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Does Stanford need finals week? Students and faculty weigh in

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Some students and faculty members are saying that Stanford should permanently implement some of the changes it made to the academic calendar during the year of virtual learning, including the removal of finals week. But others remain skeptical of the proposal given the compacted timeframe of the academic quarter.

The Faculty Senate approved a shorter-than-usual academic calendar last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which included no designated weeks for final exams. According to the University, this change was implemented so that there would be “sufficient time to safely move undergraduates into and out of campus housing.” The University asked instructors to adapt their course content to account for the lack of final exams, including by assessing students more frequently throughout the quarter. But when students returned for in-person learning this fall, Stanford once again included final exam weeks in its academic calendar.

Now, many community members are debating whether Stanford needs dedicated final exam weeks.

The discussion over finals week was largely ignited when Todd Davies ’84 M.S. ’85 Ph.D. ’95, the associate director of the symbolic systems program, wrote an op-ed in The Daily in January calling for the replacement of finals weeks during academic quarters with a three-week-long “December Term.”

“COVID-19 has taught us, I think, that we don’t need finals week,” Davies wrote in his original op-ed. Davies instead recommends a more comprehensive approach to student evaluation throughout the quarter.

“I like the ideas that were sent out to faculty last year before the school year started for doing more continuous assessment that involved placing less emphasis on a comprehensive final at the end of the course,” he told The Daily.

Stanford spokesperson E.J. Miranda said that the University works “to support students” as they “navigate the demands of the academic year, and their input is always welcomed” but that Stanford is not currently “aware of any formal discussions to change this year’s academic calendar – which would require Faculty Senate approval.”

According to Davies, the December Term could allow instructors to create courses that extend beyond the ten-week quarter.

“I could imagine instructors wanting to combine the December term with a ten-week course, which could be any quarter, but especially maybe in the fall. So you could have a course, which is Autumn plus the December term,” Davies said.

But some students remain skeptical of Davies’ proposal.

According to Bethel Gashaw ’22, in some of the classes she took during the 2020-21 academic year, during which final exams were not permitted, professors found a way around the University’s rule by giving multiple midterm exams in place of a final. 

While Gashaw thinks a December Term “could be an interesting way to make our education more holistic,” she said she is concerned that faculty may circumvent the intended structure in favor of exams that are practically finals, whether or not they are branded that way. 

“I still feel like professors and faculty are kind of stuck in the mindset of wanting to assess us and measure us and to compare us to one another,” she said.

Civic, Liberal and Global Education lecturer Sara Mrsny Ph.D. ’20 also expressed concern that removing finals week would only further compress the already short academic quarters. 

“We’re trying to cram so much learning into a very short period of time, and to compress students’ lives further, to cram more in, just strikes me as too much,” she said. 

Even with the return of in-person classes and exam week, Mrsny pointed out that the quarter system still makes it so she and her colleagues “have to start assigning papers and exams when students have only been here for two or three weeks.”

Mrsny is skeptical that doing away with finals week would give students what she believes they would most benefit from: time to rest and recharge in between quarters. She noted that many students “are already looking for summer internships” months in advance, and expressed concern that the proposed elimination of finals week, together with peer pressure, will “create yet another period” in which students are “expected to do something.”

But some students, including Ashley Phord-Toy ’22, reported positive experiences during the last academic year because of the elimination of finals week. 

“When I had finals during Week 10, I think that it actually was nice, because then the quarter itself was condensed,” Phord-Toy said. “I felt like I had more break time, which I appreciated.” As a political science major, however, she emphasized that she often does not have conventional finals. “Usually I have a final essay as opposed to a set final that’s three hours on one day,” she said. 

A scheduling bonus that could come with the elimination of finals week is that the quarter could start earlier and end before Thanksgiving break, meaning that students could choose to go home for Thanksgiving and stay there through the holiday break.

But Phord-Toy, an international student from Canada, said she was doubtful that the hypothetical scheduling adjustments would alter her plans.

“I’ve never gone home for Thanksgiving, just because Canadian Thanksgiving is earlier,” she said. Even if the academic schedule were to change, Phord-Toy said, “I feel like that wouldn’t impact me at all. I don’t really care how it works out Thanksgiving-wise because I’m here anyways.”

The University encourages “undergraduate students to reach out to Academic Advising or their major advisors, and graduate students to contact their faculty advisors or directors of Graduate Studies, to assist in addressing their individual academic concerns or provide guidance to campus resources to help manage any other issues they may be experiencing,” Miranda wrote.

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Vardhan Agrawal '25 is a writer for the Academics desk. Contact the News section at news 'at' stanforddaily.com.
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Madeline Grabb '25 is a writer for the Academics desk. Contact the News section at news 'at' stanford.edu.