Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Bleg: Workload, quarters vs. semesters?

Folks, I've posted a survey below  asking for input about the relative workload on quarter calendars and semester calendars. (We had a discussion of the merits of quarters vs. semesters back in 2007.) I'd appreciate your voting in this admittedly unscientific survey — and to keep the results as clean as possible, please forego Chicago style voting: vote just once. When you're done just hit the 'Next' button.

EDIT, 9/23: Several commenters note that they do not (or did not) teach the same number of courses per term (e.g., a 2-2-1 load). Note, though, that the survey asks how many courses you usually taught on either calendar.

Also if you have thoughts about the merits of these calendars, feel free to post them as comments. Thanks to all!
Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey, the world's leading questionnaire tool.


  1. I was a student at a quarter-system school. (It recently switched to semester system, which is hardly a vote of confidence.)

    It was hilariously awful for most topics - in hard sciences or math, you could wind up screwed *so* easily because there was no time to make up a bad week or two.

    In philosophy classes, it wasn't so bad; the teachers seemed to adapt by going to a heavily discussion and syllogism based format, with relatively little reading.

  2. I have only taught on a semester calendar, so I did not do the poll. On the other hand, my university education was entirely on the quarter system--B.A. and Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, with a year of my B.A. spent at Cambridge, whose 8-week terms made the 10-week Chicago quarters (plus 1 week of exams) seem long.

    My perception of the difference is that the quarter calendar courses had more spissitude, as Henry More might have said. In my first and second years of college, I took four courses each quarter. In my third and fourth, I took three. That meant that the courses required a lot of work, but my attention was not divided between too many courses. As a first-year graduate student I took three courses per quarter, and in my second and final year of coursework I took two per quarter. That allowed even more concentration.

    At UMass Amherst, where I currently teach, undergraduates normally take five (!) courses each semester, and graduate students normally take three, depending on the program. My impression is that, mutatis mutandis, I require about the same amount of work in a semester as my Chicago courses required in a quarter. In that sense, the courses are less dense. On the other hand, the problem of scheduling five courses, plus work, extracurriculars, and goofing off means that students devote less attention to their courses than I would like.

    From a faculty perspective, there are of course distinct advantages to teaching on the quarter system if the total course load remains the same. Given that teaching (including prep and grading) can expand to fill all the time you give it, there are big advantages to teaching 2-1-1 or 2-2-0 on a quarter system, vs. teaching 2-2 on a semester system. (I'm of course talking about research universities, which is where my experience is.) If the teaching load is 2-2-2 vs. 2-2, though, I think the semester system wins out.

  3. Brian is right: I've taught 2-2-0 and 2-1-1 and I prefer that to a semester system, but I would certainly rather teach 2-2 than 2-2-2.

    By the way, I especially loathe the way the fall semester in the US tends to have a little rump session after thanksgiving.

  4. You could ask people at the University of Utah and Utah State University. The Utah system made the switch from quarters to semesters in the late 1990's.

    My impression was that the faculty did not like the switch, but the administration did.

    As a student, I found that the semester system required less work than the quarter system, but the quarter system was less forgiving should a student change their minds about their studies and the courses they wanted to take.

  5. I have taught at two research institutions, Notre Dame (semesters) and Chicago (quarters).

    I couldn't begin to fill the survey out accurately, because my current teaching load at Chicago is neither one course per quarter nor two courses per quarter. It is, as other commenters have noted, 4 courses over three quarters, which can be 2-1-1 or 2-2-0.

    I taught 2-2 at ND. But I would say the non-research workload at Chicago is about the same as at ND, even though the classroom hours are somewhat less. (ND, assuming 2 1/2 hours a week per class (3 50 minute sessions or 2 75 minute sessons): 14 weeks x 2.5 hours x 4 classes = 140 classroom hours. Chicago, 10 weeks x 2.5 hours x 4 classes = 100 hours.) There are lots of other factors that enter in, though -- size of graduate and undergraduate programs, number of faculty, amount of committee work, institutional structure... It is impossible to just compare the systems per se.

    One thing that is true is that under quarters, although you may be teaching fewer hours, the year is actually longer than under semesters.

    ND had two semesters. Each was 14 weeks plus a week of exams, and each had a one-week break in the middle. So that is at most 32 weeks even counting the breaks. That is a pretty maximal semester schedule at a research university (with no intersession); some schools have semesters as short as 12 weeks.

    Chicago has three quarters. Each is 10 weeks plus a week of exams, so that is 33 weeks. The one week break between winter and spring can't really count for much at least if one is teaching in winter and spring, since grades for winter quarter are due in that break, and one begins a new course or two immediately after that break, so if we count in the ND fall and spring breaks, we should count the Chicago break too for 34 weeks. So the year is at least two weeks longer at quarter schools (counting breaks) or three weeks longer (not counting breaks).

