Campus & Community

SPH makes changes to its exam calendar

4 min read

Responding to student requests that fall term exams be held before the winter break, the School of Public Health (SPH) has adopted a new fall schedule this year that not only pushes the exams up, but provides for new learning options during a monthlong January session.

The change, which comes after years of studying schedule options, also pushes the start of classes earlier in September, compressing what had been two weeks of orientation and registration into just one week before classes start. Last year, for example, classes began on Sept. 17. This year, classes began on Sept. 9.

School of Public Health Dean for Enrollment Services Stan Hudson said that the change resulted from a student initiative several years ago. Students said having exams after the extended holiday break not only leaves exams hanging over the students during the time off, it also makes it harder to get back into classes when they resume in January. Faculty have echoed student concerns about the disruption of winter break, saying that returning students are often disconnected from their academic work.

“We’re starting earlier and the fall term is a bit truncated, but faculty have adjusted,” Hudson said.

The topic was discussed by School of Public Health faculty, SPH administrators, University officials, and the School’s Student Coordinating Committee. In shifting exams before the winter break, the School of Public Health joins several of Harvard’s graduate schools that have already made the move, including the Kennedy School of Government, the Business School, and the Law School.

Leonard Marcus, lecturer on public health practice and chairman of the School’s Committee on Education Policy, which studied the change, said the process became one of answering a series of questions about whether the new schedule would work or not. The committee heard from different members of the School’s community and took their interests and concerns into account.

In the end, he said, the change made sense, though there were still hitches.

“Mondays,” Marcus said. “Mondays are a problem because there are so many holidays that are marked on Mondays.”

Though the hope is that the new schedule will prove superior to the old, Marcus said time would tell if that’s true. He said the School would evaluate the new schedule over the next two years to see if it is indeed an improvement over the old one.

In looking at alternatives, Hudson said they left the spring term as it was because graduation day was a more or less fixed end point for the year. After examining the schedule and sorting through possibilities, officials and faculty members realized that moving up the exam schedule would provide, after winter break, a monthlong window between semesters. That created an opportunity for another academic session that could enhance learning at the school.

“It seems the only thing Harvard does together is graduate,” Hudson said. “That left us with the opportunity to put January in its own winter session.”

The result is a monthlong period running Jan. 2-28, called WinterSession. The session, which replaces the former weeklong period between the fall and spring terms, is intended as a chance for students to take intensive classes, travel for research, or do other academic-related activities.

In the past, Hudson said, students have traveled to visit the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Ga., during the period. Those trips can still take place, but can be longer, or linked to other learning opportunities.

“The School is looking for more opportunities to enhance academic training. There’s a real emphasis on people not taking off and going skiing for the month,” Hudson said. “It’s an opportunity for the student to do more intense, one-on-one with faculty, to consider research topics, or engage in academic travel.”

Marcus said the WinterSession is being looked at as an opportunity for faculty to experiment with new teaching models, new ideas, and new course structures.

How they fill WinterSession is being left to the different departments, Hudson said. Some faculty are developing courses designed just for the monthlong period, others are moving 1.25 credit courses into the WinterSession, though required courses will also be offered at different times during the school year.

“Students’ concern was that exam timing was messing up the holidays,” Hudson said. “We looked at the situation and opportunity fell out of it.”