Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Battle of the calendars: Quarters vs. semesters

On my campus, we teach on a quarter-system: Fall, winter, and spring quarters, with an optional summer quarter. Many faculty on my campus believe that a quarter-based academic calendar is less conducive to learning than a semester calendar. What do you think?

For the sake of comparison, I teach three courses per quarter, with the fall quarter running from late September to early December, the winter quarter from early January to mid-March, and the spring quarter from late March to early June. There are, I think, a couple of advantages to this sort of calendar. First, students end up taking a larger number of courses overall. In philosophy, this means that students end up being exposed to a larger cross-section of the discipline. Whereas on a semester system, students might, for instance, decide to take either ancient philosophy or medieval philosophy, students on a quarter system can probably fit both into their academic plans. I've also found that, on the quarter system, fewer students drop classes. It may not seem like a big deal, but suppose that after 2-3 weeks, you've determined that a class you enrolled in just isn't what you expected, etc. On a quarter system, you might opt to hang in, since you have about seven weeks left. In contrast, on a semester system, you have eleven weeks left. It may not seem like a big difference, but since the time costs of remaining enrolled are less on a quarter system, students seems to be a little more willing to stick with a course.

The quarter system also enables some course sequencing that might be awkward on a semester system. For instance, we offer a two-quarter logic sequence, of which the first course is required for philosophy majors. But many take the second course in the sequence as well, which gives them a better grounding in logic without forcing them to take a whole year's worth of logic.

But on the whole, the disadvantages of quarters probably outweigh the advantages. Here are the disadvantages:
  1. It's absurdly fast paced, both for students and faculty. Everyone is constantly preparing for next quarter, administering midterms or finals, etc.
  2. For faculty, it means preparing many more distinct courses. This can be pleasant in a way, but you spend an enormous amount of time on course design.
  3. The cross-disciplinary breadth is counterbalanced by a lack of depth. It's very hard to teach any of the major subdisciplines of philosophy adequately in ten weeks. History surveys (ancient, modern) often have to neglect major figures or movements when taught on a semester calendar, so the quarter calendar only compounds the sense that the material is covered in a superficial way. I manage to teach a decent ethical theory course in ten weeks, covering egoism, utilitarianism, Kantianism/deontology, and virtue ethics, but I feel I give much of the material a 'fly over' treatment.
  4. It makes independent projects challenging. Students wanting to write a thesis or do an independent study struggle to do anything meaningful in ten weeks. Figure 3-5 weeks to do the reading and research, another 3 or so to write a draft, maybe a week or two to refine that draft -- clearly not enough.
There are also other institution-specific issues (e.g., how to count the credits, etc., of transfer students coming from the more common semester system, etc.) . But simply from a learning standpoint, are there reasons to favor one calendar over the other?


  1. I don't have a lot to say on this because I've never taught the quarter schedule. However, two thoughts;

    1. I think the quarter system probably is more conducive to student learning. In the semester system, which is typically 15 to 16 weeks, I typically find students checking out mentally around week 12. They've just had enough. The last month they "phone in". If so, it seems to make more sense to just take the two months of the year they phone in and create a quarter out of it. I don't have a hard time believing that there really just is a natural time span beyond which is just hard to maintain interest and effort.

    2. My guess is that the quarter system is a lot more work for faculty, for some obvious reasons. For this reason, I wouldn't favor it -- I think faculty (at my school anyway) are overworked enough as it is. So much as I think the quarter system might be more student friendly, I do think we have to also care for our own psychological health as instructors.

    But really I'm just speculating here, as I don't have knowledge of the two systems.

  2. I've only taught at schools with semesters and it seems to me that at least my students are finally starting to get what we're really up to and trying to do around the end of the semester. (I use Rachels Elements of Moral Philosophy and, for better or worse, have never made it much further than the chapters on utilitarianism). Some students have even said that the class should be longer!!

    I think, with philosophy, a longer semester is better because it seems that so many students take so long to figure out what's going on, since it's just so different from anything they've done before and, for many, they have so many "argument stopper" responses to issues that they have to work through.

    I think an important basic, simple goal of introductory courses is show that we can at least try to *reason* about these topics -- we can figure out people's views (their conclusions) and ask them for *reasons*, *why* they think that and then critique these reasons. I suspect this is a very foreign activity for many students and so it takes time for the method to sink in (and, with luck, a sense of the value of seeking and evaluating reasons).

