A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education discussed Cornell University’s faculty senate’s creation of a policy to help reduce student stress by discouraging surprise homework assignments before an academic break. The policy is meant to encourage faculty members to describe in detail large assignments on syllabi at the beginning of the semester and not to assign previously unannounced large homework assignments a few days before academic breaks due only a few days after them. The policy is currently being revised to emphasize that what is being discouraged is only “surprise” assignments. The decision to work on assignments over break can then be left up to individual students.
I think the policy is a wise one. Some students will work better on assignments spread out over long periods of time. Others prefer to work uninterrupted through a break. Having the entirety of spring break to work on my comprehensive exams made the process a more productive and enjoyable one because I could plan to be in the library all day every day of break. Some of my colleagues preferred to take break as a time to relax and reflect and either completed the majority of their work before or after the week off.
Cornell is cited as being a leader among colleges trying to identify and support troubled students, especially after several students died in apparent suicides in a short period of time. This policy is meant to be a step in the right direction toward helping students deal with stress by measuring out their workload in a way that works best for them.
The policy is not meant to force faculty one way or another according to Dr. William E. Fry, dean of the university faculty at Cornell, but instead to promote best practices. He also emphasized that academic breaks existed to allow students to relax and recharge. If faculty plan out major assignments in advance, students can plan their work accordingly and prevent the stress of last minute assignments. This should be considered best practices because highly stressful study is rarely productive in products or learning experiences.
Mr. Bruce Levitt, author of the policy to discourage surprise homework over breaks, hopes the faculty will continue to “focus on ‘specific and targeted ways’ to reduce some of the stress” and that the real core of these issues will need to involve a conversation at the administrative level of the university.
Student leader, Vincent P. Andrews, commented in an editorial for the campus newspaper, that though this is a step in the right direction, more will need to be done to address the root of the problem of student stress levels. He worries that this policy may encourage faculty to cram additional work into the weeks before and after break instead and, in turn, to cause students more stress. One other option Mr. Andrews addresses is the possibility of faculty within colleges collaborating on dates for midterms and major assignments, as there is currently no school-wide date for midterms.
I think it is important for faculty to be cognizant of breaks when working on curricular planning. For example, I schedule my classes so that students have almost no work over midterm break. I also attempt to organize my schedule so that the last week of classes is spent on review with no new material to be learned as students are completing final projects. It’s also been my experience in the higher education program that faculty tend to plan well to give students ample time to complete assignments as they see fit. I'm curious how other educators handle the issue of scheduling academic work around school breaks.
Rae, T. (2011, March 2). Cornell Faculty Senate to Consider 'Strongly Discouraging' Surprise Homework Over Breaks. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://0-chronicle.com.wncln.wncln.org/article/No-More-Breaks-Ruined-by/126562/