Northwestern task force reconsiders quarter system, undergraduate experience as a whole
    "Appendix 19: Global Marketing Word Cloud" via 2015 Faculty Task Force on the Undergraduate Academic Experience

    When Northwestern asked prospective students to describe their desired school culture and personality, their primary choices included “collaborative,” “friendly” and “passionate.” When it surveyed current students on the reality, some of their top picks were “competitive,” “stressed out” and “privileged.”

    In a report released Tuesday, a University task force announced recommendations to rejigger what it means to be a Northwestern undergraduate. Potential initiatives include a revised academic calendar, standardized language and distribution requirements, an improved Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and increased cooperation and inclusivity across the six undergraduate schools.

    According to Provost Daniel Linzer, the administrator who commissioned the task force, Tuesday’s report largely focuses on how to improve an academic system that pushes students to their limits.

    “Students go beyond challenging themselves to accomplish as much as they can – to perhaps pushing beyond what is an enjoyable, worthwhile, and still challenging experience,” Linzer said in an interview. “It’s hard to regulate that. Students want to take as much advantage of the university experience as they can. If they forget to sleep or eat or do things that relax them, that can lead to problems.”

    Students, staff and faculty comprise the task force responsible for the report. What began in early 2015 resulted in the nearly 120 pages of recommendations that address the realities that face a university very different than the Northwestern of 1988, the last time a similar task force was convened.

    Drawing on both human elements and numerical data, the task force report grapples with what a solution to that archetypal sleep-deprived, ultra-busy Northwestern student could look like.

    Semester school?

    The quarter system – the best and worst part of NU – is here to stay. According to the 2014-2015 ASG Student Survey, only about 20 percent of students favor a transition from the current quarter system to a more traditional semester schedule, compared with roughly a third of students who “strongly disagree” with a proposed switch. Data from the same survey praises the flexibility of quarters, which allow students to “sample up to 50 percent more subjects than their peers at semester schools.”

    Still, the task force enumerates perennial complaints about the status quo – namely, an unrealistic pace, an overwhelming amount of midterms and assignments and a disadvantage when applying to jobs and internships. Faculty registered similar complaints, according to the report.

    The proposed solution is twofold. First, the academic year would start in late August and conclude in May to align with semester schools. Even more, the task force proposed what it calls a ”10-5-5-10” format where winter quarter is split into two five-week sessions on either side of winter break. Each quarter would be separated by an additional break, too.

    The implementation of a split early-winter and late-winter session could lead to new course formats, including five-week courses and 15-week courses to complement current offerings, Linzer said. For example, demanding courses such as Organic Chemistry may be offered as a 15-week course to slow the pace of instruction and evaluation (read: fewer midterms). The idea, according to Linzer, is to provide a variety of experiences to avoid the current limitations of a fixed quarter.

    “You can now address some of that,” he said. “Everything we do now has been crammed into 10 week units.”

    ASG President Noah Star, who served as one of several students on the task force, said the 10-5-5-10 format addresses many concerns students face across NU, particularly in relation to summer internships.

    “ASG was there to provide student perspective, so we were there to endorse ideas that were good for students,” Star said.

    While Linzer declined to comment on a possible timeline for these changes, he said it could become a reality on the scale of years.

    “If you’re a freshman here, you might well see that kind of change while you’re still here,” he said of a revised calendar.

    Other academic recommendations aim to unify requirements across the six undergraduate schools. The report borrows language from the previous 1988 task force, calling Northwestern a “federation of autonomous colleges,” and further acknowledging the lack of a standardized language requirement (SESP, McCormick, Bienen and the School of Communication lack one) and the varied application of AP credits that can allow some breathing room in certain student's academic requirements. The diversities and social inequalities requirement, a controversial and long-running request of many students on campus, is also one of the task force’s curricular recommendations.

    Mental wellness

    The report additionally notes how the number of students using CAPS annually – 2,532 for the 2014-2015 academic year – is the highest recorded since 1995, according to the Dean of Students Office. That surge in usage is coupled with a staff-to-student ratio of 1 per 1,032 for CAPS, which is almost 40 percent higher than at peer institutions, according to the task force report.

    Numerous solutions, including increased staff and more free counseling sessions per student, are part of the recommendations. While CAPS falls outside the academic focus of the task force, members recognized the relationship between academics and mental wellness.

    “We really wanted to make sure that we were reflective of student interests, and if that recommendation wasn’t in there I think it would have made people think twice because it’s a big issue that’s been on campus for some time,” Star said of the proposed expansions to CAPS services.

    Additionally, the report proposed changes to streamline the return process for students who elect to take medical leaves of absence, a problematic affair for certain NU students. While no specifics were mentioned, it suggested steps be taken “to ensure that administrative hurdles and scheduling barriers are no longer a hindrance” for students considering the option.

    Equal access

    Other than providing a more standardized academic experience with similar requirements across schools, the task force recommended ways to lower barriers to students who may not be able to afford certain classes or experiences.

    One recommendation suggests the University establish a “reasonable cap” for student expenses for a course. This measure intends to bridge the gap for students unable to afford textbooks or supplies for certain classes, with the University providing additional financial support.

    Additional financial aid provisions, including greater support for study abroad experiences and summer session aid for students who elect to drop classes or lower their course load throughout the year, are on the table as well. While students sometimes rule out these options due to the expensive proposition of delayed graduation, the task force report suggested these measures to ensure equal opportunities for students, regardless of background.

    A proposed 10 committed hours per week would also standardize expectations and workload for classes. If implemented, there would be a predetermined cap to how many hours the average student would commit to a one-unit course, including class time. This could further accommodate the approximately 45 percent of students who hold an “on-campus work-related position” while enrolled, according to the 2014 Post-Graduation Survey. Courses that exceed or fall short of the committed hours per week cap would be assigned an otherwise appropriate credit value. By that logic, a pottery class would be worth less than one credit, whereas Orgo would likely be worth more than one credit.

    From report to results

    With so many recommendations, the report is nothing if not ambitious – and that’s by design, members said. Provost Linzer charged the task force to think big about what it means to be an undergraduate student, not to create an action plan.

    Still, Linzer said that now the report is released, steps toward implementation can begin, starting with measures like community forums to gather feedback.

    Reporting contributed by Caroline Spiezio


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