Task force recommends Northwestern begin academic year in August, still maintain quarter system

Alice Yin, Managing Editor

A task force studying the undergraduate academic experience has proposed Northwestern begin the academic year five weeks earlier, while still maintaining the quarter system.

Christened the “10-5-5-10” calendar, NU would begin classes in late August and end in late May, as outlined by the report from the 2015 Faculty Task Force on the Undergraduate Academic Experience released Tuesday. Winter Quarter would be split into two five-week sessions, broken off by a winter break without assignments.

“It was very creative,” said Provost Daniel Linzer, who appointed the task force. “It has the opportunity to define the academic year in a new way.”

The task force recommended the rebalance to grant students 15 weeks of classes both before and after New Year’s, as well as a one-week break between Fall and Winter Quarter. The proposed calendar would still allow for 10-week Winter Quarter courses, which would span the two five-week sessions.

The task force, assembled in February 2015, is the first overhaul assessment of NU’s undergraduate academic education since 1988. The students, faculty and administrators on the committee culled feedback throughout the spring, summer and fall for a final report delivered to Linzer last month.

Associated Student Government President Noah Star, who served on the task force, said the final report reflects student and faculty sentiment. He and ASG Executive Vice President Christina Kim, a McCormick senior, were appointed to the task force in June 2015 by Linzer, joining ASG Academics Vice President Riko Ohashi, a Weinberg senior, following a student petition to increase undergraduate representation on the committee.

“I was happy I could be a part of what I see as a historical document,” the Weinberg senior said. “My hope is much of these recommendations are taken with the seriousness they deserve and that they’re implemented in some form or another.”

Linzer said undergraduate deans will spearhead meetings and forums with the NU community on the report’s proposals. He said he hopes to have a good sense of any implementation of the report by the end of this spring. Linzer said current freshmen can hope to see changes in effect during their time at NU.

The task force expressed concern with the current academic calendar due to the near-six month block of classes starting in January, with only one-week reprieve during spring break. Consequently, students risk mental exhaustion and lag behind peers at semester-system schools in applying for summer internships and post-graduation jobs, the report says.

“This (revised calendar) presented itself as something that might give us the best of both worlds,” said task force chair and neuroscience Prof. Indira Raman. “It would be a way to retain best the quarter system that people express enthusiasm for and overcome the late start date and late end date.”

The new schedule would still allow for students to reap benefits of the quarter system, such as greater choice in courses and shorter class duration. In the 2014-2015 ASG survey, about 63 percent of respondents favored the quarter system. However, 73 percent also preferred NU to start school earlier.

The task force report said dividing the 10-week Winter Quarter into two sessions could allow for more depth in courses. Early- and late-winter sessions also afford opportunity for five-week, half-credit courses, which can be used for exploratory studies on a specific topic. The report also hints at the possibility for 15-week classes in a “long-fall” or “long-spring” session.

“We weren’t really looking at other schools and saying we want to be like them,” Raman said. “We were looking at Northwestern and saying, ‘What works here?’”

Linzer first launched the task force after feedback, such as the senior exit survey, indicated that certain aspects of the student experience were lacking progress. For example, the number of students visiting Counseling and Psychological Services — which jumped from 939 to 2,532 in 10 years — revealed what Linzer said was a bigger issue in stress among students.

“Northwestern has gotten better and better in accepting students who are highly qualified,” Linzer said. “They’re used to being the best and you come here and it’s hard. Everyone can’t be the best.”

Another proposal in the report was developing “Common Experience” courses between multiple schools. These new classes would potentially utilize the five-week sessions in the proposed academic calendar’s Winter Quarter to gather students from different perspectives to approach topics such as justice or sustainability.

“Students appreciate the variety of possibilities when they come to Northwestern; one wants to maintain all those options for students,” Raman said. “At the same time, there’s enthusiasm for developing community and to work across schools to get to know other students better.”

The Common Experience suggestion stemmed from the goal of a cohesive academic experience, the report said. The task force also hoped to normalize guidelines for accepting Advanced Placement credit across all schools — ideally to remove a cap on how many AP credits may be applied — and to standardize foreign language and distribution requirements.

Star said the proposals retained what makes the University unique, such as its tradition of running with a model of six autonomous, undergraduate schools.

“All of those schools are very successful and prestigious in their specializations,” he said. “They’re still going to have to island-hop but perhaps we can build bridges.”

The task force also proposed changes to reduce academic pressure, including a maximum 40-hour academic week, and it introduced the possibility of making the first quarter of classes a pass/fail term.

In addition, the report said students should be permitted a 13th quarter of financial aid without petition, thereby allowing students more flexibility in quarterly workload. It also recommended NU implement a cap for course materials, such as textbooks.

The task force also pushed for expanding CAPS, namely the number of providers and sessions allotted to students. In conjunction, the report called for NU to increase and personalize its academic advisers and require students to complete Course and Teacher Evaluations to view grades.

With the task force officially concluded, Star said ASG will continue to push improvements from a student perspective. By the end of his 100-Day Plan this quarter, he hopes to itemize the report’s most salient recommendations and leave its legacy to the next term of ASG executives, he said.

“This is a historical document and there should be a corresponding student document,” he said. “If everything in this report was implemented, I think Northwestern would be a lot better, but we have to make sure that happens.”

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