quarters/semesters

Jim Harris HARRISJI at UVSC.EDU
Tue Jan 2 13:23:23 EST 1996


Having experienced both semesters and quarters, first as a
student and then as a teacher, I strongly prefer quarters. 
The college where I teach (Utah Valley State College) is
the only public college or university in Utah on a semester
system.  There is currently a big push from the state Board
of Regents and from the state legislature to mandate a
switch from quarters to semesters for the other state
colleges and universities, where most faculty are opposed
to the switch.  This seems to be the general pattern:
faculty prefer quarters; administrators prefer semesters.

A few years ago we got a new president who came to us
determined to switch to semesters.  Despite student and
faculty opposition (or at least reluctance), we switched in
1990.  The conversion process itself was a huge
undertaking that was never properly funded, but, as
someone else in this group suggested, the introspection
and examination that went into our curriculum at
conversion was probably beneficial.  Nonetheless, I think
quarters offer some significant advantages.

First, the quarter system allows more entry points,
something that is extremely important, especially at 2-year
institutions.  The student who leaves high school with
below average math skills, for example, has virtually no
hope of successfully completing a College Algebra
requirement--let alone trig and calculus--in four
semesters.  The same is true of other sequenced courses,
such as chemistry.  The six terms available in two years
under a quarter system are a distinct advantage to
students.  This loss of enrollment opportunities can be
partially compensated for by offering block courses, but
this is always a limited option and can't completely resolve
the problem.  Science courses which include a lab, and
particularly demanding courses such as calculus or physics,
just don't work well in the 7 1/2 week format (at least
not when a student is carrying a full load--summers are
another matter). 

In addition, I'm always surprised by statements that
students have more time to absorb material and teachers
have more time to prepare for classes under semesters.  In
the first place, we actually lost hours of classroom
instruction when we went to semesters.  But far more
importantly, the student taking a full load under a quarter
system must only deal with three classes typically, while
the full-time student under semesters has to juggle five. 
Where is the extra time?  The same is true for the
instructor who now must prepare for and deal with five
classes instead of three (we have a 15-hour teaching load).
I certainly have found no additional time.

Field courses represent another problem with semesters. 
Spring quarter is an ideal time to offer outdoor-dependent
courses (like my botany classes).  Temperatures are
pleasant and the plants are blooming.  Under the semester
system there is no good time for these kinds of courses
during the regular academic year.  The second block of
Spring semester is far too cold and wet typically.  Some
work on the first block of Fall semester, but not those that
deal with blooming plants.  These types of classes must
either change to a more abstract, classroom approach or
be pushed to summer when there are far fewer students. 
Not only do we have a difficult time getting sufficient
enrollments, but most of our students who have other
summer plans never have the opportunity to take these
kinds of classes.

I've also noticed a significant increase in student and
instructor burnout at the ends of semesters.  Sixteen weeks
is a long time to stay motivated.  Attendance toward the
end suffers and teachers begin to drag.

Finally, student enrollment drops under semesters.  This is
a bit of a paradox because the head count isn't affected
over the long term and student retention actually improves
under semesters.  In fact, over the last few years we have
actually enrolled more students in Spring semester than
Fall semester (though it looks like that may change this
year).  But our FTE (student full-time equivalent) has
dropped.  Not in absolute numbers--our overall enrollment
growth has been too high for that--but in FTE per student. 
This is subtle, but insidious.  When I compare our FTE per
student for the 3-4 years prior to conversion and compare
it to the years after, I find that even considering the
increased retention under semesters, we simply don't
generate the FTE per student under semesters that we
would under quarters (i.e. given the number of students
enrolled each year, our total FTE is lower than it would
have been with the same number of students under
quarters).  This is probably due to a number of factors: the
fact that students can qualify for full financial aid with less
than 15 hours under semesters, student inability or
unwillingness to deal with five courses simultaneously, and
the high cost of tuition and books for a full semester load.

At UVSC this loss in FTE hasn't been a significant
problem because we have experienced explosive growth
over the last decade.  Our overall enrollment growth has
kept the total FTE climbing, but at institutions with only flat
enrollments, or with enrollment drops, a significant drop in
FTE per student on top of it could be a disaster.

What's done is done at our institution and even those of us
who still don't like the semester system realize that we
need to make the best of it.  I also realize that some
disciplines probably fare better than mine under semesters.
And even I like semesters come the end of April.  But
even though the bulk of my experience as a student and
the majority of my teaching career have been under
semesters, I believe that quarters offer some real
advantages.




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