quarter vs. semester

Bill Purves purves at MUDDCS.CS.HMC.EDU
Sat Dec 30 01:34:31 EST 1995


H. L. Griffith requests:

> Please respond with your opinions and information on the pros and cons of the 
> quarter or semester system in colleges.

I submit that this is one of the classic recurrent non-issues of
academe.  If one of these systems were objectively better than the
other it would have taken over American higher education years
ago.  Each side has impassioned partisans, but nobody has
access to an ultimate truth...

My impression is that most people favor the system they experienced
as an undergraduate (but I don't have a passionate attachment to
this impression ;-)

I experienced 12 quarters as a Caltech undergraduate.  This was
followed by six semesters leading to a Yale PhD.  Setting aside
postdocs and sabbaticals (in which quarters-vs-semesters SURELY
doesn't matter)... during my 12 years at UCSB we were first on
semesters and later on quarters (they may be back to semesters
by now); eight semesters at UConn; 36 semesters at Harvey Mudd
College.  By my rule/impression, I should and do have a very
mild preference for quarters.

Seriously:  The quarter system seems too rushy to many people.
The semester system led to awkward scheduling until some schools
discovered a calendar giving a full semester before the Dec/Jan
break and an equal, full semester after that.  Thus far it looks
as if semesters make more sense.  But wait a minute... under
the quarter system you can (in my opinion) get a somewhat more
interesting mixture of courses (for one-term courses you can
get 3 instead of 2, but more interestingly you have the
opportunity to offer 1-, 2-, and 3-quarter courses).  One of
the things I liked best about my undergraduate years under the
quarter system was the chance to taste more courses than would
have been possible under semesters.  BUT you can argue that 
fewer/longer/deeper courses are better.  BUT you don't have
to agree with THAT argument either.

Frankly, I think it would be best to change an institution's
calendar back and forth between semesters and quarters approximately
every five years... this would force people/departments to rethink
their courses.  If the change weren't too frequent, people couldn't
just dust off their courses from the previous incarnation of
the "new" scheme.

Most of all, what I believe is that nobody should get too excited
over this issue.  There are legions of more important educational
issues.

(bill)

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