Friday, March 12, 2010

Quarter v. Semester

As both a student and a professor, I have experienced at various times both the US quarter and semester systems.

For those unfamiliar with these systems: An academic year composed of quarters involves 3 academic terms (+ a summer term = 4 quarters), each of 10 weeks duration (fall, winter, spring). An academic year composed of semesters involves 2 terms, each ~15 (±) weeks duration (fall and "spring", the former of which may include the end of summer and the latter of which includes the winter season).

Some of my colleagues and students experience the "block plan" (1 intensive course per 3 week period), but I have not, so I will confine my comments to quarters v. semesters.

Both quarter and semester systems have advantages and disadvantages for professors and students, but these pros and cons may shift around from course to course depending on various factors related to course content and professorial teaching ability.

Quarter system:
  • Terms are shorter. Boring classes are over sooner, and boring professors can inflict less damage.
  • The content and format of some courses, even very enthralling ones, are better suited to a shorter term.
  • Quarters typically start later (September in the US) and end later (June) than the semester-based academic year. You may like or dislike quarters owing to this feature; alternatively, you may like this feature in late August and early September (when your semester colleagues have started their academic year) and hate it in May and early June (when your semester colleagues already have their grades done).
  • It may be easier for professor to get a research leave for a quarter than it is to get a semester leave.
  • Students on the quarter system may be at a disadvantage in the summer because their academic year ends late relative to the start of some summer internships and other jobs.

Semester system:
  • Semesters can seem very, very long. Your joy at making it to Spring Break may be a bit dampened by the realization that the semester is only half over.
  • You can, however, explore more topics in more depth than you can with a shorter term. You may have more flexibility in course content, owing to the longer term.
  • You get to know your students better. You might even learn all their names.
  • You may start the academic year before you are ready for summer to end, but you are done in the spring.
  • Depending on your institutions policies re. teaching load, you may have fewer course preps/year.
  • You only have to deal with beginning and end of semester craziness twice instead of 3 times. In an academic term, the first couple of weeks and the last week or two can be quite chaotic, but in a semester, there is plenty of time in the middle to get into a routine in which the logistics of the course are at least functioning well.

As a student, I didn't have a strong preference, even once I had experienced both systems. Depending on how many courses I was expected to take at once and what the course offerings were, I may have had a slight preference for one over the other, but overall it didn't matter a lot to me.

As a professor, I think I prefer the quarter system, recognizing that semesters do have some distinct advantages. For most courses, I feel that I can convey the most essential information in 10 weeks. I wouldn't like quarters if I had to create new courses all the time, but for a relatively stable set of courses and only the occasional new course to prepare, quarters are better for maintaining a high energy level and morale from term start to term end.

Which do you like? Semesters or quarters or something else?


Anonymous said...

As an undergrad, I loved the quarter system. Although it was more hectic (with midterms and finals seemingly all the time), I got to take a lot of electives and fun classes that were well suited to a 10 week time frame. As a first year grad student, I think I would prefer the semester system since we have predetermined yearlong classes and constantly having exams is not offset by being able to take more courses. But I am sure that next year when we switch to seminar-type classes, the quarter system will be attractive again.

Anonymous said...

I'm on a 2-2 load with semesters but the people I know teaching in quarter systems are also on a 2-2, so their gig seems preferable.

James Annan said...

I liked the 3x8 week terms that I had as a student, and I guess if I had to work in a university, I'd like it too! But I didn't get to ask teacher if my answers were right when handing in exams, and I had to take my own notes in lectures, so it wasn't all a bed of roses.

european female academic said...

Through my teaching in three different European countries, I went through all three systems, semester, quarter and block teaching (entire course in 3 weeks, full-time). I definitely prefer blocks to other two systems. It is very intensive to teach a course in 3 weeks, yes, but on the other hand, you are then done. Also it is easy to know where you are in the course if you teach it intensively over a short time. Compared to 2-3 hours each week for 12 weeks in a semester, I find it drags on forever and sometime after mid-semester I'm getting fed up to have to keep it up. Plus students seem in my experience to take in things better if they focus on only one thing at the time - the blocks - rather than having 10 different things every week - the semester.

