A deeper look at our love/hate relationship with the quarter system

    Bouncing between semesters and quarters, Patrick Jiang thinks it’s all a matter of getting used to. The Weinberg sophomore transferred from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the fall of 2009, and says the most recognizable difference between the two systems is the pacing.

    “With quarters, you are definitely more busy and spend more time in academia,” Jiang says.

    It’s irony at its finest, this relationship with quarters. In theory, it allows for a broader range of classes, forces students to manage their time and allows for a well-rounded educational experience. Relaxing and quarters are an anathema to each other. The system is a Sisyphean effort — Northwestern students are condemned to push a boulder of work up a hill until it gets to the top, whereupon it only rolls back down again.

    Ohio State University is moving from quarters to semesters beginning in fall 2012; have their students finally had enough?

    According to Steven Fink, faculty fellow for OSU’s Office of Student Affairs, the transition from quarters to semesters was fueled primarily by upper-level administration.

    “The Chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents put a strong emphasis on increasing access to higher education in Ohio,” Fink said. “He has promoted increasing coordination, articulation and transferability among all Ohio institutions of higher education… urging all Ohio institutions of higher education to adopt the same basic calendar model.”

    Fink also noted the semester system will enhance compatibility with OSU’s peer institutions.

    “Students will be better served by a semester calendar in numerous ways, including earlier entry into the summer job market and facilitating summer study-abroad programs,” he said.

    Oh yes. Imagine all the things you could do with semesters. There would be more variety in the amounts of work in any given week, greater compatibility with friends’ vacations and a more relaxed learning pace.

    “There’s some flexibility with semester schedules,” says Caroline Broler, freshman at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. “In my literature and history classes, my professors have been able to reorganize the syllabus so we could spend more time on a topic students enjoyed. I don’t think they’d be able to make such changes if there was more of a time crunch.”

    Bryce Kershey, a Purdue sophomore, notes the time element as a positive aspect of semesters. “It’s an efficient time span to cover a good amount of material and to form a relationship with professors, TAs and other students in each course.”

    On the flipside, quarters minimize the suffering of painful classes: ten weeks of hell versus 16.

    “I think the semester system is a good way of taking a wide array of classes while still having the time over the semester to cover them with depth,” says University of Wisconsin-Madison junior Doug Gschneidner. “It has the advantage of splitting up the work load for a class over a period of time, so it is easier to study for a given class.”

    Yet Jiang argues counter to Gschneidner’s assertion, noting that the length of semesters actually works against students in the end.

    “With semesters, you’re free for a while and then all of a sudden, finals hit,” Jiang explains. “There aren’t that many quizzes or midterms. At Northwestern, we have quizzes every week and you have to be prepared because there’s always something to hit you. At U of I it’s definitely more relaxed… but when it comes to midterms and finals, semesters are more difficult. You cover more, it’s cumulative and there are a lot of things to remember.”

    SESP sophomore Madelaine Kukanza also recognizes the benefits of quarters, such as the opportunity to take more classes.

    “I like [quarters] in general,” she says. “I like to take a lot of classes and also that the ones I don’t like are over faster. However, sometimes it stresses me out especially when midterms come around and we have so little time to accomplish all our work.”

    One major difference Jiang experienced in his transition to Northwestern was the sequence classes.

    “It’s a big difference for a semester student,” Jiang says. “I never had those 111-1, 111-2 or 111-3 types of things. You finished class in a semester and you’re pretty much done with it – it’s not like next quarter where there’s still something pertaining to that class.”

    When it comes to balancing responsibilities, we at Northwestern may think we have it bad. But in reality, college students all around are working to balance schoolwork, a social life and a job, as OSU junior Kevin Hidas points out.

    “I manage to work about 7 hours a week for OSU giving campus tours, take about 20 hours of classes a quarter, while also training for marathons, participating in a couple clubs, playing intramural hockey and spending time with friends,” Hidas says. “I constantly have to prioritize my many activities… but I enjoy being busy and get easily bored when I don’t have things to do.”

