The academics of well-being

Exeter test drives a new schedule for spring.

Betty Luther-Hillman
May 1, 2024

The bells ring and, in the hallways of the Academy Building, a mad rush ensues: Students and teachers walking in every direction, crowding the staircases, filling the bathrooms, lining up at the water fountain and holding doors open for each other as they hustle between academic buildings. The school is noisy and active, then returns to relative silence as the next class begins.

The chaos of the passing period is well-known. Remember dashing from Phelps Science Center to the top floor of Phillips Hall? It’s a challenge that Exeter is addressing this spring with the start of a new pilot class schedule that increases passing time to a comfortable 10 minutes. Perhaps more significant, the experimental schedule lengthens in-class time to 60 minutes from 50 and reduces the frequency of class meetings to three or four times per week.

These changes might seem small but could make a huge difference in students’ lives. With fewer classes each day, students will make fewer transitions. Refocusing takes mental work, and if one’s brain is still thinking about that math problem from the prior class, it might not be following the conversation about the novel in English. Fewer class meetings per day also reduces the number of homework assignments due the next day. That said, the new schedule does allow teachers to assign more homework per class meeting. The thinking is that students have fewer subjects to focus on each day, so they can concentrate more fully on each assignment.

Considerable time and thought informed each of these choices. Discussions about the schedule, including feedback from students and faculty, began in the spring of 2021. As the COVID pandemic subsided, longstanding concerns about the pace of life at Exeter collided with new awareness of mental health challenges for adolescents. A student survey conducted by Director of Institutional Research Kari Hart in the fall of 2022 found that 71% of responding students reported that they “frequently” or “almost always” feel stressed about their schoolwork or academic experience. The schedule became one of many factors to consider in reducing that stress. Slowing the “pace of life” — the number of required commitments each student has in a day — is an area that the school can control.

Last year, several teachers participated in a smaller version of the pilot, canceling one class meeting every other week and extending the remaining classes by 10 minutes. The feedback from this small group was positive, “but the real benefit of that schedule is actually only realized if you do it for all of your classes,” says Jeanette Lovett, director of studies and one of the administrators overseeing the pilot.

Also involved in the planning is a recently appointed Schedule and Calendar Committee, co-chaired by Lovett and Assistant Principal Karen Lassey, and composed of faculty across disciplines. While finalizing the details of the pilot, the committee has been researching the daily schedule of other schools. Exeter’s experiment has good company: “A lot of peer schools are moving in the direction of longer formats less frequently,” Lovett notes. The committee has also designed surveys, with Hart’s assistance, to administer to students and faculty to gauge the effectiveness of the new schedule.

This isn’t the first time that Exeter has experimented with schedule changes. In fact, Lassey was a member of a similar committee in 2006, when the school was pondering ways to reduce the number of Saturday classes. The switch from semesters to trimesters in 1986 precipitated a particularly salient set of schedule overhauls. Classes began to rotate to different meeting times throughout the week, and sports were no longer isolated to the afternoons to accommodate multiple teams in indoor facilities during the winter. Over the years, Exeter has tried shorter class periods, double class blocks, rotating weeks, later start times and earlier end times. More recently, the pandemic necessitated several

different schedules to accommodate the students around the world attending class remotely and social-distancing needs when students were on campus. Being nimble and responsive to a changing world is an important strength for an educational institution.

Pedagogically, perhaps the biggest unknown related to the pilot is Harkness. Ten additional class minutes can feel like a lifetime to teachers and students when the discussion stalls. Many teachers are considering ways to break up the hour-long class with group work, in-class writing or additional challenging math problems. But no one wishes to lose the spirit of Harkness. When the discussion is flowing, the students are talking to one another, and big ideas are emerging — those are magical moments that can happen only with sustained time around the table as a group.

Longer classes may provide more opportunities for that magic to happen. English Instructor Willie Perdomo was one of the teachers who tried the new schedule last winter. Longer class periods “enhanced discussions,” he says. “We were able to explore assigned texts on a granular level. Students had more time to organize their annotations and strategize their entries. With Harkness, a discussion might hit a sweet note toward the end of a class and students often leave such a class wishing they had more time.” In those moments, an extra 10 minutes perfectly capped the class.

Though all classes at Exeter use Harkness, some disciplines may adapt to the change more easily than others. There may be a limit to how much content can be covered reasonably in any individual class or homework assignment. This could be especially challenging for subjects like math, science and modern languages that require a certain level of content coverage to prepare students for the next term. Some departments fear that fewer points of contact with students during the week will weaken retention, and class registration, forcing more time to be too! Here it is in 1949. spent on review. And, the

loss of weekly 70-minute classes means that science labs will need to be shortened, although more frequent, shorter labs may also be possible. However, in any discipline with a rigorous amount of content to cover (preparing for Advanced Placement exams, for example), the schedule change may be stressful.

“It’s going to be the first draft of a model,” Lovett says, and every teacher’s curriculum will need adjustments, even for longtime teachers who have honed their syllabi over the years.

On the other hand, this experiment may lead to further discussions about the nature of learning and the goals of our curriculum. Is the purpose of a course to achieve a large breadth of learning within a discipline, or is the goal to achieve depth in a few significant areas, even if fewer topics are covered? How can we best prepare our students for college and beyond?

Though educators may disagree on the answers, the spring term pilot will provide an opportunity for students and faculty alike to ponder these questions, perhaps during a leisurely walk to their next class during the 10-minute break. “Any advances in pedagogy and community-building require innovation and experimentation,” Perdomo says. This spring, the whole community will weigh in as the experiment unfolds. 

This story first appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.