Friday, December 2, 2011

Quarter or semester?

What's the difference in workload between the semester and the quarter systems?

Universities that follow a semester-based calendar usually have 12 to 15 weeks of lecturing during the semester, for a total of 24 to 30 weeks per year; let's say 27 weeks, just for definiteness. Universities that follow a quarter-based calendar have about 10 weeks of lecturing in the quarter, I think, for a total of about 30 weeks per year. That's 3 more weeks of teaching.

In addition, a good part of the work teaching a course is in the initial setup and in the final wrapping-up. The week before the semester or quarter starts is usually occupied by various routine teaching-related tasks, and, after the course ends, it takes about two weeks before the final exam is done, graded, and final course grades are turned in: that's an additional 3 weeks per semester/quarter, so those who are using the quarter system have an extra 3 weeks of that stuff during the year.

3 more weeks of teaching and 3 more weeks of "stuff": that's an additional 6 weeks spent on teaching-related activities - 39 weeks per year instead of 33. For professors, going from the semester to the quarter system is an 18 percent increase in teaching load.


  1. While reading the first two paragraphs of your post, I was unconsciously preparing myself to a conclusion such as "A quarter-based calendar is nice since it gives the lecturers more time to teach what they want to." Then your third paragraph was like "there still are some cons", but anyway I was surprised by your conclusion!

    Yet I do agree with your argument, quarter-based calendars let us less time to do research. We have to reach some compromise between our comfort and the students' interest.

    P.S.: If I am not mistaken, you won't have these problems anymore in a near future...

  2. I am not sure about the other aspects of quarter vs semester. Does the quarter system work out in the students' interest? I have little insight onto that.

    P.S.: You are not mistaken.

  3. There are pluses and minuses:
    *As a student at Toronto I had two 13-week semesters and most CS classes were 2 hours per week plus a tutorial hour. (Though I gather that 3 hours per week is more typical and some semesters are as long as 15 weeks.)
    * Now I teach courses in three 10-week quarters at 3 hours per week plus a tutorial hour. (Some places have 9.5 week quarters.)

    Negatives: For some courses, especially those with projects, the shorter time frame compresses the time between learning the material and having work due on it, which does make it a bit trickier. Also, because of the prevalence of semesters, textbooks are often written for semester courses and the parceling of material make it can feel a more rushed, or even impossible to emulate.

    Positives: One advantage for students is that longer prerequisite chains involving different topics are not as much of a problem. Also, it is a little easier to take fewer, more intense courses in a given term since the length of the commitment is less.

    So how does it feel as an instructor?

    We start a month later than many places: the last Wednesday in September but don't finish until the first week of June. It happens that September is usually a great time for travel and, if you have kids and therefore have to be around, the weather then for hiking in the Seattle area is great. We end about 3 weeks later than most places so STOC as well as FOCS falls during the academic year. We finish at a normal time in fall but start right after the new year. It works out to about 3 weeks between exams and the start of the new term rather than a month and a half, but I don't know how the latter would feel since it was the same at Toronto (though classes there ended mid-April and exams went until the first week of May).

    A positive: With quarters we only do one class at time which is much nicer than the doubling up that was typical at Toronto when I was there. (Though lots of places now only require one semester course per term.)

    One other positive: If you have money, the cost of buying out of a quarter of teaching is a lot less than a whole semester would be.

    A negative: One thing about teaching quarters is that there is no time for napping - everything must be well orchestrated - and you have to be ready for the next milestone in the course because there isn't slack time.

    One aspect that I miss from the Toronto schedule:, classes ended mid-April but everyone had to be around until early May dealing with exams so that time period was the best stretch for visitors, research, etc. However, that kind of thing is not typical at most semester schools.

  4. At my university there was a push to switch from a quarter system to a semester system, but the faculty adamantly opposed it. One of the reasons is that under the quarter system faculty take more frequent sabbaticals. Also, many professors teach the same courses each year possibly reducing the three week prep time.

  5. Overall, which rhythm do you prefer?

    On balance, as a student I would have preferred quarters, but as an instructor, except when teaching an advanced grad course on new material, I would prefer semesters (assuming that the per-term # of courses is the same).

    The lack of slack within each quarter makes it more stressful - maybe that's because we are trying to cram a semester's worth of material in. Also, composing exams is my least favorite part of teaching and quarters increase their number. (Taking exams was never something that bothered me as a student.)

  6. I've been both a student, and a TA or instructor, under both arrangements. I think the pedagogical advantage and disadvantages are a wash.

    The quarter system has the smaller "market share" which introduces a few practical problems: internships are scheduled to align with semester schools, and textbooks are written to cover semester-sized chunks. So students are at a slight disadvantage in the job market, and spend more on textbooks (unless faculty go out of their way to coordinate reusing them).

  7. As a student, one thing that struck me about the quarter system was how relentless it felt -- midterms and finals happened every few weeks, like clockwork.

    I also ran into the "market share" problem mentioned by the other Kevin one year when I was looking for summer research positions (in mathematics): At least half of the programs running that summer were starting at least two weeks before my exams, and wouldn't consider having a student starting/ending late.

    On the other hand, the quarter system meant that I had a bit more flexibility and a bit more variety in the courses outside my major (you can effectively take 50% more "one-of" courses in side areas, even if they're a bit shorter). For me as a student, it sort of felt like a wash.

    As an instructor though, I really feel like that extra 50% is working against me. It's not so much the extra time spent teaching as working with more different groups of students and having to "reset" more times in a year.


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