    Although one may not be teaching in the classroom during one of the three quarters, this does not mean one is on leave in that quarter. One is responsible for graduate students, committee work, etc, and is expected to remain in residence and on campus.

    It's really just a complicated comparison. But I certainly don't feel I have less work or more time for my research here at Chicago than at ND. It's about the same.

    --Michael Kremer

  6. I've done both, but I've only done quarters for a single year. It is not that hard to construct the workload so it is roughly the same (in my case, 2-1-1 was less than 2-2). The quarter system give you more setting up and letting down, and more students to get to know, so that you know them for less long. That's a downside. But it could be corrected for somewhat by offering a good number of two-part classes, which would make sense within majors.

    I think quarters are much better for most students, because 15-16 weeks is a hell of a long time to be in a course, and there always seems to be a slump in the middle in which they have a hard time focusing. The best, most diligent, students probably do better with semesters, because they are not slumping, but really getting in deep.

    From pure preference, I think I'd prefer going to quarters, even if it involved some more work.

  7. Here at Wright State University (Ohio) we are in the process of making the switch from quarters to semesters (semesters begin Fall 2012). One of the biggest obstacles in this was determining what constitutes an equivalent workload on the two systems.

    The standard teaching load was a 3-2-2. The administration wanted us on a 3-3, which the faculty argued was an increase. After much intense negotiating, we got a 3-2 load, which is pretty decent for a teaching oriented university. Our classes will increase by an average of 4-5 students per class.

    In my view, semesters present a better workload, as long as the number of courses you teach at a time doesn't increase. The worst part of quarters (in terms of workload--the worst part all-things-considered is the inability to provide substantial feedback on multiple writing assignments) is the transition between winter and spring quarters. I would turn grades in on the Wednesday of Spring Break, work on my syllabi on Thursday and Friday, and then have classes on the Monday. No real break there at all. Plus, gearing up for the start of classes three times a year takes a certain kind of emotional toll on you.

  8. I've taught on both systems and our institution (Ohio State) is currently changing from quarters to semesters. I had difficulties completing the survey in a way that wasn't misleading, so here is some clarification. For years, the standard teaching load for philosophers at OSU was 5 courses per year, with reductions for heavy service and special research assignments. For the past five years, the load has been 4 courses per year. (The survey forced an answer of a whole number of courses per quarter, so it was impossible to accurately reflect this.) The survey also asked about "workload". I would advise distinguishing between workload and courseload or course-related workload.

    At four courses per year, I believe that the quarter system offers enormous advantages for faculty research. In a standard year, a faculty member's teaching requirements are normally completed in less than 6 months, providing a lot of uninterrupted research time. Furthermore, if a school allows, as ours did, summer quarter teaching to count toward either the previous academic year or the upcoming academic year, the quarter system provides unrivaled opportunity for extended research time. (A faculty member could teach two courses in the summer of YR1 and two in the autumn of YR1, then have non-teaching quarters for five consecutive quarters, going back to teaching two course in spring of YR2 and two courses in summer of YR3. This gives the faculty member a year and a quarter of non-teaching time without taking a sabbatical leave or having other release time. I don't see how anything approaching that is possible on a semester calendar.)

    Pedagogically, I think the quarter system is most problematic for graduate seminars. (Many undergraduate courses work fine on the quarter system and it allows students to sample more areas than is typical in semester schools.) But there are ways to mitigate the problems in graduate seminars.

  9. Perhaps interestingly, I've both taught on both plans and been a student on both plans. My undergraduate institution switched from quarters to semesters after my sophomore year. I've long thought that the change worked out perfectly for my class, and it's a shame that more students can't have that experience. Quarters permitted me to try a larger number of classes before settling on a major, and semesters permitted me to really focus on the major once I got there.

  10. The thing I would add here is that the striking difference in switching to a quarter system was the back-to-back quarters. Every school I've seen use them ends up having two quarters after the start of the calendar year and one before that starts well after Labor Day and finishes a bit earlier than semester schools. The fall is certainly appealing, in that there's a compact schedule and you can really talk yourself into putting everything into it in that shorter frame. But the two quarters after the start of the year really ended up running into one another.