Blocks are also better for travelling, because you know you will be fully busy for those 3 weeks, but are mobile during the rest of the time. Travel in semester teaching is tricky, because you need to reschedule classes or take care of replacement teaching.

So I am all for blocks. Although YMMV, of course.

Anonymous said...

As a field biologist, I like semesters because it means I can get out in the field doing my research earlier in the summer.

Anonymous said...

I haven't experienced the US system but have seen different systems that I can comment on.

The university where I did my undergraduate studies operated on a trimester system, which was a year-round system of three terms about four months long each (minus a week at Christmas and two weeks in August). Professors had to teach two terms and got the third one off (not necessarily the summer term though).

The university where I did my PhD and have a faculty position uses a quarters system that also includes a separate summer break: four quarters of about 10 weeks, plus a summer of about 10 weeks, and a couple of breaks thrown in.

Although I have not taught in a trimester systems the idea of four straight months every year without teaching sounds like quite a luxury, even if the specific term is arbitrary. Teaching in a quarter (+ summer) system like I have now means I usually get one quarter off from teaching, plus summer, so 20 weeks - but it is broken up so a bit harder to use efficiently.

However as a student I think the 10- week course system sounds better - only half as many courses in parallel (and correspondingly, half as many exams). It seems much easier to focus on a particular topic. Hard to say though since I didn't actually study in this system...

Anonymous said...

I did most of my undergrad on the quarter system. When I started as a postbac after many years outside of academia, I went to a school on the semester system. I was very gung ho at the beginning of the semester, even up until midterms. But then there came a point where I started asking myself, "Are we done yet?" I noticed that this happened right at the point where I would have been having finals if I'd been on the quarter system. Almost 2 years later, I still get that feeling at about the 10 week mark.

So: definitely a vote for the quarter system here.

Note that I applied to grad school hoping to end up back on the quarter system, but alas, 3 of the schools that admitted me were on the semester system. (The other one didn't have funding for me!) *sigh*

Anonymous said...

As a student, I preferred quarters. Taking classes meant I wouldn't have to split my time over as many subjects and I felt like I could dedicate my time to learning a few topics in depth. Another advantage was that, as dubious as the benefits of cramming are, they were much stronger on the quarter system - not as much time passed to forget lessons learned (crammed) in earlier parts of the course.

As a grad student, courses were (newly) taught in blocks. It was a poor implementation, as each block reiterated the basics of certain topics (students sat through the same lecture several times from different profs, especially annoying when topics were quite simple). In these cases, students would have benefited from one basic lecture and several more in depth lectures or even interesting problems to work on to apply that knowledge.

LizardBreath said...

As an undergrad who transferred from a semester based to a quarter-based school, I preferred the quarter-based school. Semesters always seemed to have a chunk of dead time when nothing terribly urgent was happening (no immediate major exams, no large projects due). And in that time I'd end up losing track of my classes, and having to scramble to get back in gear for finals.

Quarters, by being a steadier pressure, were actually lower stress.

Nicholas Condon said...

Speaking purely as a student (since my teaching experience was limited to one unpleasant semester as a TA), it's semesters in a walk. The ripples from the endpoint discontinuities of an academic term are highly disruptive, so I always felt like I learned more in the middle weeks of a semester than at either end. Increasing the frequency and reducing the period of academic terms seems to reduce the bandwidth of the channel quite a bit.

Plus, the weather is better in early June than it is in late August.

Anonymous said...

I hated the quarter system as an undergrad- it seemed like I would just have barely begun learning the material when I would be smacked on the face with another exam. I think I would be okay with quarters if they were implemented with a no-midterms rule.

Old Biddy said...

I had quarters as an undergrad and semesters as a grad student. I liked quarters better, since they didn't have that 'dead zone', but I didn't like having to spend more money on books.

thm said...

