Professors speak on 14-week semester

This is an extended version of the article published in the print issue of November 22, 2021

Carnegie Mellon’s academic calendar underwent a small but significant change in the Spring 2021 semester: the length of the semester, excluding the final examinations week, was shortened from 15 weeks to 14 weeks. This shorter semester-length, as part of a year-long pilot project, went on to be applied to the current Fall 2021 and the upcoming Spring 2022 semesters as well.

Associate Teaching Professor David Kosbie, who teaches the popular introductory computer science course 15-112, thinks that effectively, the semester-length is not actually 14 weeks. Mid-semester break, which has traditionally been on Friday in past semesters, was changed to Thursday this semester. “Our students desperately needed a mid-semester break. You have Thursday off, but not Friday. What kind of break is that?” Kosbie pointed out. “So for students, you're giving them one day. Not a break — not four days, not six days, not a week. One day.” For classes with lectures on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the mid-semester break meant losing half a week. “In a course that has a flow, which so many courses do, of setting up the material in the beginning of the week and then doing homework or harder problems and preparing for quizzes at the end of the week, a half week is a nonsense thing.” He continued, “So it was really 13 weeks — if you want to push it, maybe 13-and-a-half — but there's no way it was 14.”

This sentiment was echoed by Nierenberg Associate Professor of Design Peter Scupelli, who taught two full-length semester courses in Spring 2021 and two mini courses this Fall semester. “[14-week semesters] makes teaching two mini-courses [sic] back-to-back extremely frustrating,” he said. He pointed out that there is no time between the two minis to get the grades out for one class and the next mini-course up and running, and that there is no flexibility in the system anymore with 14 week semesters. In a 15 week semester, mid-term is on week eight, but the mini-courses end on week 7. That leaves some flexibility on week 8 to grade, wrap up late assignments and prepare for the new mini starting on week 8. In the 14-week semester, that flexibility is gone since there is not much time to get the grading done and launch the next mini-course. “It is extremely stressful for both faculty, TAs, and students,” Scupelli said. “I don't know what the issues are for full-semester courses, but for people teaching and taking mini-classes, it is a frustrating disaster.”

The change to a 14-week semester was first implemented in Spring 2021 to delay the start of the semester. This was with the desire to “reduce the number of weeks we will be in session during flu season” while acknowledging that the COVID-19 pandemic will likely continue through the winter months, according to a communication from Provost Jim Garrett in September 2020. The Spring 2021 semester’s revised start date of Feb. 1 would allow for international students more time for visa processing and travel to arrive for the spring semester at a time when vaccines were still not available to be administered. A calendar innovation committee, chaired by professors Rebecca Nugent and Mark Stehlik, was also announced and was tasked with making recommendations on the timings of breaks throughout the semester so the breaks aren’t scheduled on the same days of the week.

“We had to seriously condense things,” Kosbie revealed, “because [15-112] is nearly noncompressible. We are always exploring the space … of giving our students the most preparation and the richest experience without overburdening them to the point of unreasonableness.” Kosbie emphasized the importance of looking after student health and welfare while wanting students to be challenged because they're trying to be the best in the world. “This is a delicate balance between pursuing excellence without over pursuing excellence and injuring people,” he said. “All my colleagues have spent years finessing and refining this for 15 weeks. Any change at all — I don't care if that change in the long term is better — was gonna be profoundly disruptive because these schedules were not created in a week or a month, over the years they were refined. Because when you overreach a little bit, you figure it out because the students get hit too hard.”

Kosbie said he effectively had two choices. “You can't just teach the same in less time. So you can either teach it to a lower level of rigor. Or you could just drop topics,” he explained. “And so we chose a little bit of each of those, and tried to do it as little as possible,” Kosbie emphasized that not everything is reduced in this version of 15-112. Instead, material that was not as essential was made optional, without testing it or making homework on it, and for some material that remained, the instructors made it clear that students would not have to go to quite the same depth.

