The case for quarters instead of semesters

By Edridge D'Souza

(Jessica Picard/Collegian)

We’re slightly more than halfway through the semester and it’s starting to take its toll. The semester system turns every course into a 14-week marathon, leaving us all fatigued around this point. Unfortunately, the last month of the semester is usually the most intense, and this is proving no exception.

The University of Massachusetts Amherst, along with 71.2 percent of universities, operates on the semester system, in which the academic year is divided into two main halves, both around 14 weeks each. Other universities, such as the University of Chicago and the majority of the University of California system, operate on quarters, with the academic year divided into a trimester system of autumn, winter and spring sections, plus the option of summer classes. These are somewhat shorter, an average 12 weeks per term. Much more rarely, universities, like Worcester Polytechnic Institute, use a variation of the quarter system in which the academic year comprises of four terms with each being seven weeks long.

While all of these systems have their pros and cons, UMass could stand to benefit from adopting the quarter system. In general, a quarter system with breaks between each quarter allows students to have shorter, more focused semesters. In a quarter system, students generally take fewer classes at a time, but spend more time in each of their classes. This poses the benefit of providing a better work-life balance. If the average student is taking fewer courses at a time, they also have fewer different things to worry about. The tradeoff here is that while there will be fewer classes, these classes will likely be more intensive if they aim to cover the same amount of material in less time.

In a quarter system, there is greater flexibility when it comes to course selection. When there are three terms in a year — not including the summer session — there is less pressure to take required courses in any specific semester. The net result is that, for courses offered year-round, the average student will have more opportunities to sign up for the courses that they want. Additionally, because there is less pressure to sign up for classes when they become available, the average class size will also become smaller. For a large university like UMass, this may potentially solve many of the negative stigmas associated with large public schools.

Again, there are tradeoffs to be made here. With an additional term squished into the year, there is more opportunity for bureaucratic hang-ups that may clog up the registration system. And with more intensive classes, it may be easier for students to fall behind. However, I believe that a well-prepared registration system can mitigate the effects of the additional term, and the intensity of each class is offset by the shortened timeframe.

Of course, this is all very hypothetical. Chances are slim that UMass would ever change the system we have in the near future. However, as we try to climb in the national rankings, it would be interesting to experiment with different learning styles to see how they could affect the student population.

Perhaps UMass could implement a system in which students can sign up for a certain type of intensive course that runs on the quarter or trimester system, concurrently with “regular” courses on the semester system. This would provide more flexibility to students who want to take extra courses, while it also grants the University some flexibility in terms of experimenting with new learning styles. It also gives students some breathing room when registering for the courses they’re required to take.

While the quarter system may not be for everyone, UMass should experiment with different class styles in order to assess its educational benefit. My intuition is that this system may be unfeasible to convert the entire University, but it may be just what we need for certain specific classes. At any rate, if we want UMass’ reputation among public schools to increase, we should be doing more to assess the benefits of alternative class styles.

Edridge D’Souza is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected].