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EdBoard: the problem with shorter semesters

Shortening semesters negatively impacts the Carnegie Mellon experience. (credit: Stacey Cho/Art Editor ) Shortening semesters negatively impacts the Carnegie Mellon experience. (credit: Stacey Cho/Art Editor )
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Every year, the academic year at Carnegie Mellon gets shortened. Two years ago, there were 70 school days in the fall semester. Then it was 69, then 68, and next year, there will only be 64 — a week less than this year. The extreme jump from 68 school days to 64 school days from this year to next year has already sparked outrage on Facebook and the SCS Piazza.

Of course, the “why” is beyond us, since the administration so seldom includes its stakeholders — faculty, staff, and students — in its decision-making process, and is rarely on the same page we are. However, we can assume with a strong degree of confidence that the administration would simply prefer to spend less money on our education while freezing tuition for the upcoming school year. Mark Stehlik, who chaired the Calendar Innovation Committee along with Rebecca Nugent, noted little of value on the SCS Piazza discussion other than a lack of flexibility and calls the issue a “difficult optimization of multiple constraints,” mentioning issues like ample time for exam grading and dorm preparation between semesters.

Regardless of the justification, it is clear that this trend of reducing school days is detrimental to our learning, and thus to the value of a Carnegie Mellon education — which helps no one.

First and foremost, we’ve already seen with this school year that a condensed timeline, especially in a pandemic, results in one of two possible outcomes: either the pacing of the material is accelerated, or some material is skipped.

With an accelerated curriculum, students will struggle proportionally more to take in the content presented. We are also placed under greater undue stress, as the same problem sets, projects, labs, and exams are no longer spread out as intended — rather, our average weekly workload becomes heavier, not only reducing our sleep and free time but also our flexibility to accommodate unexpected confusion or address technical issues, as noted in the Piazza thread. In short, we are prone to fail more often and burn out more quickly.

Removing material from the curriculum is worse, if even possible. “Cascade failure,” as Stehlik terms it, has been raised as a concern: with classes that have many prerequisites, corequisites, and post-requisites, it is difficult to coordinate curriculum changes in a timely manner. Chances are, even with some existing curriculum overlap between classes, students will be spending more time learning essential topics by themselves, cutting into the already-reduced time available for studying and review before exams.

The rest of the Carnegie Mellon experience is also tarnished: in a shorter semester, there is simply less time to connect with our professors, engage in research endeavors, or enjoy sports, clubs or campus life as a whole. Extracurricular activities have already struggled to maintain involvement and quality because of the pandemic, and a shortened semester will further exacerbate this struggle.

It must be noted that all of these changes also affect faculty. It is not easy to redesign curriculum, especially classes that build off years of adjustments and fine-tuning to produce, say, extensive codebases or efficient support systems. It is remarkably difficult for them too to manage more frequent lectures, grading, etc. It will also be interesting, to put it kindly, to see how faculty will rebalance teaching with other commitments such as family and research as well.

Suffice it to say we struggle to explain this consistent reduction in school days across years. There is no reason for us to have faith in the administration now and believe that the administration has our best interests in mind as it prepares “to run the 2021-22 ‘experiment’ as best [it] can, collect feedback both from S21 and 2021-22 and try to determine a best path forward.” We must know: why does the administration believe less learning in the classroom is appropriate year after year, especially without properly consulting faculty and students? If professors and other stakeholders have already weighed in and had all concerns addressed, what planned changes could be viable enough to ensure student success?