Hal Mayforth
Student surveys, task forces back idea of moving finals before winter break

The question of whether to change the academic calendar is back on the table, with surveys finding that three-fourths of undergraduate and graduate students would prefer to have final exams before the winter break.

In addition, two of the University’s strategic-planning task forces — regional studies and the future of the humanities — have recommended moving finals to before winter break to create a January term. Many students hope that a change to the calendar will be supported by the Task Force on General Education, led by Dean of the College Jill Dolan, when it issues recommendations on the undergraduate curriculum in the fall. 

The surveys found that students want to move finals before winter break to reduce stress. Eighty-one percent of undergraduates said that scheduling finals in January made them feel stressed over winter break, and 79 percent said it made them spend less time with family and friends over the break.

“It’s hard to quantify the relationship between students’ mental health and their academic performance, but the answers in the free-response section [of the questionnaire] get at that idea,” said Ramie Fathy ’16, the former USG undergraduate academics chair who pushed to survey students. “The term ‘burnout’ appeared in a lot of the responses.” 

Students said they not only would feel better, but would perform better in the classroom during the spring term after a genuine winter break, Fathy said.

Among students who completed the surveys, sizable majorities said they would prefer “an earlier start to the school year (Aug. 24–30)” to permit a full reading period and finals before the winter break. The surveys did not find student support for the idea of extending the current 12 weeks of classes per semester to 13 weeks. An intersession of one week received more support than a two-week intersession. 

In advocating a change in the academic calendar, the task forces on regional studies and the humanities focused on the benefits of creating a January term. “We believe that calendar reform is necessary if Princeton is to compete with peer universities in providing students with opportunities for international learning and research,” the regional studies group said in its report. 

“The potential is colossal,” said history professor Stephen Kotkin, a member of the regional studies task force. Programs such as global seminars could take place in January, allowing students more flexibility for their summer plans, he said. The humanities task force supported calendar reform and creation of a “J-term” for similar reasons.

Kotkin said he expects the faculty will be asked to vote on the issue in the fall. For a proposal to pass, a majority vote by the faculty would be needed. 

The University moved exams after winter break in 1939–40 to provide freshmen and sophomores with two reading periods. Today, Princeton is one of only a few institutions nationwide to hold finals in January.

Harvard moved its final exams to before winter break in 2008, with officials there saying that the new calendar aligned with most other U.S. colleges and that it would benefit students competing for internships, study-abroad programs, and work opportunities.

Princeton last considered a change to the academic calendar during the 2007–08 school year. The USG and the Office of the Dean of the College both conducted surveys to gauge opinion on calendar reform. The undergraduate survey considered four options — the current calendar, a 12-week semester with finals before winter break, a 13-week semester with finals after winter break, and a 12-week semester with finals after winter break and a full week off at Thanksgiving. No option was supported by more than 30 percent of those surveyed, and the issue never made it out of faculty committees for a general faculty vote. 

The recent surveys were conducted by Princeton’s Institutional Research Office in collaboration with the Office of the Dean of the College and the undergraduate and graduate student governments.