  3. I'm now trying to decide which system I currently teach in and which system I came from, the descriptions don't meet up.

    In New Zealand for the first two years I was studying papers lasted for the whole year, so 24 weeks per paper. Which I recall being quite good from a processing and thinking about things point of view. Then Auckland switched to a semester system which I believe was two 12 teaching weeks, with an optional 6 week summer semester.

    When I moved to Massey University it was also semester based, two 13 weeks with I think a summer semester but I am not sure how long the summer is.

    Here in Northern Ireland again it is two 12 week teaching semesters, with an optional summer semester. Of course the British have engineered the system to be as harsh as possible for students, the first semester ends teaching a week before Christmas, with the exam a week after New Years Day. So in other words, no holidays for our students...

    I find 12 weeks sufficient, but then I have never had a longer time to teach in. I have taught in two six week sessions, these were intense and hard work, but in some ways I think good, the students got really engaged. That said I agree with Nathan, the longer the better, for some students it is often just sinking in by the end of the course.

  4. I teach on the semester system, but I was taught on a system of three terms, eight weeks each. It was very intensive, with fifth week being the worst - we spoke about having 'fifth week blues'. By sixth week, the lightat the end of the tunnel was visible, and work would pick up.

    Survey courses were spread over two terms, but there was more emphasis on intensive courses - Intro to Philosophy meant, for me, a detailed study of Hume's Enquiry and Predicate Calculus.

    As a result, when I finished by first degree, I was much less well-rounded than an American student. There were whole fields of philosophy I simply didn't cover. On the other hand, if I need to, I can pick up new material very quickly.

    But I think short intensive courses only work with students who like a challenge, and thrive under pressure. I'm teaching a six-week intensive class now, and it's very frustrating. I think my students could do so much better if they had more time to think about the material. I'm trying to explain the thinking of Karl Rahner one sentence at a time in class, because that way, they understand it - but next week, I have to start on a new topic, or we'll never cover all the required material. A student who misses a couple of classes has no time to catch up. Looking back, my first degree was perhaps better preparation for a job in the financial sector than for a career in philosophy.

  5. Chris - Students are equipped with an incredible ability to smell the academic finish line at great distances. So they also check out on the quarter system too -- about week 7 or so usually. Also, the winter-spring stretch is unusually taxing. The students (not the faculty really!) get a one-week break in between, but they often use it to frolic rather than recharge their intellectual batteries. But with classes starting in early January and ending in early June, it's about 21-22 weeks of (almost) straight teaching -- tough on students and faculty.

  6. M,

    No doubt -- they have good noses! But I don't mean the ones who were never really all that interested (or marginally so), but rather the ones who really are seriously interested in the course. Even they burn out. Hell, I burn out around week 13 or 14. There's just a limit, I think, to how much you can hope to realistically accomplish time-wise. It's like a three hour course -- somewhere in the second hour, you just have to expect that people are going to have a hard time paying attention. The semester system, I think, is the same way.

    My wife was a student under the quarter system. She said, as Michael's comments indicate, that it was very intensive and fast moving. If you missed a day or two, she thought, you'd be totally lost. As a student, she preferred it, though -- for comments similar to Michael's -- she (nor I) would want to be an instructor under that kind of schedule. I'll take the semester system, even with what I take to be its over-extended 15 or 16 week schedule.

  7. What would be interesting here is an empirical sutdy of otucomes. If a test could be devised to evaluate student learning between institutions that have various length teaching segments, then we might be able to determine whihc, if any, are better. My guess here, is that outcomes depends on the quality of instruction more then the length of time students interface with faculty.

  8. It would be interesting to see more posts from faculty who are or were teaching in a quarter system university.

    Are operation costs and benefits ideal in a quarter or semester system? Does a school receive more federal funding and incoming payments and do these outweigh registration and class schedule creation?

    Are federal funds for higher education like those in elementary schools: a set daily $ amount paid per day/term/year for each registered student?

    As a student, I thrived in the Quarter System and suffered in the Semester Setting. The shorter term was an intense blur of books, tests, term papers and teachers.

    In the semesters system classes dragged on forever. The cumulative final exams were the worst. I hated the semester; all the time and energy and effort which could be dashed away from these end of term tests on mostly meaningless, random remembering of a host of dates, names, places and terms from half a year ago!


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