For Bill Nace, a teaching professor at the Electrical and Computer Engineering department who taught 18-240 (“Structure and Design of Digital Systems”) over the past year and some other courses this semester, the change was a bit unsettling. The changes Nace had made for the Spring 2021 semester had been somewhat reactionary, and he thought some of the decisions might have been suboptimal. This time, Nace went through the experience of trying to figure out if he could drop high-stakes exams, as he had never been happy with them. “I spent a lot of time, in fact, working with [The Eberly Center] on this trying to figure out if the things I could drop would be my midterm exams because I thought that could have the biggest impact on the course,” he revealed. The Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation, which supports faculty and graduate students in their teaching, has a section on their website dedicated to adjusting courses to 14 weeks.

Ultimately, Nace couldn’t find a good way to drop midterm exams, so they stuck around. “But there's a lot of work in trying to figure out how to adjust what material to drop, how to drop it,” he said. He found two lectures’ worth of content that was interesting but not critical to the concepts, but removing them wasn’t straightforward — he instead took some things from each lecture and repackaged it. This also meant the timeline of homework and labs for the class had to change. Though teaching in 15 weeks is something that he’s used to, 15 weeks is not necessarily better than 14. “Maybe 14 weeks is better, and you know, I’ll figure out what to do there and that will all be good,” he said.

The change in the Spring semester felt like an emergency measure, but Nace did not have much knowledge in advance about the change being implemented in the fall, either. “The administration pushed it to us as an experiment,” Nace remarked. “I don't know much of the backstory behind why that’s there or any thoughts as to what might be the benefits.”

Scupelli, who taught two full-length semester courses in Spring 2021, said teaching those classes had not been much of a problem for him. Even though Scupelli was unhappy about having to remove some course content, he did it to fit the 14 week semester. Now, Scupelli is teaching two mini courses and is having to shorten them because of the lack of flexibility around mid-term. For Mini 2, there is still the exams week, so there is some flexibility in the system. Still, Scupelli said that he might be teaching the same mini twice in the semester, but the students are not getting the same experience in Mini 1 and Mini 2 because of the structural changes. “I'm sure there are good reasons for wanting to shift from a 15-week to a 14-week, so I cannot comment on why that is being done because I do not know or understand the logic,” Scupelli said.

In June, Provost Garrett had sent out another communication that the Calendar Innovation Committee proposed going to 14-week semesters for Fall 2021 and Spring 2022 semesters. It is a part of the committee’s attempt to “explore calendar options in an effort to increase efficiency in learning, ensure a consistent rigor of study without increasing weekly course workloads, create space for educational innovation, and address periodic calendar constraints.”

“Even though you can appreciate why they waited — because it was a changing landscape — before they made the final decision,” Kosbie said, “it made it harder on the faculty that we weren't told for sure what it was going to be. Until we were, and the earlier we could have been told the more preparation we could have done for it.” It wasn't the last second, he remarked, but it certainly wasn't as early as it might have been.

When Franz Franchetti, instructor of 18-202 (“Mathematical Foundations of Electrical and Computer Engineering”) and the Kavčić-Moura Professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering, found out that the Fall semester is also going to be 14 weeks, it was relatively late for him. “That’s really annoying because we have the whole thing planned and [18-202] is already overstuffed,” he said. “Shortening [the semester] a little was not the most helpful thing.” Franchetti had to make many choices concerning course content and logistics. The class has two main audiences, he said: one that is well-versed in mathematical topics and another that has not heard much of math but still wants to learn and get a good grade. The class has to cater to both groups. Last summer, due to the transition to online learning, they developed and recorded boot camps to teach some basic concepts and TED Talks for advanced concepts. This semester, however, it became harder for them to teach these boot camps and TED talks live, as it’s difficult to find the space. “Last year, remotely it worked well because I would really fire up a Zoom meeting and then show up and then I just give the presentation and record. Now this semester, we just have to use the recordings from last week. Which is bad, because I'd love to do it in person.”

