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Quarter system better for students and faculty


A brief glimpse into how the UCLA calendar has changed throughout the decades
"¢bull;1966: All UCs switch to a year-round quarter system.
"¢bull;1969: Because of financial issues, summer quarter is dropped.
"¢bull;1978: UCLA School of Law switches back to semester system.
"¢bull;1983: UC Berkeley switches back to semester system.
"¢bull;1987: UCLA School of Medicine switches back to semester system.
"¢bull;2004: UC Merced begins with semester system.
SOURCE: UCLA Academic Senate


UCLA's history of debating quarters versus semesters
"¢bull;1971: Faculty poll taken. Majority want semester system, but no change is made because of other issues.
"¢bull;1975-1977: Another poll says faculty favor semester system while students prefer quarter system, but no change is made.
"¢bull;1985: UCLA considers semester system, but faculty votes to keep quarter system.
"¢bull;1990: UCLA professional schools are given flexibility for academic-calendar
"¢bull;1994: Switch to semester system is considered as a cost-saving mechanism, but analysis is inconclusive on whether there would be any savings.
"¢bull;2001-2002: Switch to semester system is considered, but faculty decides against it.
SOURCE: UCLA Academic Senate

By Asad Ramzanali

Sept. 19, 2010 2:10 a.m.

It has always been odd to start school a month later than friends who attend semester-system schools.

And the reason we do this, the nontraditional quarter system, has been a topic of debate since it was instituted in the late 1960s.

The last time UCLA seriously considered switching back to the semester system was 2002, and it will inevitably be brought up again.

Less than 15 percent of schools have the quarter system, according to Judith Smith, vice provost for undergraduate education.

And the disadvantages of this system are clear. Most study-abroad programs and summer internships are geared for the semester system, each professor has a third less time to teach an academic topic, administrative tasks are increased for everyone because we register for classes three times a year instead of two, and complex subject areas are often too much to teach in one single quarter (but not enough to stretch into two).

But when it comes down to it, the quarter system’s advantages are much more important for students and faculty.

First of all, having three grading periods per school year instead of two means more classes. Quarter-system students normally take three to four classes per quarter while semester students tend to take four to five classes per grading period. On average, quarter-system students take six more classes than semester-system students in their undergraduate careers.

This means we, on the quarter system, can comfortably take more classes for interest (ones that do not meet requirements for graduation) in more departments, allowing us to graduate with knowledge in more fields.

Secondly, it also allows professors to teach their specialties instead of just curriculum requirements.

UCLA can get away with teaching electives, such as sport psychology, arms control and international security or (literary) fictions of Cold War, because it is much easier for professors to teach one quarter of their specialty than one semester when they have other teaching requirements, like teaching intro classes.

A comparison of UCLA and UC Berkeley’s class offerings in psychology, English and political science shows that UCLA offers significantly more courses in each department (61 percent, 37 percent and 43 percent more, respectively).

So not only do quarter-system students get to take more classes, but we also have a wider array of classes to choose from.

Thirdly, the quarter system’s 10-week schedule is better for learning. It is pretty normal to expect midterms Week 3 through Week 8 of each quarter.

Because we are always on our feet during the quarter, we do not fall into academic lulls. And because there are fewer lectures in a period, each class is much more valuable on the quarter system, and skipping a class hurts students more. While this by no means says we don’t skip classes, it means it is indeed harder to do.

Another advantage the quarter system offers is that faculty can take a period off of teaching much more easily to focus on their research. This becomes much more difficult on the semester system.

According to Raymond Knapp, who was the Undergraduate Council chair when UCLA last debated switching calendars, this gives UCLA an advantage in hiring faculty. Our faculty’s salaries are relatively low compared to institutions of our caliber, and the cost of living in Los Angeles is high.

But faculty can take a quarter off to focus on their research, fitting their annual teaching requirements into two quarters, according to Robert Kirsner, professor of Dutch and Afrikaans.

Knapp, who is currently the chair of the College Faculty Executive Committee, admits there are problems in the quarter system but believes they can be solved while retaining our calendar.

Some of these problems are not easily fixable: Fitting the quarter system to start in August and end in May for summer internships and study-abroad purposes does not seem feasible.

But the Education Abroad Program offers many programs for quarter students to study abroad, and internships friendly to the quarter system can be found through BruinView.

There are issues that can be discussed and solved.

Currently, the UC quarter does not have a reading period that many semester schools, including UC Berkeley, have between the end of classes and the start of exams. This is something some have advocated for because it gives students time to think about and research final projects and paper assignments.

It would also give students time to further learn and internalize class material and could easily be added with some shifting of the calendar. I doubt many people would be opposed to starting in the middle of September versus the end, because that would still be a late start relative to other schools in the nation.

While this debate is probably not something faculty members are thinking about in the middle of the UC budget’s Great Depression, the academic calendar debate is one that recurs every few years.

Many professors at the university are tired of the recurring debate, citing the difficulty of changing calendars and rewriting curriculums. But it’s an issue worth discussing because UCLA’s needs are dynamic and changing.

The semester system may be right one day in the future, but as for now, the administration should keep UCLA on the quarter system. Tweaking the schedule to incorporate a reading period is also something to consider.

Other than that, UCLA’s quarter system is as good as it gets, and we as students have a better academic experience because of it.

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Asad Ramzanali
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