Deans explain reading period scare
The Student Government Association (SGA) sent students survey via email on Friday, March 4, asking them to voice their opinions on potential changes to the exam period for the 2011-2012 academic year that were being discussed by the administration. The survey listed different scheduling options for final exam times and reading period.
The discussion of different reading period models began after a faculty motion was proposed to accommodate the option for professors to give three-hour exams.
This survey and the official notice sent out to students by SGA Publicity Chair Justin Rouse ‘12 with a link to the SGA’s March newsletter and a chart of different exam period models prompted a response from many students. Students sent concerned emails to Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty and Professor of Economics Lori Kletzer, Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs and Associate Dean of Faculty and Professor of Economics Michael Donihue and Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students James Terhune.
“We [the students in SGA] were as fired up as everybody else was, so it was...a gut reaction to get the students to react,” Rouse said. “We...went into a kind of panic mode, that ‘we’ve got to get students as fired up about this as possible and…tell them to email the deans if they’re concerned,’ to just kind of put a wall up.”
“What we were kind of told is that there are good ways of going about getting student opinion and bad,” Rouse continued, “and what Dean Terhune would have rather had us do is waited until the [Academic Affairs Committee (AAC)] had a preliminary conversation…and then [go] to students [for input].”
Donihue stated, “The [exam period models] listed on that worksheet were never meant for distribution in the fashion they were shared. That's not to say that they shouldn’t have been shared, but rather should have been presented in a proper context. They are not exclusive and don't represent a final decision at this time.”
Both Donihue and Terhune emphasized that any potential changes to reading period are in the stages of preliminary discussion. The College is not yet making an official decision on whether or not to alter the structure of the exam period.
At a faculty meeting on January 19, according to the meeting minutes, Professor of English Laurie Osborne proposed a motion “to extend the allotted time for final exams” from two hours to three. “The rationale there,” Terhune explained, “was very clearly that some faculty feel like ‘I can give a better exam...that’s a better and more valuable learning experience for my students’ in particularly…essay based exams.”
This motion was revisited by the faculty at their next meeting on February 9 and several people expressed concerns about the possibility of evening exams, students with two three-hour exams in a row and scheduling for students with learning differences. With these concerns in mind, the substitute motion, “Final exams will be up to three hours long, at the discretion of the faculty member,” was voted in.
Under this revised motion, exams can run under three hours, but gives professors the option to administer a three-hour exam. The change in the length of exams necessitated a revision of the exam day schedule. The implementation of this motion–that is, the specific changes that will be made to the exam period to accommodate this motion–was assigned to the registrar, dean of faculty and dean of students.
As the exam period schedule currently stands, reading period is the four days after the last day of classes and the exam period is the six days following. “I think we would have left [reading period] alone,” AAC member Andy Estrada ‘12 said. “One member of the [AAC]…came forth and said, ‘wait, if we’re redoing the times for finals period maybe we should talk about reading period as well.’”
The AAC will discuss all the possible options for the exam period and exam day schedules. Once they have reached a consensus, the AAC will endorse a model and propose it to the registrar, dean of faculty and dean of students. These three offices will then decide whether to implement that model at the beginning of the fall 2011 semester.
The registrar was asked to develop some potential scheduling models to stimulate the discussion within the AAC. The preliminary document that the registrar created is the chart that SGA linked to its March newsletter. However, Donihue noted, “There are many other permutations of the schedule [not listed on the chart] that are feasible.”
The registrar to several criteria into account when making the chart. First, that it should include a couple of options for exam times as well as some workable alternatives to the reading period schedule. Also, in order to allow extra time for students with learning differences, to each three-hour exam block there needed to be added another hour and a half. Two possibilities included in the chart for exam times were that the exam day begin at 9 a.m. with five hours between exam times and that it begin at 8:30 a.m. with four and a half hours between exam times. Four different permutations of the reading period schedule were also listed on the chart.
During their discussions of scheduling options, both Donihue and Terhune mentioned an interest in looking into how other liberal arts institutions manage reading period. While other New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) schools have reading periods that range from one day at Connecticut College to five days at Trinity College, Ivy League institutions such as Yale and Harvard give their students a full week to prepare.
Terhune expressed an interest in exploring a more unique schedule. “One of the models that I like isn’t even on [that] list…The other way that I would say is ok [is] let’s go to Saturday, Sunday reading, Monday, Tuesday exams, Wednesday reading, Thursday, Friday exams, Saturday reading, Sunday, Monday exams.” This schedule would maintain the current number of reading days, alternating them with exam days. Colgate University and the University of Vermont have systems like this in place.
Reconfiguring the exam period would require that more consideration be given to other exam period “protections,” as Terhune called them. As of now, the protection is in place that no student is required to take three consecutive exams. “If we went to a shortened two reading days and then exams,” Terhune said, “we might want to consider also something that says that no student would ever have to take three exams in the first two days.” Another possible protection would be mandate that the exam period be exclusively for exams and that other papers and projects would have to be due before the exam period begins.
Deliberation over possible reconfigurations and consideration of these protections makes this discussion of exam period scheduling no simple matter. “It’s going to be a complicated conversation,” Terhune said. “My understanding of [the chart] was the idea was to put something on paper so we have something to talk about…AAC’s basically teeing up a conversation about these things and that’s going happen in the next few weeks.”
Different conceptions of when the current reading period begins and ends also has an effect on the way in which students view changes to reading period. Many students consider Loudness weekend, the Saturday and Sunday after the last day of classes, as separate from reading period, which they perceive to be Monday and Tuesday. Should the AAC choose to endorse a model that decreases the initial reading period to Saturday and Sunday only, the culture of Loudness would inevitably undergo changes.
“I think part of the reason for making this change is that they believe that the drinking practices of Loudness weekend are excessive and so this is their way of trying to scale back some of the behavior of Loudness,” Rouse said. “It’s my hope that the administration is not [saying], ‘we need to stop [students from] drinking, we need to stop Loudness,’” Estrada said, but he believes it to be a possible explanation for the administration opening the discussion of altering reading period.
Terhune commented, “We certainly see significant behavioral concerns, particularly Friday and Saturday, in the current construct, so those are things that we worry about for a variety of reasons, [safety] being at the top. But it’s also, frankly, not particularly conducive to preparing for exams.” He suggested, “you could have Loudness earlier, you know, the week before, two weeks before [exams].”
Four student representatives on the AAC are voicing the opinion that students prefer that reading period remain unchanged and “saying that students do use those four days well and that we need those fours days,” Estrada said. While SGA elicited students responses without being fully information of the situation, the deans and the AAC remain open to student input.
“I think a number of the faculty are really sympathetic toward the student views,” Estrada said, “saying, ‘well, let’s hear what students want.’” While Terhune stated, “Listening to students will certainly have a bearing. That doesn’t mean that it’s going to be a referendum.”
Student input can be most effectively gathered through the SGA, Donihue and Rouse seem to agree. But Rouse would like the administration to be more open about the issues they are discussing. “One thing that I would really like to see is the administration…saying beforehand to students ‘this is exactly how we are going to collect your input.’”
Donihue suggested that the SGA invite faculty to their bi-weekly meetings, which are open to the entire student body, so students can ensure that their voices are being heard. In response to this idea, Rouse said, “I would love to have an SGA meeting where we invite Dean Terhune and Dean Donihue and…if students would like to come and voice their concerns about reading period, we would love to hear them…and have a real dialogue.”