Kosbie also pointed out an unanticipated issue with the shorter semester: room assignments. “It's really hard to run a large course. Like [15-112] has massive room consumption. Every week, we have all these rooms we need, but you can't get them,” he explained. “I think it would be natural that if you're going to try to do all the things we do in 15 weeks, in 13 weeks, that's gonna put increased demands on the resources in those 13 weeks. So it only made that issue much more complicated. Exactly at the worst time, because we can't fill rooms to capacity.” Large lectures were moved into event spaces like McConomy and Mellon auditoriums, which do not have the right AVs, seating, or light that exist in a normal lecture hall or classroom, he said. “[Facilities Management Services] has been doing a great job adapting. But, gosh, this should have been in place since day one.”

When asked if there were benefits to the short semester, Nace responded, “I get a longer Christmas break.” Nace continued, “I guess I don’t see it. I want to give it a good honest shake. The issue is, I don't know what has driven this experiment. So I don't know what things are expected out of it. And it seems, from an academic perspective, at least in my classes, it's only negative.” He added that there may be benefits like students getting another week of summer break. He said it is hard for him to judge because the real judge of this experiment should be the university-wide student experience.

However, Nace said he likes the idea of continuing with 14-week semesters. He did all this work to shove it into 14 weeks, he said, and would have to do a bunch of more work to undo it all. “So part of me is just like, ‘whatever we decide, let's stick to it’ would probably be my preference,” he explained. There are other ways elsewhere, he acknowledged, but it still worked this semester.

Speaking of the advantages of having a shorter semester, Franchetti revealed, “Preparing for lectures is actually a lot of work. It's taxing you. Whenever you can get out of class, that's great, of course.” But when he looks at his schedule, the feeling is offset by his desire to engage with students. “Well, I mean, I want to tell a consistent story. And now my story gets kind of wrecked.”

When Franchetti saw how his students are coping with the existent pandemic, shortening in the schedule, the transition to online learning, and back into in-person classes, he said it worried him. Many emails that Franchetti receives from students mention mental health and other related issues, which is alarming to him. “It's not that it's like exploding or anything,” he clarified. “But relative to earlier years, clearly, [there’s] not as much of an engagement, not as you know, good of a community that we could build [as] in previous years. Students are clearly suffering at a rate that I have not seen before.”

Kosbie acknowledged that those supporting the 14-week semesters have good reasons. “But like, let's say they had really good reasons to take the schedule down to 12 weeks, 10 weeks, eight weeks. We're like, obviously, there's a point where I don't care what your reasons are, like, you can't do it. And the question is, did we already cross that line or not?” He said that he thinks a lot of faculty feel either that line was crossed, or they're bumping hard against it and that this is a serious imposition on their students.

Kosbie also explained, “To be clear, because it might sound like I’m pretty down on the decision, I understand … at the time of COVID, there's shocking complexities to a schedule.” He continued, “Even if all we did was the same thing we're doing now, but we gave students an actual break in the middle of the semester, I think that that would have been a dramatically better experience for our students, many of whom are suffering right now from some consequences from last year that they just kind of carried over into this year. Not to mention additional burdens, because we're not quite over COVID and how COVID is impacting our daily lives. And if we gave students a little more time to manage that, I think that would have been a smart move.”

Kosbie also said that he is opposed to continuing with 14-week semesters in the future. “I respect that some of my colleagues are in favor and some of the administration's in favor. And I'm not saying that it doesn't have advantages,” he acknowledged. “I am saying that the cost to our students, either in lost learning opportunities and or in lost time to decompress ... are just too high to justify whatever the other benefits are.” He pointed out that Carnegie Mellon became the best university in the world in many disciplines on a 15-week schedule. Kosbie elaborated, “That doesn't mean that 15 weeks is the best. But it does mean that we should be very thoughtful about any permanent changes we want to make to that schedule. I'm not convinced you can change that schedule and maintain our excellence.”