    I can recall starting on January 3rd or so, going through material at a pretty brisk clip, then getting to a short finals week, then a "spring break" the following week during which everyone was reading papers and grading finals, with faculty meetings and events on the Thursday and Friday of that week, then straight back into another 10-weeks-plus-finals quarter. (In my case, all the quarters had different preps, too.) So the second and third quarters really turned into one big 23-week non-stop mega-semester. A 15-week semester can drag on, but by the middle of that third quarter, both my students and I were toast. In that sense, I think the aggregate effect of the spacing and pacing of a quarter system may be as important as what goes on from day to day.

  11. The survey should have asked about courses per academic year under both systems, instead of courses per quarter and per semester. And it should also have asked about total numbers of class hours per course under both systems.

    In 1998 my university switched from the quarter system to the semester system. Under the quarter system, we taught four 5-quarter-hour courses per academic year. Each course met for 50 contact hours (in one quarter). Under the semester system we teach four 3-semester-hour courses per academic year. That is a net decrease of 10% in our contact hours. Other kinds of work stayed the same, so the result of the switch was a net decrease in per-capita workload for regular faculty. The university scrambled a bit to make up the difference in credit hour generation, since the total number of class hours required for graduation remained the same. Under both the quarter system and the semester system, students were to be in class 15 hours per week for 30 weeks per year for four years. (Under the quarter system our undergrads normally took three 5-hour courses per quarter; under the semester system it's five 3-hour courses per semester, with a little variation here and there).

    Having taught for 12 years under the semester system, I much prefer it, both for pedagogical reasons and for personal reasons. The quarter system was like summer school all the time (rushed and too intense), and I got laryngitis my first year. I might have avoided the laryngitis by teaching 2-1-1 instead of 2-2-0, but the attraction of the non-teaching quarter was irresistable.

    So in evaluating a change to the semester system, the format of courses under both systems makes all the difference. Quarter courses can be 3, 4, or 5 hours. Semester courses are likely to be 3 or 4 hours. A move from a system of 3 hour quarter courses to 3 hour semester courses would be altogether different from the transition I experienced.

  12. Grad student for a stat program, in a quarter university which switched to semesters - my experience followed gwern's - a quarter is too short.

    Going all year is the equivalent of a two-semester course, except (a) losing two weeks to extra exam/registration weeks, and (b) not being sure of having the same students and professor.

  13. I've been a teaching assistant and student at schools under both the quarter and semester systems. I got the general impression that teaching was more effective under the semester system. Too much of the semester's time gets wasted in administrative tasks like introducing the class, filling out evaluations, and giving and returning exams under the quarter system.

    The quarter systems also seem to come with short winter breaks and long summer breaks which leaves a lot to be desired. 14 weeks or so of down time necessitates more review at the start of fall instruction. It also doesn't seem as relaxing to have 2.5 in winter and 14 in summer as 4 and 12.

  14. I've worked (and studied) at quarter schools all my life, until recently moving to a semester school. As a full timer, I've been on a 6 course per year load--on quarters, 2-2-2; now on semesters 3-3. I'm impressed with what Sean (just up the road from my at UD! Hi!) and his WSU colleagues pulled off--in my experience, courses are pretty much courses as far as workload. my quarter courses and semester courses have always been about 45 contact hours. I'd have considered moving from a 3-2-2 to a 3-3 to be a small reduction, based on the model I've experienced, where contact hours are pretty much the same regardless of calendar. I like 80 minute classes, so I've generally taught those. That makes the transition rather easy--you teach about 80 of them, 2 a week on the semester system, 3 a week on quarters.

    I'd certainly agree that for 4 course a year folks, the quarter system offers some substantial advantages for research work by faculty because you can tailor your teaching workload to your best research schedule. I think for the 6 course a year folks, the advantage of quarters still exists, but it's weaker. Even though the total contact hours is the same, there's something to be said for fewer balls in the air. I think, for the material I teach, anyway, I prefer semesters pedagogically. I think not just rushing through and giving some ideas a bit more time to percolate is helpful, and student research assignments are far more feasible on the semester calendar.

  15. I had quarters as both and undergraduate and a graduate student. I then taught at Northwestern which also had quarters. Course load was five annually, distributed as you wished.

    Most faculty managed to teach in only two quarters. That is really useful since it frees up significant amounts of time. Indeed you could teach Fall-Winter one year and Winter-Spring the next and have roughly ten months without being in the classroom. That is good for research productivity.

    I now teach at Rochester where we have semesters and the load is 3.5 courses per year.

    Semesters are not more work, but they are less flexible. One needs to be in the classroom for thirty weeks without fail. And there are significant transaction coasts on changing syllabi from one calendar to the other. My first semester was interminable and I felt like I needed to add a lot to the courses in order to simply fill time.

  16. PS: I thought quarters were fine as both an undergrad and a grad student (UChicago).


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