Calendar changes shorten honors exam period

Last week, Provost Tom Stephenson emailed students and faculty the official academic calendar schedule for the spring of 2017. The new calendar shortens the time between the end of classes and Commencement. The email expresses a specific interest in meeting the needs of Honors students, who have additional oral examinations to prepare for after the finals testing period.

“Between now and the spring of 2017, we will continue to work with faculty…, Honors Coordinator Craig Williamson and the new Honors Advisory Committee to assure that the implementation of the new exam schedule goes smoothly,” Stephenson states in the email. “We are particularly focused on assuring that the schedule of written exams for senior Honors students is compatible with their success in the program, and consistent with our strong institutional support for Honors.”

In 2014, Stephenson initially announced for a scheduling change to take effect this year, starting in the spring of 2016. This plan shortened the reading period and time between the end of classes and the start of finals, from five to three days, and also moved Commencement up a week. However, Stephenson said this faced considerable opposition from students and was therefore held off for two years. The Curriculum Committee, composed of faculty and students, reexamined scheduling details based on campus feedback in attempt to better accommodate all members of the college.

“[A shortened reading period] was the focus of the major objections to the calendar proposed in the spring of 2014,” Stephenson said

He acknowledged that removing days from the reading period could be especially challenging for Honors students, who would be losing study time for their standard and Honors tests.

“[A] shortening on the reading period was going to make the squeeze on the Honors Program even worse,” he said, referring to the decline in participation in the Honors Program in recent years.

The administration then sent out a new proposal for the spring of 2017 that restores the reading period’s duration to five days but still holds Commencement a week ahead of the original schedule. The Honors’ oral examinations will start three days after the end of finals for non-honors classes, rather than the five days scheduled for this academic year.

“The basics of the proposal was [sic] to restore the reading period back to five days and compress the exam period a little bit,” Stephenson explained.

The college has offered this calendar change several years into the trend of fewer students participating in the Honors Program. The new schedule shortens the amount of time Honors students have to prepare for their oral exams.

He did note that the new schedule compresses finals into a shorter time frame by holding tests over the weekend, and this could heighten the level of stress among students. Honors Program Coordinator expressed similar sentiments.

“I was a little concerned about the shortening of the examination period because I think… once the period starts it’s good for students to have a little extra downtime,” he said.

However, Williamson does not fear that it will further contribute to the decline.

Arjun Vishwanath ‘16 is participating in the Honors Program with a major in political science. He believes that preparing for his exams would have been more stressful had the new calendar been in effect this year, but that it would not deter his interest in the Program.

“The rewards of the Honors systems are… the seminars and interactions with the professors and so that doesn’t really change. It’s just the preparation for the Honors exams,” Vishwanath said. “Honestly, I’m not really looking forward to some of the exams, but I don’t think I’d drop Honors because I had two days less to study. It’ll make life harder but not so much that I would drop it.”

Stephenson also does not believe the calendar change will deter students from participating.

“The declining number of Honors students has been going on independent of the calendar changes,” Stephenson said.

The major goal of changing the spring calendar was to schedule Commencement earlier in the month, bringing the event closer to the end of classes.

“We currently, as of 2016, have thirty days from the end of classes to Commencement,” Stephenson pointed out.

According to Registrar Martin Warner, this period is much longer than those at other liberal arts colleges, and shortening time between classes and Commencement is the right course of action. He says this has been on the administration’s agenda since he began working at Swarthmore twenty years ago.

“We were way out of the norm,” Warner said. “It is much more normal to have commencement approximately a week after final exams end.”

Stephenson believes the revised schedule is better for the whole of the senior class, as non-honors students previously have had two free weeks between the end of exams and Commencement. The date of Commencement largely impacts graduating students not participating in Honors.

“A lot of seniors who are not in the Honors Program leave campus for that period, and we felt that was not necessarily a great situation,” Stephenson noted.

He said an earlier Commencement would also be more desirable among faculty, who may be working with students or participating in scholarship programs for the summer.

“It delays the opportunity for faculty to get on with the kinds of activities they have to do during the summer, which is the prime time for them to carry out their professional work,” said Stephenson.

He believes the new schedule will remain, but is open to further reevaluation if needed.

“We consider this to be the permanent schedule going forward,” he said. “But obviously if there turns out to be some really negative impact from this calendar we’ll examine it.”

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