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Opinion: With flaws laid bare by pandemic, UCLA’s quarter system needs reconsideration

The pandemic has made painfully clear the never-ending workload of the quarter system is out of date and harmful to students. UCLA needs to take another look at switching to a semester system. (Daily Bruin file photo)

By Eve Boyd

Dec. 11, 2020 8:16 p.m.

The quarter system has long been a source of controversy.

And the pandemic has only made the system’s shortcomings even more clear.

In 2019, Chancellor Gene Block called it a failed system and advocated for UCLA to switch to semesters. Abandoning the quarter system could reduce unnecessary stress for students and give them more breathing room when it comes to the mad rush of exams, Block said.

The frantic pace of the quarter system already made life difficult for students even before the pandemic fundamentally changed everything about how higher education operates.

The added stress of the COVID-19 pandemic and the transition to remote instruction has only exacerbated the challenges of the quarter system, ultimately increasing its frenzied nature. Now, with the certainty that winter quarter will be online and the strong possibility that spring quarter will be too, UCLA administration needs to take a closer look at how the quarter system and the strain of the pandemic affect students’ well-being and make meaningful progress to better accommodate students moving forward.

The quarter system has a long and convoluted history. Tobias Higbie, a history professor and chair of the labor studies degree program at UCLA who has taught both semesters and quarters, said the UC campuses made a calculated decision to switch to the quarter system in the 1960s to make higher education accessible to the masses. But in order to streamline the college experience and make it more efficient, certain compromises had to be made.

As a result, students are kept on a hamster wheel of constantly studying for midterms and finals, which makes it more stressful to stay on top of classwork and extracurriculars, along with exacerbating the difficulty of landing summer internships, among other challenges.

The compressed timescale of the quarter system leaves students with virtually no breathing room. According to Higbie, one of the biggest challenges of the quarter system is that there is no rest for the weary.

Students feel that missing even a single class could severely compromise their ability to stay on top of the material and prepare for their exams. In fact, Rithika Srinivasan, a third-year computer science student, said that because of the brevity of each quarter, she has never felt prepared for a final at UCLA.

Moreover, the quarter system is not designed to offer students any relief when it comes to extenuating circumstances, which is particularly problematic during an unprecedented public health crisis.

“The quarter system doesn’t give people a lot of help if they have something else going on that they need to take care of,” Srinivasan said. “They can’t really focus on resolving that before studying.”

Add that to the daily maelstrom of chaos and it’s no wonder that many students, and instructors, feel completely overwhelmed. It is well documented that the COVID-19 pandemic is taking a severe psychological toll on Americans, but the burden is especially heavy for young people. According to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 40% of American adults reported struggling with mental health issues related to the pandemic. The percentage of respondents who had recently considered suicide was significantly higher among those aged 18-24.

“The online platform is exhausting people and adding to the stress of the quarter system which, by its very nature, is exhausting,” Higbie said.

Nina Adarkar, a fourth-year environmental science student, said the only way she has been able to manage her stress and keep up with her work during remote learning was by quitting almost every extracurricular she was doing. With the combination of online classes and the anxiety of the pandemic, it’s been extremely hard to stay motivated, Adarkar added.

Final decisions about switching to the semester system are made by the UC Board of Regents, but currently, a proposal to change the system has not been brought before the UCLA Academic Senate.

Granted, the dollar cost of abandoning the quarter system would be immense, both in terms of restructuring the curriculum and allocating staff resources, and a transition would have a significant impact on students. But the current pandemic has already had a significant impact, one UCLA cannot ignore.

The semester system is far from perfect. However, the extended academic schedule would allow UCLA students to finally catch a break and better balance the psychological pressures of the pandemic with the obligations of online learning.

COVID-19 won’t last forever, and UCLA has been operating on the quarter system for more than half a century. Perhaps a global pandemic isn’t enough reason to upend decades of academic tradition, but it should be. After all, the pandemic didn’t create the problems with the quarter system. It is not a “failed system” as Chancellor Gene Block said – it is operating exactly how it was designed to.

The problems with the quarter system existed before COVID-19 and they will persist after it ends unless the UCLA administration seriously considers switching back to semesters.

It’s a discussion that needs to happen now, for the sake of students and faculty.

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