Semesters and Quarters

by Harry on September 28, 2010

Michael Cholbi at In Socrates’ Wake is looking for input on a survey on the relative advantages and disadvantages of the semester and quarter systems. His institution is considering a switch from quarters to semesters. If you have experience of both, please fill it in.



Steve LaBonne 09.28.10 at 9:24 pm

He should contact people at Ohio Sate and U. of Cincinnati, who are being required by the state to switch from quarters to semesters two years form now and therefore will have hashed out all the issues involved.


Steve LaBonne 09.28.10 at 9:25 pm

Or Ohio State, even. (Off to write “I will use preview” 100 times.)


yoyo 09.28.10 at 11:07 pm

actually, the name of that school is “The Ohio State University”


marcel 09.28.10 at 11:58 pm

UMinn-TC (twin cities) was required to make this switch in the late 90s. As I recall, the biz-school responded by re-organizing its curriculum as a bunch of mini courses (i.e., less than semester-length). While there was some redesign of courses, my recollection is that nearly all the new courses were about as long as the originals had been under the quarter system. (Yes, some of them spanned the semester boundary!).


jacob 09.29.10 at 12:36 am

Can someone explain why states (legislatures?) are meddling with academic calendars? Is there a politics to it that I’m not understanding? Or are semesters somehow cheaper?


PK 09.29.10 at 12:50 am

Berkeley switched from quarters to semesters in 1983, under no pressure from anyone except its own faculty as I recall, and the other UC’s talk about doing it from time to time; viz.

@2: There’s a preveiw buton?


djw 09.29.10 at 3:17 am

jacob, here in Ohio the argument was made that the different systems in the state had coordination costs, made transfers more difficult, and so on, As of now, UC, OSU, OU, and WSU are on quarters and the rest–Kent State, Cleveland State, Toledo, Youngstown, Bowling Green, Akron–are on semesters. Also, to coordinate with the community colleges better (some of them are having to make the switch too). I think there was also an argument about being better positioned to compete with graduates from private schools for jobs and internships that begin in the summer, as the semester-based private school students will be available sooner. I don’t know if there’s enough there to justify the meddling, but there it is (I don’t think any of the 4 schools were particularly thrilled about making the change, although for the faculty at Wright State University are going from a 7 course annual load down to five, which strikes me as a pretty good deal).


John Q 09.29.10 at 4:52 am

At ANU in the 70s we had both terms and semesters. Reminiscent of shifting between lefthand drive and righthand drive in stages. Trucks first.


Harry 09.29.10 at 1:01 pm

There used to be a significant cost saving to semesters because it reduced 3 registrations/advisings/etc a year to 2. I can’t imagine that savings is as much now, or that it was ever substantial enough in the context of the entire operating budget to tip the balance for a decisionmaker with any sense.


Steve LaBonne 09.29.10 at 1:15 pm

The bottom line is that state education bureaucrats have no sense and never need a justification for meddling.


Sufferin' Succotash 09.29.10 at 5:48 pm

Changing from quarters to semesters is a sign of vigorous and farsighted leadership.
The opposite is also true.


Steve LaBonne 09.29.10 at 6:08 pm

Sufferin’, you don’t know how right you are. Because UC, OSU and the others also went from semesters to quarters back in the day because of- wait for it- a state mandate.

As the parent of a UC freshperson I’m not too happy that she’ll have to deal with this (including a drastically shortened summer vacation) halfway through her career. But at least her nice fat scholarship was a good inducement for putting up with it.


Warren Terra 09.29.10 at 10:07 pm

Sufferin’s comment reminds me of one of the great results from research into management and industrial processes: often, the carefully monitored introduction of a change in how the workplace functions will “prove” that the new process is an improvement over the old: it’s more efficient, the workers are more productive, they’re happier, etcetera – but it’s all an artifact of the fact that change is happening, that people are paying special attention, a sort of combination of “the boss is coming – look busy” and “they really do care about my job getting done”.

P.S. I thought the phrase was Thufferin’ Thuccotath?


Antti Nannimus 09.30.10 at 12:31 am


As for me, I would prefer the quarters over the semesters, because they would give me a little less time during which, to fail.

Have a nice day!


djw 09.30.10 at 3:14 pm

including a drastically shortened summer vacation

Really? I don’t think that’s typical. In my experience, summer is about 3.5 months regardless. (On Quarters, early June to late September; on semesters early May to late August).

