The Tortoise, Not The Hare

Last week, in my “Students Re-THINK PSU” countdown, I called for switching from quarters to a semester calendar as the number one thing the university could do to help students. Here is why we should make this major change at PSU.

The claims in this article, aside from the comments of students and professors, come from two reports generated from a 2009-2010 investigation of the pros and cons of semesters. PSU departments prepared one report, a “Semester Conversion Study,” for the Oregon University System. Another, “Merits of Semester versus Quarter System,” is a bulleted list that was put out by OUS summarizing the advantages of both systems.

The reports contain a cornucopia of arguments in favor of semesters: 24 in all. Here are some of them.

Learning happens at a deeper level in semesters. “Students need time to absorb new concepts,” the reports say. A semester system “allows underprepared students greater time to adjust to the rigors of university academic life.” I would argue that all of us benefit from a pace that gives you three to four weeks to ease into classes.

“Here, you have to hit the ground running in the first week and stay running,” says Emily Kunkel, a senior political science major.

“Quarters are unforgiving – you don’t really have time to ease into things,” says Dr. Lee Shaker, assistant professor of communication. “If you don’t have your schedule set by the end of the first week, you’ve dug a hole for the entire term.”

Sarah Dunbar can attest to this. A senior accounting major, Dunbar got sick this fall and had to scramble to stay caught up after missing the first week of the term.

Semesters reduce the tendency for course fragmentation. One news writing professor lamented that he can’t really expose students to all the forms of the genre in ten weeks.

Semesters also allow more opportunity for student-faculty contact. “It seems you would get to know your classmates and your professors better,” said Dunbar.

Semesters can be better for faculty members, with more time for course preparation between terms, and for scholarship and research.

“I’d welcome a semester system,” says associate professor of English Paul Collins. “Under the current quarter schedule, there’s the risk of not having sufficient preparation time between the winter and spring quarters. That’s true for professors and students alike. It can be difficult for a student to finish an incomplete, for instance.”

“Pedagogically, semesters probably create a better learning environment for both students and faculty,” said PSU’s Undergraduate Advising and Support Center.

“Converting to semesters is something we can accomplish and there are compelling reasons to do so,” said Admissions, Records, and Registration, a department that would have a lot of work to do in a conversion.

Some semester systems have a reading period, or “dead time.” Kunkel, who experienced a semester calendar in a PSU overseas program in Senegal, spoke of having “a real dead week.” No classes are held, instructors are available for questions and “everyone studies.”

The OUS also lists 21 arguments in favor of quarters. I found very few of these arguments persuasive. Many arguments seemed to be a “stretch” or just plain wrong.

For example, quarters were said to have “more depth and breadth of majors due to a larger variety of courses.” This means little at a school like PSU that is already failing to offer many of its catalog courses regularly.

“The faster pace of quarters means students are less likely to fall behind,” the report said. That is just plain backwards.

Another alleged advantage: “Less time with a professor or student one finds disagreeable.” Really? That’s like saying, “I got robbed on my vacation, but at least I got to come home sooner.”

Of the 21 arguments in favor of quarters, there were a few I found compelling, mainly because they speak to the many nontraditional students at PSU.

“For some students, it may be easier to focus on a subject for a ten-week quarter than for a longer term,” the reports said. “Nontraditional students can enter and leave programs more frequently.”

“I do prefer the quarter system,” says Josh Doll, a senior arts and letters major, who took semester courses at a number of California colleges. “I work very hard in my professional life. Semesters are more demanding of one’s time and mental dedication.

Indeed, many of the students that I talked to who have matriculated through a semester system felt the same as Doll. Danielle Del Rio and Alex Bryant, juniors in art history and arts and letters, respectively, think quarters are “quicker, fast-paced, and there’s no slack off time.”

Kristene Collins also experienced a semester system in a PSU overseas program in China. She found the system too slow, although learning was “slightly more thorough.” She did enjoy the long breaks, such as having January through mid-March off for Chinese New Year.

When he was a student, Shaker preferred quarters. “I felt that professors in semesters often had weeks of padding in their syllabi. Folks in quarters had a tighter plan and wasted less time.”

I still think semesters would work better at PSU. I hate the “race” we are subjected to. If you join student groups, or if you work a lot — forget about it. You’re sprinting and gulping for air.

There are other ways to support nontraditional students besides sticking with quarters. We could institute more mini courses during a semester, and the reports above point out that semesters can do that just as well as quarters can.

Overall, the steady walk of the semester calendar beats the sprint of the quarter system and would make campus less hectic and stressful.