11/08/2013 15:15 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 18:58 EST

Private Quest University makes case for intensive learning

Quest University in Squamish, B.C. has developed a unique program that it says is designed to foster life-long innovative thinkers.

The private university is the only one in Canada university whose entire curriculum is on the block program, meaning subjects are taught one at a timem in three and a half week blocks.

The unusual schedule means instructors who work in the real world can drop in to teach, as they only have to commit to a month at a time.

Class sizes are kept small, capped at 20 students. Quest provides a liberal arts and science program, with every student taking math as well as humanities.

David Helfand, an astronomer who formerly taught at Columbia University, is president and vice-chancellor of Quest University.  In an interview with CBC’s Lang & O’Leary Exchange, he defended a liberal arts education as a way to teach students how to adapt to the modern working world.

“What a liberal arts education does is to equip you for the jobs of tomorrow. You can train a skillset for jobs you can get when you walk out the door but that job might not exist in 10 years,” Helfand said.

“Labour market analysts will tell you that a graduate today will have between three to five different careers over the course of their working lifetime and half of those careers don’t exist. “

The tuition is steep – nearly $30,000, compared to average undergrad tuition across Canada of $5,500. Factor in room and board in Squamish, B.C., and that comes out to more than $40,000 a year.

But Helfand says Quest graduates are employable.

“We have students who get jobs because they know how to solve problems, they know how to communicate the solutions to those problems and how to collaborate with other people in the firm to make things happen,” he said.

He says the intensive block-learning style works because it discourages multi-tasking and encourages deeper thinking.

“You still do four courses in a term, but you do them in sequence rather than in parallel,” Helfand said.

“The point is that by focusing on one subject for an entire month, you can get a level of engagement with the students and a level of depth of analysis that’s simply impossible in the semester system ,” he added.

This learning style doesn’t work for every student. Online postings by Quest students show some are overwhelmed by the demands of the block system.

But Helfand says other public universities and even some high schools are experimenting with the approach.