In general, quarter systems have 33 weeks in a standard year (10 weeks of instruction plus a final week per term) and semester systems 32 (15 weeks of instruction plus a finals week per term). Usually the summers are the same and the extra 1-2 weeks off for semester students come in January.


Steve LaBonne 09.30.10 at 5:40 pm

djw, the (singular) short summer will be the one between the last spring quarter and the first fall semester. The quarters currently start and end later than many schools, the semesters will start and end weeks earlier. So there has to be one very compressed summer break at the transition point. (I think figuring out how to deal with summer-term classes that year may be one of their biggest challenges).


Colin Danby 09.30.10 at 5:48 pm

Weird that the survey just asks about faculty workload. Benefits to students ought to be the key criterion, and in my experience that points toward semesters.


Bedhaya 09.30.10 at 6:51 pm

I was in grad school at University of Chicago, which is on the quarter system. The downside of quarters is indeed the somewhat short summer (because the spring quarter ends in June), and the fact that you are not on the same schedule as other academics (fall quarter starts in October). Personally, I found the 10 week quarter to be good for teaching. My current institution is on the semester system, and it’s taking me a while to get used to it. Frankly, I feel like 15 weeks is just too long for a class! After 10th or 11th week, we have really hit all the major issues and it starts getting repetitive. Also, faculty at schools on the quarter system have an advantage if they have a 2-2 load. They can either spread it out so they teach 2-1-1 over three quarters, or teach 2 courses for two quarters and have the third free of teaching.


Steve LaBonne 09.30.10 at 7:06 pm

I used to teach at a school that was on a trimester calendar, and it’s the worst of both worlds- trying to cram 15 pounds of manure into a 12 pound bag.


mw 09.30.10 at 7:42 pm

Colin —

I’m curious why you think semesters are more beneficial for students. I’ve been on three different systems (tris, quarters, and semesters), and they all seem to have their ups and downs from the student standpoint. My own preference (as a student) is for the quarter system, but only because I share Bedhaya’s worry that semesters tend to be a bit too long. I’m less sure about what full-time teaching would be like with tris or quarters. I remember that the faculty at the college with trimesters were usually exhausted because they often had to teach basically 20 weeks straight (with a short Spring Break) and didn’t feel they had sufficient time to prep for their Spring courses during the Winter term.


Steve LaBonne 09.30.10 at 8:44 pm

The quarter system, which I experienced as a grad student at Northwestern, would also be my preference as a student, in my case too basically for Bedhaya’s reason.


djw 10.01.10 at 2:37 am

Steve–of course. I was thinking in general terms, rather than the transitional summer. I just had that compressed summer myself!

As someone who has done most of my teaching on the quarter system (including a fair bit of adjuncting at Colin’s present institution) but is now in a new semester job, I’d say the advantage for students isn’t necessarily directly perceptible to students. Operating on the assumption that the basic 40-50 contact hour course requires roughly the same amount of workload and material covered (over 10 or 15 weeks, respectively), I think the pace of work–and the additional time for reflection and rumination between assignments and readings and so on–increases the capacity for a thoughtful treatment of the subject. Perhaps as the semester wears on and my students and I grow weary of each other, I’ll change my tune, but the quarter system just always seems cramped and rushed–over just as we’re starting to get somewhere.


virgil xenophon 10.01.10 at 11:35 pm

The college campus in the mid-west I grew up on in the 50s was on the quarter system. My admittedly second-hand observations are that it allows somewhat more flexibility in scheduling from the student’s pov, while administratively, the instructors have to go thru the administrative hassle of the grading process 3 rather than two times. Both my own undergraduate and graduate career at three institutions–all in the South–and terminating in the late 70s consisted of nothing but the semester experience. All in all, I tend to agree with djw, above, about the time for reflective treatment using the semester approach.


sanbikinoraion 10.04.10 at 1:11 am

Wait, you guys are calling 3 terms a year “quarters”? What the hell do they teach you about fractions that side of the pond?


djw 10.04.10 at 11:38 pm

sanbikinoraion, at the quarter schools where I’ve worked, there’s also a summer quarter that most full time students take off. Sometimes they’re maybe a week shorter than the other quarters, but the year is generally equally divided into 4 parts. (Semesters isn’t “thirds” because the summer term isn’t long enough to be a full semester).

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