What Are the Semester and Quarter Systems?
In the United States, colleges and universities use different academic calendars or schedules. The two most common are the semester system and the quarter system.
A semester system consists of two 15-week terms: one in the fall (followed by a winter break) and one in the spring (followed by a summer break). In this setup, the average full-time student takes five courses per term, or roughly 15 credits. A semester school year typically starts in late August and concludes in early May. About 95% of U.S. institutions of higher education operate on a semester calendar.
A quarter system consists of four 10-week sessions: fall, winter, spring, and summer. In this format, the average full-time student takes 3-4 courses per term, or 9-12 credits. An academic year on the quarter system usually runs mid-September through early June. The fourth (and optional) summer quarter allows students to take more classes and possibly graduate early.
I have taught college on both the semester system and the quarter system, so I am keenly aware of the pros and cons of each — for students and professors alike. Let's first tackle the advantages of the two types of academic calendars.
Advantages of a Semester System
Most benefits of the semester system derive from its length. Because terms last roughly 15 weeks each (as opposed to the quarter system's 10 weeks), the semester system automatically yields several academic advantages for students and professors.
Some experts claim that students who take semester-long courses have ample time to learn and digest new material, as well as to create and complete assignments. This extra time may be especially helpful for graduate students, who are often required to complete lengthy and rigorous assignments.
Again, because its sessions run five weeks longer than the quarter system's, the semester system can feel less hectic and stressful for both students and professors. This more leisurely pace can positively impact both learning and teaching.
A Natural Transition
Since the semester system closely aligns with most high school and community college schedules, it allows traditional college students to adjust more easily to the newness of university life.
Short Class Periods
Class periods on the semester system are usually shorter than those on the quarter system, lasting 50-75 minutes. Therefore, they can accommodate the attention span of most college students.
A semester calendar year provides more opportunities for student-faculty contact. Students who fall behind due to illness or who are performing poorly may be able to salvage a grade if they remain in frequent contact with their professors.
While teaching on the semester calendar, faculty members have more time to prepare courses between terms and to engage in their own scholarship and research.
Advantages of a Quarter System
Like a semester system, a quarter system's benefits derive from length, condensed though it may be. The 10-week terms of a quarter calendar offer several academic advantages for both students and professors.
Students on the quarter system get to experience more courses and interact with more faculty members than those on the semester system. As this joint study reports, by the time of graduation, students on the quarter system take roughly six more courses (or 18 credits) than those on the semester system. Having more options permits students to try out different majors, attempt a double major, make up for academic failures, and register for elective courses they may not otherwise pursue.
Full-time students on the quarter system take fewer subjects at one time (3-4 classes). As a result, they may find it easier to focus and succeed in each course.
Less Fretting Time
Shorter terms mean students do not have to spend as much time in a class or with a professor they find disagreeable. The same goes for professors: Managing a rowdy class or a combative student is usually much easier to do for 10 weeks than 15.
Having shorter breaks between quarters (as opposed to a long winter break and a long summer break) helps some students stay focused on their studies and makes it easier for them to recall prerequisite material.
Instructors Teaching Specialities
Professors teaching on the quarter calendar have more opportunities to teach their chosen fields of study instead of only curriculum requirements. For example, a comparison of psychology, English, and political science courses at UCLA (which operates on the quarter system) and UC Berkeley (which does not) reveals that UCLA offers 45% more courses in each department, on average.
It is easier for faculty to take a sabbatical (i.e., paid time away from classroom teaching) to focus on their research in a quarter system. This is because they can still fit annual teaching requirements into the other two quarters.
Disadvantages of the Semester System and the Quarter System
While both the semester calendar and the quarter calendar clearly benefit both college students and instructors, they also have drawbacks.
On the semester system, students who wish to switch majors may end up taking — and paying for — courses they do not need, often up to 15 credits. Conversely, a student switching majors on the quarter system likely would not have given up that amount of time and money. Additionally, a student in a semester calendar who fared poorly in a course may also have a harder time improving her overall GPA since each term carries a larger weight as compared to quarter terms.
On the quarter system, students may have a hard time landing internships because businesses generally set internship program dates around a semester schedule. Similarly, quarter system students may also be ineligible for study-abroad programs, which often run on a semester schedule. In short, the quarter system may cause students to miss out on potentially life-changing opportunities.
Transferring Schools and Calculating Semester vs. Quarter Units
Colleges and universities in the U.S. that operate on a semester system award semester credits, and those that operate on a quarter system award quarter credits. So how does a student transfer successfully from one system to the other? Moreover, how does the new school count those earned credits?
Quarter system schools convert incoming semester credits to quarter credits. Generally, academic advisors are instructed to multiply any transferred credits by 1.5. At the University of Washington, for example, "a student who earns 30 credits in an institution on a semester calendar would have earned 45 quarter credits at the UW."
In the same way, students transferring quarter credits to semester credits would divide quarter credits by 1.5. For instance, if a UW student transferred into a program at Walla Walla Community College with 5 quarter credits, she would now have 3.3 semester credits.
Prospective transfer students should know that many schools allow only a certain number of transfer credits — usually around 60. It may be helpful to bookmark a quarter-to-semester conversion calculator like the one from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.
So Which System Is Better?
I enjoyed teaching on the semester system, and I enjoyed teaching on the quarter system. I understand and have experienced the pros and cons of each. So which do I prefer? That depends on the subject matter I tackled, the assignments I required, and the number of students registered, and I would think the same is true for students who are asked the same question.