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Northwestern reviews changes in academic calendar to promote learning, flexibility

Provost's Advisory Group meets to examine potential impact of implementing proposals

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Northwestern University is moving forward this year to create a blueprint for implementing planned changes in the academic calendar and distributed a survey to faculty this week to solicit ideas on how to create more flexible options for final exams.

President Morton Schapiro and Provost Jonathan Holloway announced three major changes to the academic calendar last winter after gathering input from faculty, students and staff — and endorsements by the Faculty Senate. These changes would lengthen spring break by one day, hold Commencement closer to the end of spring quarter and enable faculty and schools to offer their students more leeway in how and when they take final examinations.

“The academic calendar of the University profoundly shapes the learning and impacts the student experience at Northwestern,” Holloway said. “We are committed to ensuring that the timing of quarters and breaks most effectively enhances student learning, decreases stress and optimizes good outcomes for students seeking summer jobs and fellowships.”

Advisory group

In August, Holloway formed the Provost’s Academic Calendar Advisory Group and asked the group to work closely with his office and the Office of the Registrar to review the implementation of approved winter/spring calendar changes, including potential changes in the administration of final exams. In addition, Holloway charged the working group with helping explore opportunities related to fall quarter, such as its structure, timing and educational offerings.

In order to gather and include key feedback from faculty in these decisions, the Registrar’s Office and the Advisory Group started distributing this week the first of three surveys in the coming quarters asking faculty how they administer exams and what options might be useful or more effective.

“Our goal is transparent and inclusive planning for these approved changes, and we want to keep the University community informed of our progress every step of the way," said Northwestern Registrar Jacqualyn Casazza. "We want our decisions to be informed by the students, faculty and staff who will experience these changes."

Final exams

The survey going out to faculty will seek to learn more about how and when they give final exams and what changes they might consider offering to their students in the future. These options are intended to address students’ challenges with start dates for summer internships, study abroad and other programs, due to the relatively late-ending academic year at Northwestern.

“To be clear, no faculty member will be required to offer exam flexibility,” the letter introducing the survey reads. “Instead, we seek your input so we can recommend a slate of options that schools and faculty may make available to their students and which the University could robustly support without impinging on faculty time.”

The letter will come from Casazza and the co-chairs of the Provost’s Academic Calendar Advisory Group, Robert Gundlach, professor of linguistics and director of the Cook Family Writing Program in Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, and Karen Smilowitz, professor in the department of industrial engineering and management sciences at the McCormick School of Engineering.

Three changes approved

For Gundlach and Smilowitz, a critical priority in their work group’s review is to ensure that there is a strong understanding of the potential impact of implementing any changes to the academic calendar, including the three changes already approved in principle.

Those three changes would include moving Commencement earlier in June and offering more options for final exams. Also, starting in spring quarter 2020, following spring break, most University programs will begin classes on Tuesday and will follow the Monday class schedule on that day. This last change would be known as “Northwestern Monday." 

“For example, since one of the approved changes focuses on scheduling final exams, our group has recommended that all faculty members teaching undergraduate courses be surveyed each quarter this year about their current end-of-course assessment practices and their views regarding potential final exam scheduling flexibility,” noted Gundlach. “Survey results could then help guide initial steps in implementing the related changes.”

“Looking ahead, as our group considers a wide range of ideas related to the timing of fall quarter and a possible experimental term, we will continue to recommend reaching broadly across the University to learn about the complexities of potential fall calendar modifications,” Smilowitz said. “We find that there are many reasons to pause and think carefully about the possible implications for students, faculty and staff of any academic calendar changes, large or small.”

At the end of each term over the course of this year, the groups will survey faculty who taught undergraduate classes, focusing on a single term to capture the nuances of that quarter. They will be asking specifically about undergraduate courses, since these are most likely to be impacted by exam flexibility. Other mechanisms will be used to gather information on graduate courses. The first surveys went out to faculty who taught courses during this past fall quarter, and they were expected to be completed by Jan. 23. 


The review of Northwestern’s academic calendar has been in the works for two and a half years and has resulted in proposals that have already been approved for implementation and others being proposed. Among the milestones to date are:

  • The Final Report of the Undergraduate Academic Experience Task Force (UAETF), submitted to Provost Dan Linzer in January 2016
  • Resolutions of the Educational Affairs Committee of the Faculty Senate, adopted May 2017 

While some discussion was held about moving away from the quarter system, that is not under consideration at this time. Rather, consideration is being given to how to modify the quarter system it so that it can better deal with challenges arising from it.

For example, the work group is reviewing possible changes that could include the optional use — by faculty — of early or remote exams, and the establishment of a single, central protocol for those seeking to use these options, including the implementation of software to support this process. 

The data collected will assist the group as it advises the Provost and the University Registrar as to how best to implement potential changes. Based on findings, the University will pilot various flexibility initiatives in the 2019-2020 academic year in order to assess their effectiveness before fully implementing these options across the University. 

Implementation will work within school-based governance and policies. Offering early or remote exams will occur only at the faculty member’s discretion within the context of the school in which they teach.

Fall quarter

The work group also will be advising the provost on possible adjustments to the fall quarter calendar, which could include beginning classes one week earlier. The purpose of potential changes would be to allow students more time to return to class before fall recruiting season for jobs and fellowships and to end the quarter earlier due to ease travel burdens. 

The group will also examine possibilities for the creation of a December term (D-term), which would take place between fall quarter and winter break. No recommendations have been made yet on fall quarter structure, timing and educational offerings.  

In addition, University officials are examining the impact of the plan to move Commencement earlier to allow greater options for recruiting for summer jobs and internships. 

For more information on the planned and proposed changes and where they stand, review FAQs on the provost’s website.

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