An In-Depth Look at Students and Teachers’ Opinions
The “Exams, Stress and Scheduling” (ESS) Survey received responses from 34% of the student body
This past year, the Rutgers Prep community experienced a major revamp of its schedule. The Middle School and the Upper School now run on a block-based, alternating two-week schedule and midterm exams start just three days after returning from winter break.
The “Exams, Stress and Scheduling” (ESS) Survey was conducted to evaluate these changes. We collected 136 responses (34% of the total student body) of whom 50% were upperclassmen and 50% were underclassmen. While there are contrasting views about the new schedule, students and teachers overwhelming supported moving midterm exams to before winter break.
Part I: The Pros and Cons of the New Schedule
Academic Dean Graig Domanski remarked that this new schedule was created to “build in other opportunities for students without having to plan special schedules that would disrupt school days.” This resulted in “Wacky Wednesdays,” where all eight classes meet.
When there are “Innovation Programs” or “Community Building Days,” only four classes meet to accommodate the events. The Wednesday schedule has been a real challenge for some teachers to adapt to. An anonymous faculty member, “Teacher A,” said that the “Innovations are way too long” and, on Wednesdays, “students are exhausted by the last two periods.” “Teacher A” hopes that the schedule can be “flipped” and sometimes “bring the normally-afternoon classes to the morning.”
Decreased class time is a recurrent concern among teachers. This year, there are only three class meeting periods a week (only two when there is an “Innovations Wednesday”). Another faculty member, “Teacher B,” commented that “there is not enough class time and the classes are not frequent enough.”
With the new schedule and less class time, students have had to put in more time outside of the classroom.
Even when classes meet, “Teacher C” noticed that “students cannot focus after 60-70 minutes” and “face-to-face time is 25% less than last year.” This has resulted in additional work that needs completion outside the classroom. Nima Majidi ’19 added, “I strongly dislike the new schedule because teachers [get] behind and assign double the amount of work [at end of marking periods].” While this may be true for some faculty, there are others, “Teacher C,” that have been forced to skip over “tremendous amounts of material.”
Another faculty member, “Teacher A,” said that, with this new schedule, “students have had to come in before school, during community time or extra study halls to fully understand the material.” English teacher John Kendall added, “It is harder to do full books. The Odyssey normally takes a marking period. This time it has entered into a second marking period.”
This schedule also guarantees two hours and 40 minutes per week to study hall or to music periods during ninth period. An anonymous student commented that “it is ridiculous that band class meets more than my AP classes due to Innovations and the current schedule.” Some students are concerned with the infrequency of class meetings and others are “bored” during ninth period.
However, not all students feel “shortchanged.” 60% of survey respondents favored the new schedule, but 55% feel it incites more stress. Students seem to enjoy the “free time” with ninth period and daily community times, but many disapprove of the Wednesday schedule. The survey’s respondents comment that it is “awful,” “not very efficient,” and makes Tuesday night “terrible,” with all homework due on Wednesday.
Other benefits have included the synchronization of the middle and high school schedules. Mr. Kendall, a teacher in both, commented, “This current schedule has allowed crossover teachers to have a coordinated schedule that allows them to not miss as many classes.” The new schedule also helps student-athletes attend “away” matches without missing academic classes. Majidi points out the new schedule’s consistency, commenting that “it’s easier to remember.”
This schedule’s “free time” also gave seniors more time to focus on the “college process.” Reetom Ghosh ’17 said, “It definitely allowed me to see my point person more often,” and Bryan Cho ’17 added that the extra time devoted to “college applications allowed for some alleviation of stress.” Co-Director of College Counseling Shelley Krause observed that “the new schedule has given [seniors] more time specifically set aside to focus on the college part of their process. It’s also given them more flexibility with the rest of their scheduling.”
Although students seem to like additional free time, many cited that Tuesday nights are especially “stressed.” Teachers expressed frustration with less class time, class infrequency, and the rushed Wednesday schedule. Both teachers and students also struggled to appreciate the added value of Innovation Wednesday. They also dislike the added stress. However, this comes from teachers having to compensate with supplemental work, due to the lost time. Perhaps the faculty and administrators can explore alternatives that increase class time but still allow some flexibility for exciting programs.