I did quarters as a undergrad and semesters as a grad student. I much prefer quarters.

First, spring break in the quarter system is a real break. Full stop, end of line, nothing lingering on. That can be a week to travel without guilt, or a week to focus on something like a senior project.

Second, having a two-week winter break (or one week, which I do feel is too short) gives extra weeks to the summer, which means you can get more done during the summer, as on summer research projects.

I do think that the relatively intense class schedule for quarters reduces the amount of time wasted in class--no time for a soft start at the beginning of the term, or for extensive review. For motivated and engaged students, at least, it leads to a better utilization of time.

All that said, I should note that my brother, who did semesters as an undergrad and quarters as a grad student, feels the opposite.

Anonymous said...

I experienced both quarters and semesters as an undergrad (owing to the joyful experience of my Uni switching systems between my junior and senior year)and then semesters again as a grad student. I much prefer the quarter system. I liked the wider variety of topics I could fit in under the quarter system. Although my experience may be biased since my first experience with semesters was mainly courses that had been merged or cobbled together from quarter system courses to work under the new system.

Dan said...

I'm relatively agnostic on quarters vs semesters for lecture courses.

For seminars, semesters are great because they allow time for a rapport to build up in the class. Its often not until week 7 or 8 that some students feel ready to contribute. The good discussions happen after that.

Likewise, lab courses can do cool things with 15 weeks. For example, you can spend the first 10 weeks teaching basic concepts and techniques, and then the last five giving students the chance to pursue a semi-independant project.

Anonymous said...

I currently teach at an "Enormous State University" that is transitioning from quarters to semesters.

Students will lose a LOT after this transition:

(1) They will have to complete their degree in 8 semesters, not 12 quarters. They'd better know what they want to study from the beginning or they'll be here for 5 years.

(2) Because of the large enrollments in service courses, we will have to decrease laboratory instruction time to once per week from twice per week. No one is giving us more classrooms or more TAs, so we will have to go with less time. There goes the quality.

Kevin said...

Missing from this discussion is that there are two different quarter systems in the US.

The more common one has students taking 4 or 5 courses, each of which is about 10/13th of a semester course.

The Dartmouth or semester-in-a-quarter system has students taking only 3 courses at a time, but each course is a full semester's worth of material squeezed into a quarter.

Teaching loads are often higher at schools that do the "Dartmouth" system, since the minimum teaching load is usually 1 or 2 courses a quarter, which translates to 3-6 semester courses a year.

I've experienced both sorts of quarter systems, but not semesters. Personally, I prefer having 3 intense classes to 5 less intense ones, but I can see that this will vary depending on personality. I might even like the block system (which seems to be more common in Europe than in the US), though I'm not sure how big projects and wet-lab courses would be done that way---some things just take time and having only one thing to do doesn't speed them up.

Sally said...

Here's a morbid perspective: to me, a big drawback of quarters is that if you get sick, you fall behind very quickly. An attack of gastroenteritis as a sophomore left me missing >1/10 of the material in all five classes that term.

Now I teach semester classes, so the bad flu season wasn't such a disaster for our students--or the faculty, many of whom were also sick.

Alex said...

As a grad student, we had quarters, and I liked it because once I was in my research and just taking the occasional class for breadth I didn't have to commit to too much for that class. I've also seen schools where the grad programs work on half-semesters for some classes.

As a faculty member at an undergraduate institution with a heavy teaching load, however, I hate quarters. If I taught only 1-2 classes per quarter, quarters would be fun for variety. But when you teach a lot of classes, and when the content of some of those classes is mandated to be quite heavy (we are required to cover an insane amount in 10 weeks of intro physics, even more than most schools), having to do prep 3 times a year, grade finals 3 times a year, and go through first and last week 3 times a year, all that is heavy.

