For Teachers Updated November 17, 2017

Semesters vs. Quarters: Which System Serves Students Best?

By The Room 241 Team November 5, 2012

The debate over whether secondary and post-secondary schools should use the semester vs. quarter schedule has been ongoing for years.

Over the last couple of decades the semester scheduling for all schools, specifically college, has had the lead because of students’ learning capabilities and other factors. There are a number of reasons why K-12 schools and colleges and universities choose semester over quarter scheduling.

Currently, 71.2 percent of colleges use the semester calendar, while just 14.7 percent use the quarter calendar, according to the National Association of College Stores. The association surveyed 4,373 institutions to find these statistics. Further, institutions of higher learning that use a semester calendar increased from 62 percent to 70 percent between 1990 and 2001, according to the American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers. This proves that in the semester vs. quarter debate, the semester is winning out.

Semester vs. quarter compared

Job opportunities

In quarter calendars, students generally graduate one month after their semester calendar peers. That means that the number of job opportunities has decreased by the time quarter college students finish school. In times when the economy is fickle, timing can be everything for recent graduates. Semester calendar students, therefore, have an advantage over their counterparts when finding employment after school.

Transfer students

One of the biggest problems with the quarter calendar is that it makes it difficult for students to transfer from two-year colleges. The majority of the two-year colleges function on a semester calendar and often the quarter calendar universities’ schedule does not line up correctly. What this means for transfer students is that they have to wait until the following semester to enter a four-year institution.

Advantages of a semester calendar

In the depth over breadth argument, the longer exposure allowed in a semester calendar allows for better quality of instruction. Rather than learn just the facts, students have more time to learn theories and generalizations. Students need time to absorb new concepts, and forcing them to learn quicker proves inadequate in education.

For students attending college right out of high school, the semester calendar allows for adjustment into academic life. They have more time to prepare for the rigors required by universities. When halfway through a course and a student realizes they are having trouble, they still have time to work and improve their performance.

Many of the current textbooks are written specifically for semesters. Moreover, the extra time allows for greater collaboration with not only peers but with faculty and students. By also eliminating one examination week and one registration period, there is an increase in the amount of effective instructional time.

In general, more time means better quality education and overall instruction capabilities in the semester vs. quarter debate.

Argument for quarters

While there are distinct advantages to semesters that deal mostly with extended time, quarter calendar schools provide more flexibility and more options.

The decrease in the amount of time spent in a classroom, generally 10 weeks, means that some students may find it easier to focus on each of their subjects. Furthermore, students may be more apt to experiment with their elective courses and may vary their courses because they are shorter. Not only that, but students can also experience different faculty members in those different courses, providing greater variety.

Double majors or minors may be easier for quarter students because of the variety of courses they are allowed to take. Also, if a student falls behind, they have plenty of opportunities to make up their GPA. Moreover, they are less likely to fall behind since the courses are so short, providing a greater chance to succeed.

When it comes to professors and/or courses, if students find either disagreeable they have a shorter time commitment. When the 10 weeks are up, they can switch to another course or another professor they find more agreeable.

Perhaps the best pro quarter argument in the semester vs. quarter debate is that the quarter calendar has shorter winter and spring breaks. Students are therefore able to remain focused on their education since they have less downtime.

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