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Strained by increased end-of-quarter workload, students petition to ban ‘Week 10 midterms’

‘I feel deceived’: students say they are still taking high-stakes exams at the end of the quarter despite being told that final exams will be replaced by continuous assessment

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After transitioning to distance learning in the spring of last year, the University informed students that final exam periods would be replaced with “continuous assessment spread through the quarter” during the 2020-21 academic year. Jayla Kilson ’21 was excited to hear about the change, but soon found that many of the courses she took came with the same load of work and examinations as before — with one less week to complete them.

“I do feel very deceived,” Kilson said. “They kind of present themselves as looking for equity and trying to be understanding of all of these different students’ positions and they’re really not.”

The elimination of finals week came from a proposal by vice provost for undergraduate education Sarah Church and senior associate dean for undergraduate educational initiatives and professor of biology Mary Beth Mudgett. It was approved by the Faculty Senate Steering Committee last July, and was originally meant to recognize “the challenges that students who are not on campus may experience in their remote learning environments” and accommodate for the fact that the Honor Code was not designed for virtual education.

However, the fact that major examinations were still held for some classes at the end of the quarter has drawn criticism from undergraduate and graduate students alike. They also expressed frustration at the University’s lack of communication or follow-up.

University spokesperson E.J. Miranda wrote that the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) and student voices have been important in decision-making surrounding the academic calendar. He added that instructors have “the freedom to design assessments appropriate for their courses to measure student learning” and are “encouraged to assign a reasonable workload” throughout the quarter, including Week 10.

While both the proposal approved by the Steering Committee and communication to students wrote that final exams should be replaced by continuous assessment, the University’s guidance to instructors allows for end-of-quarter assessments of various formats, including an in-class exam, a take-home exam or a final paper or project. However, it writes that traditional three-hour final exams are prohibited and that “instructors are discouraged from administering high-stakes assessments during the last week of the quarter.”

Kilson says many of the courses she took this year did not adjust evaluation methods, assigning lengthy final projects and conducting cumulative examinations during the final week of each quarter. Kilson explained that the combination of classes and finals resulted in more stress than usual since more work was due with less time to complete them than in past years.

Kilson is not alone. Melissa Marable ’21 M.S. ’22 and Bryce Huerta ’21 M.S. ’22 started a petition calling on the University to reconsider the end of the quarter and ban “Week 10 midterms,” which they wrote “were often essentially finals.” The petition has received over 264 signatures from faculty and students as of Thursday. 

Among other asks, the petition proposes restricting the number of combined deliverables and lectures given during Week 10. “Looking at the sheer number of midterms I had Week 10 was frustrating,” Marable said. “It just became stressful as it got closer.”

Former Faculty Senate Chair and engineering professor Sheri Sheppard signed the petition. She said that the petition mentioned issues that should be discussed by programs and departments, including her own.

Sheppard was on the Steering Committee when it approved the elimination of finals week last year. Looking back, she said that there might not have been enough discussion on how instructors would adapt assessments or on the range of assessment options.

Instructors have also noticed their students’ increased stress levels towards the end of the quarter. Program in Writing and Rhetoric lecturer Rebecca Richardson Ph.D. ’14 was alarmed by how frosh in her classes reported feeling “burned out” more frequently than in previous years, which she believed was likely due to the high-stakes exams given during Week 10.

Nic Fishman ’21 said that the elimination of finals week has resulted in an unsustainable system that “depends on having extra time,” like extensions and incompletes. 

This problem was amplified in the winter because there was only a one-week break after the end of the quarter, compared to nearly two months after fall, according to Fishman. This meant that students who requested extra time to complete their assignments would have had little or no break at all before starting classes in the spring.

Emi Soroka M.S. ’21 added that graduate students also faced similar challenges with workload and exams. Living in an environment that was not conducive to her learning, Soroka had to complete lengthy take-home exams during Week 10 overnight to avoid being interrupted — a situation that the proposal to eliminate final exams was meant to alleviate.

Miranda wrote that the University is aware of the “extraordinary stress” faced by students and instructors due to the pandemic. He added that Church has been in communication with the ASSU on the issue of student workload during Week 10, and that school deans have messaged instructors “emphasizing students’ concerns and offering guidance on ways to clarify their course assessments.”

In the petition, Marable and Huerta wrote that some courses had abused ambiguities in University policy to structure assessments that violated the spirit of the guidelines, and asked the University to “hold courses accountable for following rules regarding assignments and exams.”

Richardson said that University guidance was “vague” and that instructors primarily relied on their department or program for direction. While the University has offered optional resources to help instructors adapt their courses, Richardson said there did not appear to be oversight on how instructors have interpreted the guidelines.

Sheppard commended the Center for Teaching and Learning for helping instructors come up with alternative evaluation methods; she removed an end-of-quarter exam that used to be given during finals week for her fall quarter course, ENGR 14: “Intro to Solid Mechanics,” replacing it with a project.

Marable said that she and Huerta hope to gather more support before submitting their petition to the University, which requests that changes be implemented before the end of spring. Miranda declined to comment on the possibility of the University amending its guidelines for the current quarter.

The University urges students facing issues to speak with Academic Advising or their major advisors for assistance, Miranda wrote. He added that Academic Advising “is reaching out to students to provide guidance for navigating their concerns with course instructors.”

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Chern Xun Gan ’23 is a writer for Academic News.