I graduated from Winebrenner Theological Seminary in 1999 with a Master of Divinity degree. My educational experience consisted of morning and afternoon courses (all in person), weekly chapel, monthly Student Fellowship meals, and evenings spent either studying or spending time with friends (many were other seminary students). During the summer between our second and third year we were required to spend 12 weeks in a ministry setting for an intense internship experience. Throughout my three years working toward my MDiv, I recall only having two evening courses. Even as I write this I feel a bit nostalgic about my time at Winebrenner.
Upon my return to Winebrenner as President in 2015, I realized quickly that much had changed in the intervening years. Most in-person courses are now offered in the afternoon and evening. In addition to the students enrolled in our fully online Master of Arts in Practical Theology, most students have several online courses, and the majority of students are either employed in a local church or other setting, thus changing the need for the internship. But, perhaps most significant of all, was the change from two 15-week semesters (with a January term) to three 12-week trimesters.
Why does Winebrenner Seminary deliver courses via trimesters?
Let’s start with the student. Based upon the feedback that we’ve received (collected both formally and informally), students appreciate having multiple starting points to enter the classroom. Like a carousel, students can jump into the educational environment at three different times during an academic year – September, January, and/or May. This also provides some time off in April, August, and December. Typically, this allows those already in vocational ministry or serving in volunteer roles opportunity to either prepare for Easter or recover from Easter, plan family vacation or mission trips, and prepare for Christmas events and celebrate with family. All students, regardless of academic program, benefit from a break between courses, time to catch up on reading, and in some cases time to get ahead on work responsibilities in other settings.
Ultimately, this is a shared benefit. The shortened starting time from first point of contact until class enrollment is a plus for both the student and the Seminary. We lower the risk of losing prospective students due to the decrease time between application and enrollment.
Another benefit to the student is the accelerated timeline to a degree. Granted, this format requires an additional level of discipline for a student. However, with a positive support system, a student can complete two, or for the courageous even three, courses in a given trimester.
My personal belief is that this format also assists students in managing the cost and educational debt load. This is an area in which we may need further exploration to fully understand how we can better assist students. However, distributing coursework throughout three trimesters provides opportunities both for students to have options in the pace they take their classes as well as a shortened timespan between terms if they need to step out during a session for financial or other reasons.
Prioritizing the needs of students has created a climate in which faculty are supportive of this delivery approach and see the benefit for themselves and Winebrenner Seminary.
There are additional benefits administratively. From a financial perspective, having students in class in trimesters distributes the tuition revenue from throughout year. Also, the shortened length of the program assists in student retention since the length of time between sessions is decreased and helps the students stay focused on the next term. An emerging practice across higher education is for continuous online education throughout the year which is likely in response to working adults. Since many enrolled in graduate programs are already working in the field they would rather keep going with course work over the summer to spread out the workload, getting done in the same timeframe or earlier.
In summary, we continue to offer courses in trimesters because we believe this format is attractive to students and assists in our path to sustainability. There are multiple ways to provide education for students – the trimester approach is the vehicle through which we have chosen to deliver continuous education.
Dr. Brent C. Sleasman
President, Winebrenner Theological Seminary