Part II: The Pros and Cons of this Year’s Midterm Exams
This year’s midterms had two changes: different timing and no math exam. Last year, exams began two weeks after winter break, while this year’s midterms started just three days after winter break ended.
Upper School Assistant Principal Eireann Corrigan said, “We want to make the exam period as least stressful as possible.” She adds that “it’s in the school’s best interest for students to perform well on exams.”
The continued policy of one exam per day was extremely popular. Ms. Corrigan said the policy was a way to “reduce stress.” This belief was affirmed, with 82% of respondents rating it a “5.” The average was a “4.7,” representing an overwhelming amount of support.
The ESS survey asked students to rate, from 1 to 5 (1 representing strong disapproval and 5 representing strong approval), the lack of the math midterm. With regards to the final math exam being held March, 57% strongly approved of this new policy, rating it a “5.” The average was a 4.2, signifying general approval.
The majority of students strongly disapproved of taking midterm exams immediately after break this year.
However, 55% of students expressed the strongest form of disapproval (rating it a “1”) for this year’s early exams. The average was a “1.9,” which stands between strong and moderate disapproval. The survey also revealed that a majority of students spent less time with family and worried during winter break as a result of midterms.
“Teacher C” says, “I think it would be better for exams to be before winter break. Kids would have a chance to be really relaxed over break and not be stressed.” Mark Herwig ’17 is “not in favor of midterms after break,” because exams “loom in the back of our minds making break feel a bit more stressful.” Jack Levinston ’18 pointed out that “many students find it hard to remember stuff from the beginning of the year,” and Reetom Ghosh ’17 agreed, saying “I forget a majority of the material taught just before break.”
According to Ms. Corrigan, Rutgers Prep has historically held exams after break to provide “the best fit” and to create equal semesters. She also emphasizes that midterms for Advanced Placement classes are essential in helping assess where students are. “Teacher A” believes that “midterms before break would really help AP classes focus better with the start of a new semester.”
A concerning percentage of survey respondents indicated that the quality of their winter breaks was impacted by post-break midterm exams.
With 68% of students worrying about midterms and 48% studying more than 6 hours over break, many students question if having exams after break is the right decision. Nikhil Lahiri ’18 said, “Right now, students aren’t able to fully relax and enjoy their winter breaks with the burden of studying for midterms.”
Lahiri also believes that “students begin the second semester already tired and worn out from exams. Scheduling midterms before winter break would enhance students’ academic performances during the second semester.” “Teacher A” also suggested that midterms before break would add a week to the second semester, because “the week back from break was completely wasted.”
Making the shift from midterms after break to midterms before break is not unprecedented, with many independent schools and colleges revising school policy. Harvard University switched in 2008 to pre-break midterms in response to Harvard students input that their winter breaks were “spoiled by looming January exams.”
Reetom Ghosh ’17 commented, “We should have midterms before break, just like most colleges and universities. Then, students will have all the material fresh in their minds without a two-week gap.” After all, as a college preparatory school, it does make sense to model our school’s schedule after those found at almost all universities.
Looking to the future, both Ms. Corrigan and Mr. Domanski have expressed willingness to consider students’ perspectives. Mr. Domanski added, “The Upper School is always evaluating areas where we can be more efficient and work in the best interest of the students. While no plans have been made to alter the exam schedule at this time, the Upper School will continue to discuss the best way to administer exams.”
Given the significant stress and genuine concern with exams after break as demonstrated on the ESS survey and shared by many teachers, it seems reasonable to ask the Administration to reconsider this policy. If midterms were after break next year, Arthi Vaidyanathan ’18 suggested that students “should get at least three-plus weeks to get back into the rhythm of school before [midterms].”
Almost three-quarters of respondents support a change in midterms exam timing and hope that exams will be placed before winter break next year.
With school resuming on January 8th, 2018, and spring break beginning March 17th, 2018, a three-week interval between winter break and mid-terms would result in an extremely short third quarter. Even taking midterms early, like this year, would make for a very short quarter.
The 2017-18 school year’s winter break is starting on December 22nd, 2017, making the first semester one week longer than usual. This offers a serendipitous opportunity to have exams before break and explore the impact on student’s stress.
Along with the 74% of survey respondents who support moving exams before break, I would strongly urge the Upper School Administration to use the opportunity offered by next year’s unusual winter break schedule and move midterm exams before winter break.