Sometimes the best way to freshen up a course is to cancel class

Why a surprise shut-down of the university can promote community


One day each term, when the students least expect it, all classes are canceled at Quest University Canada. These days are called “Community Days”. We just had a Community Day today.

I would love to claim this was our idea, but it was inspired by a similar event that takes place at the Lester B. Pearson United World College of the Pacific near Victoria BC (an innovative international high school). What’s the goal of this Community Day? It’s threefold.

First, sometimes you just need a break. Quest teaches on the fast-paced block scheduling plan. Students take one course at a time, 3 hrs each day, for 3 1⁄2 weeks. It is an intensive way to learn: students must stay on task and manage their time effectively because assignment due dates come up fast, and before you know it the course is over. You need a breather, a chance to revitalize, interact informally with all students and faculty, not just the ones in your 20-student class.
Community Day at Quest
Community Day at Quest University CanadaSecond, it promotes student interactions. The morning schedule of a typical Community Day consists of team building and leadership exercises, preferably outdoors. Some of the activities today included trust exercises and the raising of a student-made Quest flag (we first had to dig a hole, then carry a tree log up a hill, then raise the log and stabilize it with ropes once it stood reasonably erect). Oh, I know – a lot of you are probably rolling your eyes, covering your mouth and thinking “and they call this a university? What’s the academic merit of doing that?”. I probably would have been right there with you a few years ago. Sure, it’s unorthodox. But having seen its effects in the classroom first hand, I am now a convert.

Do you know what happens when you set up a situation where students must bond, trust one another, exercise leadership abilities and have fun together? Do you know what happens when you then put them together in a 20-student classroom and ask them to contribute to a class discussion?

You cannot shut them up!

They feel comfortable with one another, they trust that their peers (and their teacher) will accept them, and they do not fear being ridiculed. A non-academic activity goes a long way towards improving the academic quality of my classroom. I’ll sacrifice a day of class any day if it means that the questions and insights that are shared and asked in my classroom are more numerous, more honest, more in-depth, and are contributed by a larger percentage of the students.

Third, the afternoons of a Community Day are generally spent asking for the students’ input on building this university. Quest opened its doors to students a mere 13 months ago. A lot of its policies, practices, and even its identity are currently being developed. The philosophy at Quest is that students wouldn’t be told what to do: study this course and that – they would be active participants in their own education. They are guided through the design of their own degree. They also contribute in building this university. Today, the topics under discussion were student admission, student retention, fundraising (since we are a private non-profit institution), energy-conservation on campus, and student life. It’s amazing what different perspectives students can have on an issue than faculty. It was very refreshing to hear their take on what matters. And they also provided tons of ideas for improving this place.

At the end of the day, when the Community Day is over, you get buy-in. You get the sense that Quest belongs to all of us. That we each have a hand in shaping it. That we are not a number but an important member of a community. That this place is special. It re-infuses energy into all students and faculty and into every classroom. And at the end of the day, we are all reminded that there is no other place we would rather be.

So now you decide – wasn’t a day of “fluff” a valuable part of a student’s education?

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Sometimes the best way to freshen up a course is to cancel class

  1. This sounds really interesting and quite the experience for the students. I don’t doubt the impact that it has on the classroom.

    As a student at one of the larger public institutions in the same province, I suppose I’m wondering if this is portable to other institutions: isn’t Quest rather small? Doesn’t that make this kind of ‘community day’ possible? Could my university do it?

    Also, are community days announced without prior notice, or are they planned? I lean towards the former based on my read of the article, but I don’t know…

  2. Community days are indeed a surprise. Some students are involved in organizing it (notably the elected student representatives), but are asked to keep the event a secret. Typically, a Community Day begins like any other day, and all students report to their class. Then, one of the organizer runs from classroom to classroom, convening everyone to a common location. The element of surprise adds enthusiasm for the event, and ensures maximum participation.

    I think that a larger institution like SFU could easily arrange an event like a Community Day. The key here is to maximize interactions between students that may find themselves in a classroom together. Therefore, it may be worthwhile for each Department to hold its own community day. It would make the number of participants manageable. In addition, these are the students and faculty likely to be interacting with one another in a classroom setting. While holding an all-campus Community Day would have some worthwhile benefits, I think a more logistically realistic and directly beneficial way to proceed is to focus on improving the interactions of the various “communities” that exist within SFU, especially those that work together in a classroom setting.

    …try proposing it to your Department Chair! See if the concept catches on and other Departments start doing it, too!

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