This academic year, many students and faculty experienced for the first time a winter break that extended from Thanksgiving to the new year. Symbolic systems program associate director Todd Davies ’84 M.S. ’85 Ph.D. ’95 sees this as an opportunity for change.
Noting positives in the University’s modified 2020-21 academic calendar — which was adjusted to eliminate final exam weeks and end fall quarter in mid-November, resulting in a seven-week winter break — Davies wrote an op-ed advocating for these changes to be kept permanently. Students interviewed by The Daily welcomed this proposal, although some expressed concerns about how final exams would be replaced.
“It just seemed like an obvious idea,” Davies said in an interview with The Daily. “I thought I’d put it out there and see how people respond to it.”
He said that it “seemed unnecessary” to expect students to go home for Thanksgiving only to return to campus for two weeks or less. Though he is in favor of permanently ending finals week, Davies said that if this cannot be done, it seemed better for finals to be conducted prior to Thanksgiving break.
Students like Emily Saletan ’24 agreed with Davies’ proposal and saw the value of a longer winter break. Saletan took a gap year before enrolling at Stanford and saw how her friend at Carleton College, where the fall term ended before Thanksgiving, was able to be involved in seasonal work at a local theater because of the lengthier break. However, for Saletan’s friends who had to return to school for final exams, Thanksgiving break was just like dead week.
“I would rather just not have to be stressed during that time I go home,” she said.
Ending the quarter earlier is a proposal that James Juma ’22, an international student from Kenya who does not celebrate Thanksgiving, supports as well.
“You will be happy to be done with school when you’re going home and not think about some pending assignments,” he said. He added that the University had been “very understanding” in accommodating housing and other needs for students who remained on campus across the extended winter break.
While some see the extended winter break as a welcome time to relax, Davies also sees the opportunity to use the time more productively by adding an optional three-week winter term. His proposal includes the opportunity for students to join shorter intensive classes, overseas seminars, public service projects or extracurricular activities between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Davies was inspired by other universities that already have a similar program. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology holds an “Independent Activities Period,” a special four-week term in January between its two semesters. While students may be too busy during other times of the year, Jackie Foltz ’24 sees Davies’ idea as an opportunity to “get involved in the community and pursue some of those passions that we don’t always have time for.”
The change in this year’s academic calendar meant some courses had to adapt their content and evaluation methods, but students who spoke with The Daily had mostly positive feedback. Samuel Montagut ’24 found it helpful that his classes spread out exams instead of having a large final.
“You learn as much doing assignments throughout,” Montagut said. “I think it’s better to take stress away from people,” he said, adding that it’s not useful for students to cram for finals.
In Davies’ view, it is “likely” that students and faculty generally dislike final exams: “I don’t know people who really like finals week.”
He said that his understanding of the psychology of learning suggests that “continuous engagement over a full academic term, which is facilitated by continuous assessment, leads to better retention after the course is over,” citing spaced repetition, active learning and deliberate practice as examples.
However, students said that some courses have held cumulative exams during the last week of classes, despite the University’s policy that states “there will be no final exams for undergraduates and graduate students” for the 2020-21 academic year.
Eliana Fuchs ’23 said all her fall quarter classes held cumulative exams in the last week of the quarter.
“It feels like we have squished an 11-week time span into 10 weeks,” she said. “Week 10 has been exponentially more stressful than either week 10 used to be or finals week used to be.”
Faculty are allowed to hold exams during Week 10 but are encouraged “to apply reasonable expectations when determining the workload assigned to students during that week,” University spokesperson E.J. Miranda wrote in a statement to The Daily.
Meanwhile, Tiffany Zhu ’21, who had previously written for The Daily, noticed that some classes had to cut material due to the schedule changes.
“I certainly wish that more professors tailor their evaluation methods to the lack of finals week as opposed to just trying to squeeze finals into week 10 and then also miss out on teaching some really cool material,” she said.
Davies acknowledged concerns about eliminating finals week, as it would require a large shift in existing teaching and evaluation methods for many courses. However, he added that the phenomenon of “Week 10 finals” this year may be due to the belief that the schedule change is only a temporary measure.
“If we had a permanent schedule change to the calendar, then that would motivate more faculty to change the way that they teach and evaluate,” he said. “They would have to consider the fact that students no longer have an extra week at the end of the term to study for finals.”
It is unclear whether the proposal would ultimately be adopted. In January, Davies contacted the chairs of the Academic Council’s Committee on Undergraduate Standards and Policy and Committee on Graduate Studies (C-GS) to look into the proposal. He said he was told by the chairs that it was an idea worth discussing, although there was no room on the agenda for his proposal this academic year.
C-GS chair Anne Kiremidjian M.S. ’73 Ph.D. ’77 wrote in a statement to The Daily that the committee’s agenda is “quite full” for the rest of the academic year, making it unlikely that it would soon look into the proposal. Miranda wrote that “discussions regarding next year’s academic calendar are underway” but have not yet been determined.