This page contains relevant extracts from the 2001 study on conversion to semesters which resulted in a "Report of the Task Force on Academic Calendar."
What do faculty and students in the CSU believe to be the relative advantages of quarters and semesters for student learning?
Advantages of semesters
- The pace of a semester is “less stressful” for faculty as well as students. This reason may well be the most frequently cited in favor of semesters. In terms of student learning this translates into more time for the material to “sink in” and to complete assignments, more opportunity to catch up if students get behind due to illness, work or family emergencies (or even procrastination), etc. For the student balancing work, family, and academic work, it increases by 50% the number of weekends to complete assignments (admittedly, more assignments).
- Class periods can be somewhat shorter, helping the attention span of students.
- The greater number of weeks provides more opportunity for research, rewritten papers, field work, service learning, more multi-stage assignments or lab experiments, and so on.
- The ease of creating courses of varying units enables faculty to tailor the curriculum in appropriate sizes for the content to be covered. Although flexibility is present under quarters as well, there is pressure in many departments to conform to a 4-unit course standard.
- Semester calendars can allow for “dead time” enabling students to finish papers, research or projects and prepare for final exams without missing classes near the end of the term.
Note about trimesters: the advantages of semesters should accrue to trimesters as well; for those factors that are literally dependent on an increase in time, trimesters would be just slightly less advantageous.
Advantages of quarters
- Students can focus on somewhat fewer courses at one time, yet take a wider variety of courses overall.
- It is easier to focus on a subject for a 10-week quarter than for a longer term.
- The faster pace of quarters does not allow students to fall behind.
- Longer individual class meetings allow more time for flexible uses, e.g., cooperative learning.
- Since each term is of equal length, both students and faculty know what to expect concerning their workload each time.
- If a student drops out for one quarter, it is only one third of an academic year that is lost, not one half.
- The advantage cited most frequently by students is, frankly, not our favorite: if one doesn’t like the professor or the course, it is over more quickly. Nevertheless, this may contribute to student learning.
What does research say about student learning during quarters vs. semesters?
Very little of the literature contains data on student learning under different academic
calendars, and the data we found are equivocal. Cal State San Bernardino cites a previous
report of their own in 1993 that noted that semester CSU campuses have higher retention
rates than quarter campuses, especially for at-risk students. However, current CSU figures
show no significant calendar-related difference in retention rates. After the University of
Minnesota converted from the quarters to semesters, researchers found no change in student
evaluations of teaching. By contrast, students at Snead State Community College in
Alabama believed they had a greater understanding of the class material due to the adoption
of a semester calendar. At Santa Monica College the average grade of students was higher in
6-week courses than in regular semester courses. Central Missouri State University saw an
overall negative impact in the first year after calendar change to semesters. The proportion
of D, F and withdrawal grades increased. Given the number of factors that could have
produced results such as these, one hesitates to put much stock in the available empirical data
in this area.
In general there is not nearly as much research as one might expect comparing various kinds
of outcomes on quarter and semester calendars. Since we are now in an era of accountability,
there are likely to be more data on various outcomes after a few years of studying recent
calendar changes in universities in Minnesota, Georgia, Utah, Virginia, and Florida.
To what extent will a semester system reduce the variety of courses a student takes?
There are implications for both students and faculty here.
- We will take/teach fewer courses overall—by somewhere between 11% and 33%—depending on the mix of 3- and 4-unit courses that the faculty decides to adopt. Given that lower-division GE courses should probably remain at 3 units to facilitate articulation, the reduction in the number of courses is realistically going to be closer to 15%-20%. Whatever the precise number, there will be some reduction in the variety of courses on semesters.
- Whether or not students are disadvantaged by the decrease in variety seems to depend on the discipline. Students and faculty in some of the more professionally oriented programs find a narrower range of courses a disadvantage with employers. In many of the liberal arts, it makes no significant difference beyond individuals’ preference for variety. Graduate schools, for example, expect most students to come from semester campuses, thus to have the range of courses typical in semester-based major programs.
What are the university fiscal issues?
As we consider fiscal issues, keep in mind that all cost comparisons require the assumption of year-round operation.
Cal State LA’s Quarter-System “Niche” in Recruiting Students
Were we to convert, our quarter “niche” would clearly be lost. We do not know how important this is because we have no data at the present time about the calendar preferences of local high school and community college students. …
Possible FTES Decline in the First Few Years After Conversion
It is very likely that FTES (Full-Time Equivalent Students) will decline. There are several factors that might contribute to such a decline.
- Students have a propensity to continue taking the same number of courses after calendar
conversion, so the average unit load might decline. Other campuses have found that their current students were likely to resist taking even one additional course each semester at first. Typically this lasts only until their current students graduate. There can be a financial factor at work here as well. As pointed out above, for purposes of fee payments 6 units is “part-time”; 6.1 or higher units is “full-time.”
- Students who fear possible disruption during the transition process might react in one of two ways:
- Some might transfer from our campus to a neighboring campus that chooses to remain on the quarter system. (Some students from Dominguez Hills finished their degrees at CSLA in the 1980s.)
- Some might accelerate their schedule to graduate before conversion takes place. Other campuses that have converted to the semester system have had a slight increase in FTES during the transition years.
- There is also a belief that sound planning and recruitment, increased and focused advisement, incentives for students to maintain present loads, and a longer lead-time before conversion would go a long way toward reducing an FTES decline.
- Note that even campuses such as Dominguez Hills (whose students’ average number of units per term remained depressed since conversion) have increased their total numbers of students, so also ultimately increased their FTES.
What are the major changes that would have to be made during conversion?
- Every academic course and program will need to be revised.
- All of these revisions will need to go through curricular approval process (one hopes, a streamlined process).
- New articulation agreements must be developed.
- Students who will be completing their degrees after conversion must receive extensive advising. This is a crucial to ensure that students are not disadvantaged by the transition and understand the importance of keeping their number of units up. (A post-conversion corollary is that faculty must make accommodations to enable students to finish their degrees without being penalized by the conversion.)
- Every campus system that relates to curriculum (catalogs, class schedules, room assignments, faculty work assignments, etc.) or to student advising, registration, enrollment, financial aid, degree audits for graduation, recruitment of new students, etc. must be modified to reflect and implement the changes.
Campuses on quarters
The 2001 report lists Bakersfield, Hayward, Los Angeles, Pomona, San Bernardino, and San Luis Obispo as quarter campuses. There has been no change since then.