Even if we had to cover the same amount of material in 2 semesters instead of 3 quarters, at least we would get back 2 weeks of the year. The first and last weeks are always different in a large freshman class. With a small group of seniors who know the drill and know you, you can just start lecturing on day 1 after a few minutes of "I'm me, here's the syllabus, here's the book, and my office hours are listed." With 100 freshmen who don't know the system, you need to be more explicit about a lot of things, because they don't know what's what, and with that many people whom you don't know individually you can't start making exceptions. So day 1 has a good chunk on policy.

And with all of the pedagogical bells and whistles used in intro physics these days, day 1 also has a lot of "The online homework system is here. Yes, you have to remember your access code. Yes, you actually have to use it. And clickers are bought from the bookstore. Yes, you have to register it so I know which response is from yours." And so forth.

And then there's the crowd of people trying to add the class in the first week. So the roster keeps changing, and so there's always a horde of people asking the same questions that we went over on day 1.

So the first week is really a lost week pedagogically. Give me semesters instead of quarters, and I've just gained a week to cover material. And if you spend half of the last week on review, then going to semesters give me almost 2 entire extra weeks.

Or you could change the curriculum so we cover fewer chapters per quarter, like every other school in the country, but that's a non-starter.

Anonymous said...


Spring Break isn't necessarily a given. My son attends a community college on the quarter system and he gets exactly two days (one weekend) between Winter & Spring quarters. And yes, he does have finals all the way up through Friday! He is a bit envious of those of us on the semester system...

Anonymous said...

As one of the 'Anonymous' previously mentioned, I too, work for Massive State U in the process of transitioning from quarters to semesters. I don't know how that other individual feels, but I feel this is being rammed down the throats of both faculty and students without representation. We were told that 'studies show students can learn effectively on both systems', which to me means we shouldn't change. Having conversations with many different faculty shows a great range of diversity in thoughts toward this change. In general, faculty in the humanities seem to want this change in order to facilitate reading larger books and/or coving current literature in greater depth. Faculty in the sciences are generally against this change because many sciences seem to 'package' quite smoothly on the quarter system.

Personally, I would prefer we remain on the quarter system. Administration has already told us our teaching load (per term) will increase. Lovely, I can't wait for that. I have 2-3 classes per quarter for 3 of the 4 quarters with my quarter 'off' only having 1 class. So to maintain that load on the semester system (6-9 per year) that means I'll be teaching 4 classes per semester?! Where will research fit? How about prep time? How will I keep current and be willing to try new techniques in my classes with so many more preparations per term? If we have larger classes (as is assumed due to classroom space) how will I be able to try a new technique? Where will the incentive be for me to try something other than the 'down and dirty' lecture? (an entire other topic...)
All that aside, I'm going along as I have no choice and honestly trying to make my curriculum the best it can be given that I feel this is honestly detrimental to the learning that can occur!

Katemonster said...

I have only ever been a student under the quarter system, and I loved it because it meant that I got to take more classes, plus any class I didn't like was over soon enough. (I was a double major, actually, and took four classes per quarter plus several more in the summers.)

However, now that I am on the instructor side of the fence, I see that 1) I always have more material to cover than I can fit into a given semester, much less a quarter and 2) students here never take more than 4 classes per semester, so they do in fact end up having far fewer classes total... and lots of them are probably grateful for this (although I wouldn't have been).

bikemonkey said...

block plan is the winner all long as faculty are only teaching one course per traditional semester.

Anonymous said...

Semester, any day. I has semesters as an undergrad, and I've never bought the point about boring classes getting over faster as an argument for the quarter system -- I loved every one of my classes and was never happy about them ending. I'm a grad student in the quarter system now. I hated it when I was taking classes, because everything seemed to rush by in an intense fury before I could get a good hold on it, and left me little to no time for research. As a TA, it's hard to measure how much progress the students have made in under 10 weeks -- it just like a race to get work done rather than understanding and enjoying the material. The only thing that's good about quarters for undergrads is that spring break is a real break free of assignments.

Anonymous said...

