Quarter system’s flexibility exceeds benefits of its semester counterpart
Chancellor Gene Block told the Daily Bruin Editorial Board in March that he supported switching to the semester system. It’s a flawed and foolhardy gambit to do so. (Daily Bruin file photo)
By Stephen Wyer
April 18, 2019 11:14 p.m.
I transferred to UCLA from a small, New England liberal arts school in 2018. The quarter system, with its fast-paced, high-stress reputation, was one of my greatest fears.
It’s now one of the things I love most about UCLA.
Last month, Chancellor Gene Block told the Daily Bruin Editorial Board he favors a move to the semester system. The board subsequently published an editorial advocating for the switch and argued that an in-depth educational experience offered by 15-week semesters would be superior to that of 10-week quarters.
And in recent decades a number of universities, including UC Berkeley, have switched over to semesters.
Others haven’t. The University of Chicago’s student body voted overwhelmingly against such a move in the 1990s, according to Rene Ong, an astronomy and physics professor. The issue was settled by UCLA faculty in 2003 when the Academic Senate voted to retain the quarter system.
That’s because the quarter system has enormous strengths.
It allows for greater flexibility for faculty doing research. Professors can teach for two quarters and devote one to research in their respective fields, a dynamic that’s unique to the quarter system.
Students also have an advantage, as they are able to take more classes, including courses outside their comfort zones. The quarter system also gives students more opportunities to boost their GPAs with more classes.
Completely overhauling UCLA’s academic calendar by switching to semesters is not only unnecessary but also disadvantageous. Regardless of Block’s statement, students should rest assured the quarter system is in many ways superior to semesters.
Quarter system aficionados frequently point to how the structure keeps students interested in their classes with a fresh start every 10 weeks and allows them to explore other subject areas.
“If you have a bad experience with a particular course or professor, it’s less disruptive to your academic experience because it’s only 10 weeks with that course or person,” Ong said.
Ong is right. With semesters, the cost of taking an unpleasant course is higher. This discourages students from taking classes outside of their majors, meaning they miss out on opportunities to gain a more holistic education. Moreover, it can be difficult and frustrating for students to retain information they learned three months prior for their final exams.
The quarter system also allows for an in-depth understanding of class material in its own way. If a subject isn’t adequately explored within 10 weeks, it can be broken up into multiple courses, which allows the topic to be further explored.
“In some subjects, you actually learn more in-depth on quarters than semesters,” Ong said. “If you can’t cover a topic properly in 10 weeks, you can spend another quarter on it, which gives you more time than with a semester.”
The shorter classes in the quarter system also better help students unsure of what field of study to pursue, said Vanessa Renteria, a third-year international development studies student.
“If you’re searching for a subject you enjoy, it can be really helpful to be able to swap classes three times over the course of the year, as opposed to just twice,” said Derrick Thai, a first-year biology student.
Faculty can also devote one full quarter to research in their fields, an opening that doesn’t exist in the semester system.
Willeke Wendrich, a professor in the Near Eastern languages and cultures department, said the research freed up by UCLA’s schedule is invaluable to both professors and students.
“On the whole, I think the quarter system works better,” Wendrich said. “If students want to do a research project, it’s much easier to organize in the quarter system than semesters.”
Wendrich said quarters are crucial to her work as an archaeologist, as being able to take off the winter quarter is necessary for her to do her field work.
The quarter system’s benefits to both faculty and students should give pause to those pushing for change. UCLA has developed into the No. 1 university in the nation via the quarter system. Completely switching the university’s academic calendar to the semester system would be both unnecessary and unwise.
It could be said that such a system unfairly prioritizes research at the expense of students. Some departments’ courses can seem truncated in the 10-week format because of how rushed and lacking in thorough instruction they might be. Semester advocates would point to this an example of how quarters might benefit faculty research, but not students.
Yet in the vast majority of cases, professors can adapt subjects to quarters without hurting the educational experience, Wendrich said. Additionally, graduate and undergraduate students can more easily participate in research for a quarter, as opposed to a semester.
The grass always seems greener when it comes to the opposite side of the academic calendar. But the truth is, semesters have their own flaws – UC Berkeley is still only the No. 2 school, after all.