Head to Head: Should UCD hold winter exams after Christmas?

Yes, By Orla Keaveney
The idea of post-Christmas exams horrifies most Irish students, but there’s actually a lot to be said for them as an alternative to the system we’re used to. By taking exams in the second and third weeks of January, rather than cramming them into the limited window between the end of lectures and Christmas, students get more time to prepare for their exams, with the inevitable stress spread manageably over a month, instead of crammed into a breakdown-inducing week.

We might worry that these exams would “ruin Christmas”, but let’s face it, Christmas has already been ruined for us under the current system. The best part of the festive season isn’t arguing with your family over a box of Roses or who gets to be the top hat in Monopoly. It’s the build-up to Christmas that everyone really loves, the chance to make merry with your friends, enjoy the buzz while present shopping and admire the decorations.

Unfortunately, the UCD experience of Advent mostly involves shutting yourself in the James Joyce library, stressed and isolated, with only the dismal string of fairy lights over the Clubhouse to remind you that it’s technically “the most wonderful time of the year”. Plus whoever you have for Secret Santa will have to make do with socks because you definitely don’t have time for thoughtfulness with the RDS looming.

Sure, we get a full month off when the exams are finished, but after that glorious week spanning Christmas to New Year’s, who really wants to be off in the middle of January? All your friends are either home in the sticks, back at work or too broke to do anything fun. It’s too short a break to take on a job and too dismal a time of year to go on holidays.Yet you don’t make any progress on your degree either (anyone who says they get readings done ahead of term is a liar, nobody really has that level of motivation).

So under the current system, we get one week to cram an entire semester of material, and three weeks of arsing around with nothing to do. The alternative would be seeing the last of UCD for the year after your last lecture, with your exams still far enough away that you could go on the tear for a few days before heading home to Mammy. For that lethargic interval after the highs of Christmas Day, you’d have something useful to do instead of rewatching Donald Trump’s cameo in Home Alone 2. Come mid-January, you’d rock up to the RDS – probably still looking like a sleep-deprived mess in fairness, because procrastination affects us all – but at least you’d have about a month of low-pressure prep behind you rather than a handful of caffeine-fuelled all-nighters. Doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

Another point to note is that UCD is mad for semesterisation, meaning it designs its calendar to make semesters one and two exactly equivalent to each other. But the fact is that there are a lot more weeks of the academic year after Christmas than before it, so UCD’s solution is to make semester one a frantic mess and then take things super handy in semester two. That’s why we don’t even get one official reading week in semester one, yet we’ve most of January plus two weeks in March off in semester two. Yes, there is an “unofficial” reading week for certain faculties, but that’s not true for anyone in a STEM courses where there are no such luxuries and we are very bitter about it. If UCD just pushed its winter exams into January, it would take a lot of the heat off semester one, and maybe everyone would get a chance to recharge, not just the ones who don’t even work that hard during the semester anyway (cough cough).

Rebuttal, by Nathan Young
As anyone who has done the Leaving Cert is aware, the fact that the exams take place after Christmas does not mean that it’s easy or even possible for some to schedule Christmas fun time in a way that avoids the breakdowns mentioned above. The only way to guarantee they don’t happen during Christmas is to have the Christmas exams already completed by then, what constitutes the “best part of the Christmas season.” But a fair case could be made for it being the three or four days after Christmas spent somewhere between hungover and drunk, eating leftovers, reading the books you got as gifts and also not caring about exams, something which is only possible under the current system. In fact, the evenings in the Clubhouse before exams create a real sense of camaraderie with classmates, a feeling of solidarity much needed at exam time. This would be severely diminished if we were to be sent home for a month before exams. Being isolated from the people who share your burden is tough, but for those who live down the country, or whose friends live down the country, or both, this is the reality they would have to face should this ridiculous rescheduling of exams come to pass.

As for semesterisation, UCD is “mad” for it because it’s good, and beneficial in dealing with other universities. It’s a handy, compatible way of organising the year. Many UK universities start their semester two as early as the 15th January. Now, let’s consider a UK student doing an exchange here, for semester one. Having already either spent Christmas in Ireland alone or flown back and forth an extra time, by the time they finish their exams they’ll be a week or two behind their classmates. It’s absurd to expect students to do their study abroad here if we were to treat them like that. Of course, the alternative for the prospective exchange student would be to study in TCD instead. Not only would this have all the adverse effects described in your opening argument, but it would contribute to the dangerous and pernicious lie that TCD is a better university, simply because it’s the only option available for sensible exchange.

