College Quarters versus Semesters
Colleges and universities in the U.S. have debated the effectiveness of the quarter system versus the semester system. Although there are currently more colleges using two-term semester calendars, the colleges that have remained loyal to the quarter system defend its benefits.
Semesters are usually divided into 15- or 16-week sessions with a long break in the middle. Fall semester typically begins in August or early September and lasts until December, and spring semester lasts from January until May. Colleges operating on this schedule usually require students to take three to five classes a semester.
Longer courses mean that students have more time to absorb material and master subjects during their time in class. Professors and instructors can spend more time teaching and lecturing, so semester classes tend to be more elaborate and multidisciplinary with longer time between deadlines.
For students who start classes with low marks, there also are more opportunities to recover from subpar grades since there are more papers and exams in semester-long classes. Most colleges today argue that semester systems are better suited for college students.
Although students tend to take more classes at once during a semester, ultimately they won't take as many classes as those on the quarter system: eight to 10 classes for semester colleges versus nine to 12 classes for quarter colleges. Though this might sound ideal to some, it can be limiting for those who want to pursue minor or double majors. There also are fewer breaks during the year despite longer breaks out of term.
The quarter system divides the year into four terms, although students technically are only required to take classes during the fall, winter and spring terms. The summer term is usually reserved for extra classes or study-abroad opportunities. The year begins in September and ends in June. Students typically take three or four classes each term.
Colleges on the quarter system claim that students benefit from the frequent changes in pace throughout the year. Students can take up to 12 (or sometimes even more) classes per year, allowing them to learn about a wider range of subjects. Quarter systems also encourage students to study abroad more often since they'll only be gone for 10-week periods (rather than a longer summer break). Many students on the quarter system also appreciate the extra break in March or April between winter and spring quarter, as well as the ability to take classes during the summer.
Many scholars argue that longer periods of time are necessary for developing brains to truly take in new information, so 10-week classes can be stressful for students. Though the quarter system is good for students who perform well under pressure, sometimes that pressure can be detrimental rather than beneficial. Quarter-long courses also count for fewer credits that semester-long classes, occasionally making it difficult for students to transfer or study at other institutions.