session budgets. (Some institutions also link faculty payment levels to enrollment in courses.)
Conduct a targeted and effective marketing campaign for the special session.
Such a campaign can both increase enrollment of your existing students and also attract new populations of visiting students who may be looking for transitory credits during a break. Different marketing methods will be needed to reach current students, their parents, or potential visiting students. Likewise, in the timing of marketing efforts you need to consider when the decisions to enroll in a special session might occur. For instance, many students and their families make decisions about summer session enrollment over the winter holiday break.