Quarters, definitely. I feel myself running out of steam right around the end of 10 weeks, which really stinks when you are on the semester system. the last few weeks drag. I also prefer starting later in the fall (but I don't have to deal with field work, either).

Anonymous said...

I was on semesters as an undergrad at a small private school and quarters as a graduate student at a large research university.

It might be just me (or the fact that I am comparing two drastically different schools at two different stages in my academic career), but I felt like I had a heavier load on the quarter system. All of the subject material was crammed into a shorter time period with less time to process it, and exams and homework sets were coming at me left and right. I found it hard to breathe at times.

That said, I did like that spring break was actually a break, and not time to play catch up (like it was on semesters).

What really got to me was that pesky third quarter. Because I was used to semesters, I was used to two sets of midterms, two sets of finals, two sets of projects, etc., per academic year. Then I got to grad school and somehow managed to survive the first two quarters, but WHAM! they wanted to torture me with one more set of midterms, finals, and projects. I was mentally exhausted after that first year and my GPA suffered.

I too am at Enormous and Massive State U., and I have to say that I think the students are lucky they're going from quarters to semesters, and not the other way around.

siz said...

Student and Grad Student, loved quarters. Now faculty, on semester. Am happy to not have to do three sets of mid-terms, finals, etc. And for teaching grad courses, I don't feel that rushed and can go into detail. On the other hand there are other times I wish we were on quarter.

As FSP said, both formats have their advantages and disadvantages

Kim said...

I liked quarters as an undergrad and a grad student. I've only taught semesters (well, 14-week semesters at one place and 4-1-4 at another), but I think that, with my current teaching load (6 courses + all associated labs per year), I would really be exhausted at the end of the one-week spring break. (Grading for two classes plus prep for two classes in one week... eek!)

fatedplace said...

I spent 6 years in the semester system and now I'm in my 5th year of the quarter system. Hands down I prefer the semester... not only as a student but as a teacher.

As a student the 10 weeks forces course compression and results in weaker retention of material. It's too many different things covered too quickly and without depth.

As a teacher the quarter is really only 8 weeks long, which is hardly enough to time get anything done before you must say farewell to your students. This may make it easier to forget that "one bad quarter" but it doesn't make it any easier to realize that you've got to do it again in a week.

There's really no academic reason to support the quarter system, it's really been a financial decision about the # of courses that can be offered and increasing enrollemnt. It's a shame because it doesn't enhance learning and it severely limits superior teaching and course construction.

acdalal said...

I'm at a school with quarters (the "Dartmouth" version, where we cram a semester into 10 weeks). The *only* good part is that, on the rare occasions that you have a toxic/bad/distinterested class, it's over sooner. But other than that, I am not a fan. The pace is super intense. As Sally mentioned, if you get sick or go out of town or miss more than one class, you're hopelessly behind. (This goes for professors as well as students!) There's very little time to develop material---sometimes I feel like I'm slinging material as fast as I can at the students, and it seems like I'm always either giving an exam or grading an exam. And Spring term is brutal---our midterm break is about the time when everyone else is getting out, so after May 1 no one, professors or students, wants to be there.

Anonymous said...

I only ever experienced the block system first hand (as an undergrad - where I'm from we don't have grad-student classes and I also haven't taught classes apart from TAing). Back then I found the blocks pretty intense. You cannot really afford to loose focus or it'll be time for another exam already. I think it's great for people who like the structure, but for people who would be fine planning their time on their own (and I would have been) it was less ideal. My undergrad years (first three) were pretty intense and full of classes 5 days a week from 9 to 5. I would have had a different undergrad experience if I had had a bit more freedom.

Anonymous said...

I preferred the 14 week Australian semester which basically contained two "nothing" weeks (the start, and end), and usually a 6 week formal exam period after the semester.

This is going the way of the dodo though.

Madscientistgirl said...

