Rethink the quarter system, again | The Triangle

Rethink the quarter system, again

Roger McCain

In the 1990s, there was some consideration given to shifting Drexel from the quarter system to something more similar to many of our neighbors in the eastern U.S. – semesters or trimesters. The main reason for this suggestion was the unfairness of our present system to some of our students in five-year co-op programs. Students on fall/winter co-ops have to enroll for three summer terms in their five-year programs, and the summer terms never offer the student as much opportunity as the three other terms do. This is especially true in times (such as now) when there are budget cutbacks, since the cutbacks always fall harder on the summer programs. After a few years of discussion, the late President Constantine Papadakis set the idea aside, on the grounds (as best I understand) that there were more important things to do – and indeed, Drexel did accomplish much in the following years of his presidency.

But I suggest that the time is now right for reconsideration. The proposal was pretty simple: Drexel would schedule its courses for trimesters – a fall trimester and a spring trimester, each 14 weeks (plus an exam week), and two summer terms, each a half-trimester of 7 weeks (plus an exam week). While we could not make the switch as soon as the 2011-12 academic year, we may use it as an example. Fall term would start immediately after Labor Day and continue until Dec. 16, with exam week running Dec. 19-23. The spring term would start Jan. 9, and after a weeklong spring break at Easter, exam week would be April 23-27. Graduation would be May 5. The first summer term would be from May 7 to June 22, with exam week June 25-29; the second summer term would start July 2 and conclude Aug. 17, with exams Aug. 20-24. July 4 would be a holiday, of course. Then the fall term of 2012 would start just after Labor Day.

Students in five year co-op programs would then get seven regular trimesters in their five years, rather than eight, as would a student in a four-year non-co-op program. For five-year students, the missing trimester would be made up in three half-trimesters. For example, a student on a spring co-op would take the second summer term along with the fall term on campus in the sophomore, pre-junior and junior years. This actually totals to eight and one-half trimesters for five-year students. Four year co-op students, who take one co-op for six months in the junior year and therefore miss one regular trimester, could make that up in the summer after their sophomore year, with a chance to catch up (if necessary) in one of the summer terms of their junior year.

Half-trimester offerings could include regular courses offered on an accelerated schedule. For example, a three-hour lecture course would meet for six hours a week. Co-op programs might also wish to offer special programs available only in summer half-trimesters. The world being as it is, many electives might not be available in summer half-trimesters – as the case is now for summer quarter. All co-op students would take two or three summer half-trimesters. At least the cost would be equally shared by spring and fall co-op cycles, unlike our present situation in which the fall/winter co-op victims bear all the cost.

Of course, any change has its disadvantages. Trimesters would be a little “less hectic,” but half-trimesters would be even more so. Faculty who teach both summer terms for extra compensation would have no vacation at all. Most importantly, it would be necessary to rework the entire curriculum for 14-week, rather than 10-week, courses. This will be easier for undergraduate courses than for some graduate programs. The easiest step would be to keep our quarter-credit hour credit system (as Penn State did some years back) and change the number of class meetings per week. Thus three-quarter credit, non-laboratory courses would meet for two hours per week, for 28 meetings rather than 30, and four quarter-credit course would meet for three hours per week, for 42 meetings rather than 40. A few courses now offered as three-course sequences for a year would need to be replaced, but for most undergraduate programs, the existing courses and credits could be retained until experience suggests changes that might adapt better to trimesters (and changing times). Graduate programs such as the Master’s in Business Administration program, in which one three-hour meeting per week is a competitive standard, would have to be completely rethought. But many of these programs are under continuous development anyway as their environment changes. The MBA has been completely revised twice since 2000 and is again set to change. Thus, at least some graduate programs could roll over a switch to trimesters in the course of their routine development and “continuous quality improvement.”

The switch to trimesters would nevertheless require a significant effort to adapt, and that would take some time. A story is told about a medieval monastery in which the Abbot and a novice were working in the garden. The Abbot said, “It is time to take a break for lunch, and after lunch, we will plant olive tree seedlings.” Hoping to take the afternoon off, the novice said “But the olive trees will not yield for 20 years!” The Abbot responded, “You’re right! We had better skip lunch and get started right away!” And so we should.

Roger McCain is a professor of economics. He can be reached at [email protected].