    Northwestern students certainly recognize the difficulties of a quarter system and the challenges it presents.

    Another drawback is the scheduling of the quarters. OSU junior Eric Langenderfer references the difficulty of coordinating summer internships because his school year goes so late.

    “By the time [it’s] my first day, some of the interns from other universities have already been there for a month or more,” Langenderfer says. “This summer, I will start my internship the Monday after finals week because it is the last day for my employer’s summer orientation session. It would be nice to get out a little earlier and have the option of taking at least a week or two off before starting work for the summer.”

    Because of the mixed sentiments about quarters and semesters, both Langenderfer and Hidas support OSU’s change.

    “But I sure would not want to be here when it happens,” Langenderfer adds. “That conversion is going to be crazy for everyone — students, professors, advisors… I’m just glad it’ll be after I’ve already graduated.”

    The question remains: Is this change something Northwestern should emulate?

    Martinez and Communication sophomore Jonathan Young certainly think so. While Martinez emphasizes the benefits of having more time, Young thinks a change to semesters would alter both the teaching and learning process in an advantageous way.

    “By changing to semesters, we as students can really dive into material on a deeper level than what we’re currently at,” Young states. “Most students cram and regurgitate on exams, but if we move to a semester system, students will be able to really understand the material and know what they’re writing on exams. It would add to the quality of life, and make Northwestern just a better place to be.”

    Yet Kukanza disagrees. “I much prefer the system as it is right now,” she states.

    “There hasn’t been a serious concerted effort for discussion,” says Patrick Martin of the Northwestern University Registrar.

    According to Patrick Martin of the Northwestern University Registrar, a change to semesters has floated around, although not formally discussed.

    “There hasn’t been a serious concerted effort for discussion. We’ve had to in the past because various schools at Northwestern have changed over time and we currently have schools at the university that follow different calendars,” Martin says.

    The six undergraduate schools of the Evanston campus are all on the quarter system, said Martin, but the School of Law and Northwestern University in Qatar are on semesters.

    “There are different academic calendars in the different academic entities at NU,” Martin says. “It’s extremely difficult to manage those different ones.”

    Martin says the benefits and drawbacks to a switch must be considered from administrative and pedagogic perspectives.

    Dean of Students Burgwell Howard also agrees with Martin’s assessment. “Pedagogically, I think that it probably better to have 15 weeks to really delve into material for a course.”

    Howard notes he has not been directly involved in any conversations regarding a review of Northwestern’s academic calendar.

    “I do know that it is a question President Schapiro has been asking of students this fall,” Howard says. “I think he has been a bit surprised at how wedded students have been to the quarter system.”

    While students may have difficulty seeing past the never-ending rounds of midterms, mountains of reading and constant time pressure, the fast pace of the quarter system also proves to be a challenge for the Office of the Registrar, according to Martin.

    “We’re in the middle of enrolling for spring term and my office just sent [requests] to academic departments,” he explains. “We’re in winter quarter, registering for spring and we’re asking departments what they’re going to teach in the fall – we drive them crazy.”

    “It boils down to a love/hate relationship. Of course we’ll complain. Of course we’ll whine.”

    Martin says that it’s fair to say the semester system is predominant in United States.

    “That puts us on a different calendar. Is that a disadvantage or not?” Martin speculates. “Siblings and families may on a different calendar, so that could be a bit of a disadvantage. I know our freshman students are anxious to get here. All friends have left hometown and gone off to school, building up a lot of anticipation. Does that mean if we’re waiting around we should change? Not necessarily.”

    It boils down to a love/hate relationship. Of course we’ll complain. Of course we’ll whine. However, we are accustomed to the fast-paced and intense manner of learning, which have become institutionalized in the Northwestern social norm.

    “The decision ought to be based primarily on education,” Martin says.

    Full disclosure: Madelaine Kukanza has previously written for North by Northwestern.


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