I was always on the semester system, but I don't think I would have done well under quarters. As an undergraduate I got a double major in physics and biochemistry. The one semester I took only science classes was my worst semester and my GPA suffered (even if you separate science and non-science classes.) I needed to take a non-science class to do well, and I even continued to do this in graduate school. I benefited from using a different part of my brain than I needed for science classes and having the structure of classes was more effective than just having something as a hobby. In most quarter systems, I don't think I could do that. I was never able to cram, either - I have good long term memory but not so good short term memory. I either have to learn something properly or it doesn't stick at all.

Even in research, I benefit if I can change tasks. Taking a break lets me come back to a problem with a fresh perspective. I don't do well when I have to focus on one project alone for a long period of time, without a chance to think about something else. I know not everyone works like this - some people can't be productive unless they can focus on one task. I think the different systems benefit different students.

Unknown said...

During TA training at $BIG_PUBLIC_UNIVERSITY, where I'm a grad student, we were told that students on the quarter system tend to cheat more than students on the semester system. The explanation was that students are more likely to have multiple midterm exams at a time.

Does anyone have any info about this?

barbara said...

I'm so damned old that as a student (in Europe) I had only yearlong courses. Required load was four courses of 4hrs/week (or 6hrs including exercise sessions) times 23 (plus minus 2) weeks.
All the courses were Mathematics or Physics, with Physics being about 20% of the total.
I loved it, learned a lot, and kept taking extra courses both as an undergrad and as a grad student. Lots of time to digest the material and envision the big picture. But that has definitely gone the way of the dodo AFAIK.

Doctor Pion said...

I have taught in both systems, and I was an undergrad in a quarter system where the best feature was the ease of taking electives.

From my current viewpoint, the other plus of the quarter system was that we actually had 30 weeks of instruction in a 9+ month school year, whereas our semester system is really lucky if it gets 29. You can do a lot in that extra week.

One instructional plus of the quarter system is that you get down to serious students in 10 weeks instead of 15.

An instructional minus is that it makes it easier for students to get by on utter memorization of the least learnable unit (student version of least publishable unit) than in a semester course.

Doctor Pion said...

I am struck by the variation in length of a quarter or semester!

I had a 10 week quarter plus an exam week. The semesters I have seen run about 14 to 14.5 weeks, plus an exam week. These all use 50 minute hours.

People undergoing a transition have my sympathies. The transition (what you do with a student who starts a sequence partway into the year or skips a term) is a nightmare, and it is only worse if the total number of instruction days is significantly less after the change.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to go against what seems to be the majority here, and say that I prefer semesters. As an undergrad, I went to a university that is well-known for difficult curriculum and heavy workload. Midterm and final exam/project periods, and the subsequent receiving of grades, were stressful enough when they only happened twice a year. Increase that to three times, and I think that I, and many of my friends, would have been in a state of constant panic.

Pagan Topologist said...

I was an undergrad on the semester system and have been a faculty member only on the semester system, but I was on the quarter system throughout grad school, at two different institutions (in the 1960's.)

I prefer quarters, as I think my attention span is only about ten weeks long. During a quarter, I could justify giving only one midterm and a final in lower level courses. However, on a semester system, I give three tests per term, plus a final. This comes to eight tests per year versus six on the quarter system. The last three weeks of a semester, everyone is tired and no one, faculty or student, is working at maximum capacity.

Some semester courses naturally ought to be two quarters long so things are not rushed. Some can easily compress into one quarter. As another example, calculus works better as a five quarter sequence than a three semester sequence in which it is necessary to cut corners and skip material.

Anonymous said...

The problem with quarters in graduate school (humanities) is that you have to choose your research topic in the first week. If not, you will not be able to begin searching for documents, and books from interlibary loan will not come in in time to use. So, you don't get a lot of time to explore.

I was on semesters for one year of undergraduate and it was a lot easier than quarters because of the flexibility. You could get sick for a few days and have it not affect your GPA, whereas on quarters it was essentially sayonara if you ever got behind at all.

As faculty I am neutral on this. I don't get to repeat a lot of courses so it is nominally even less stable on quarters, more flurry, but actually it doesn't matter, it's just a different way of organizing.