Ultimately, some boring people may well wish to spend Christmas doing homework, and those people can do the readings for semester two early. But for the sake of normal folk, things should remain as they are.

No, By Nathan Young
The reader is no doubt aware that Christmas exams suck. It’s difficult to study a semester’s worth of work in the one week before exams start, and so the option of being given more time may seem tempting. The trade off, of course, is that the majority of the Christmas holiday is spent either studying, or feeling guilty that one isn’t studying. The vast majority of students did at some stage have Christmas to worry through, during the Leaving Cert. Perhaps for a few days, the “official” dates of the holiday, relaxing was permitted, but for the majority of the “holiday” every moment of joy was tainted by the nagging dread of the revision not yet done.

Until quite recently, the weekend, or any other time “off the clock” was seen as sacrosanct in the working world, and if lives weren’t on the line, you could trust your time off as being that. One might have been aware that when one gets back to the office there’ll be a serious workload waiting, but one also knew that they couldn’t do anything about that now so they may as well enjoy the time off. It’s good for one’s mental wellbeing to have time off to relax, and during the semester, weekends and evenings are the time students have to worry about assignments, continual assessments, essays, and midterms. Why deny them the one period of genuine relaxation they have during the year?

One part of relaxing during the holidays is returning home to visit the family. Most students do this, some even enjoy doing this. This is especially important for students who are abroad for the semester. In Technological University for Dublin (TU4D), one of the largest institutions in the country with exams post-Christmas, any exchange student who is only there for semester one must either stay in Ireland for the Christmas holiday, or budget time and money into returning to Ireland just for exams. These are both grim prospects, each with extra hidden costs. What if one does stay in Dublin to avoid paying for flights home? Then they have to pay for an extra month of rent and food, and that ain’t cheap in the fair city.

The sensible choice, then, would be to not come to UCD on exchange. This would make us all poorer, not only from the loss of some of the cultural and intellectual diversity as a community, but also poorer in the sense of not having the cold, hard cash exchange students and their home institutions bring. Furthermore, exchange is all about give and take, so if UCD finds itself less able to host students, it’ll have to slash the number of students sent abroad, robbing many of their chance to see the world in what is often seen as the highlight of a student’s college career.

The final group who would be affected disproportionately by this move would be the academically-challenged student. The people who aren’t sure if they passed everything, who need to know as soon as possible if they need to enroll to a repeat class. Currently, a student can take a mandatory module in semester one, fail through their own fault or something beyond their control, know they failed before the deadline to register to classes in semester two has passed, pay their fee, overcome the odds, and make it into the next year. If exams ended right before semester two began students in that situation could not take that path and may be held back an entire semester to complete a lone core module. This would result in the student ending up in a different year group than their friends, and generally just have a worse time of it for no good reason.

Rebuttal, By Orla Keaveney
The “No” side does make some good points about needing time off from the stress of college, but unfortunately the stress of awaiting results from an exam you were underprepared for plagues most students over the long Christmas break. Most students are in college for just three or four years of your life (with the exception of a small number of courses such as medicine), so that would mean just a handful of holiday seasons spent with the prospect of exams ahead of you. Isn’t that better than having to repeat or even drop out because you didn’t have time to revise ahead of your exams?

There’s also the intensity of stress to consider. Having exams at the back of your mind for a couple of weeks isn’t necessarily pleasant, but it’s surely better than the intensity of study week, where every hour is precious. It’s a particular strain on students who are repeating modules from the previous semester and need that time to revise material they covered six months ago. Exams are unpleasant no matter how you look at them, but at least having time to prepare can mitigate the damage to your mental and physical health.

As for international students, the fact is that post-Christmas exams are quite common in other European countries, and that doesn’t deter students from spending semesters abroad at them. In fact, the more relaxed pace means that these students have more free time to experience a new culture, especially in the run-up to Christmas. And while travelling home and back over Christmas might be a pain, it’s arguably better than having to cram for exams and risk the complications that come with failing a module you took abroad. This is especially true for students from countries where Christmas isn’t as culturally significant, and they might not see the value in rushing through 12 weeks of a semester with no breaks just to have more free time towards the end of December.

As for the issue of students needing to repeat exams, it’s unclear how other universities with post-Christmas exams manage this but you’d imagine UCD would find a way to get as much repeat revenue as possible. After all, UCD doesn’t want its students dropping out. The University wants us to hang in as long as possible so they can keep getting our fees. So I have no doubt that UCD would reorganise its system to make repeating modules manageable under this new system if they adopted it.