Earlier Deadlines Do Not Improve Academic Planning

Here we go again.  After cutting the Head Peer Academic Counselor (HPAC) and Peer Mentor (PM) programs, administrators have once again changed academic planning in a manner convenient for them, but potentially damaging to students.  Surprising many, the Faculty Senate voted to combine the drop deadline with the add deadline at the third week of the quarter.  Students must now make significant decisions about their courses with less time in the classroom than ever.

Administrators are quick to point out that it isn’t only the drop deadline moving earlier; indeed, nearly every academic deadline has moved up, including opening course enrollment two weeks earlier than last year.  By allowing students to register for courses earlier, they argue, students have more time to better plan their schedules.  As a result, moving the drop deadline two weeks sooner is supposed to help students improve decisions about their classes.

Starting academic planning sooner sounds great in theory, but in practice, many different kinds of students cannot take advantage of it.  Think of the procrastinator, the shopper, or the student who gets in over his head.

Stanford students are notorious procrastinators.  It seems like every day we hear someone talk about putting off their work until the last minute.  Procrastinators will be overwhelmed by the previous quarter and unable to put much thought into choosing the next quarter’s classes until it begins.  These students will have less time than ever to decide their classes.  For them, moving up the drop deadline just doesn’t make sense.

But we shouldn’t hold up a potentially beneficial policy for procrastinators’ sake.  Consider another kind of student, the shopper, who tries out different classes.  In fact, shoppers need to experience their new classroom environment to judiciously pick their classes.  Moving the drop deadline earlier surely discourages shopping since students have less time during the quarter to finalize their classes.

Perhaps most importantly, think of the student who takes classes that are too hard, getting in over his head.  Under the old system, when the drop deadline came in week 5, most students would have received substantive feedback by then, like the first midterm or paper.  Not anymore.  Now all students have to base their performance before deciding to drop is one or two problem sets at most.   The new policy will be detrimental to students who don’t realize they shouldn’t be in the class at all.  They no longer have the luxury of dropping the class in week 5 and preparing better for the class next year, through better study habits or taking more preparatory coursework.

Proponents could counter that although add and drop deadlines come sooner, the change of grading basis and withdrawal deadlines arrive later.  That’s nice, but it shows that these administrators have no concept of the magnitude of deadlines.  How many Stanford students do you know will enthusiastically withdraw from a course and earn a “W” on their transcripts?  Or decide to take a class pass/fail, and no longer be able to count it toward their major or minor?  Not many.  The drop deadline is indeed much more important than the withdrawal and grading basis deadlines.  Pushing back the latter deadlines simply does not balance out the earlier drop deadline.

Another concern with the new policy is the Faculty Senate’s sole authority to change the deadlines, with or without student input.  While the new deadlines were supposedly developed in collaboration with students, the rest of the student body was not informed of the changes until the vote already happened, when it was too late.  The result was an utter lack of campus discussion about what best meets student needs.

Administrators believe that the changes do meet student needs.  Academic Director Kirsti Copeland says, “Freshmen, in particular, have had no problems with the consolidated deadlines… Confusion that has existed this year with the deadlines has only to do with upperclassmen retaining the memory of previous systems.”  As long as the new deadlines have limited adverse consequences on student performance and promote better planning, then the change will be good for Stanford.  In the meantime, we remain skeptical and hope that administrators pay careful and honest attention to new deadlines’ impact.

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