Are semesters or quarters better?

There exists a long-standing debate in higher education on which academic calendar is optimal. Using panel data on the near universe of four-year nonprofit institutions and leveraging quasi-experimental variation in calendars across institutions and years, we show that switching from quarters to semesters negatively impacts on-time graduation rates. Event study analyses show that the negative effects persist beyond the transition. Using transcript data, we replicate this analysis at the student level and investigate possible mechanisms. Shifting to a semester: (i) lowers first-year grades, (ii) decreases the
probability of enrolling in a full course load, and (iii) delays the timing of major choice.

That is from a newly published paper by Valerie Bostwick, Stefanie Fischer, and Matthew Lang.

Having been a longtime proponent of a quarter system, which I did teach under at UC Irvine, I am happy to see these results.  My hypothesis, which to be clear is not confirmed per se by this data, is that classes are too long.  Much of a class is the “option value” on “this professor is the one that inspires me.”  The returns to such inspiration are enormous, but of course it usually does not happen.  But when it does happen, usually the “click” occurs before week ten.  So we should arrange academic schedules to give students access to a greater number of professors.  Holding workload constant, that means individual courses should be shorter.

Of course, if you click with a particular professor, you can take more classes with them or otherwise work with them.  So “ten weeks isn’t enough” to me is not such a biting criticism.  The real problem is when you are stuck at zero with your possibly appropriate mentor.

In fact I think the quarter system doesn’t go far enough.  I think we should have many more one- and two-week classes, or five-week classes, as well.  Understandably that is more difficult to manage operationally, but I don’t see any reason why it should be impossible.  Companies solve more complex scheduling problems than that all the time.

If I think of GMU, either the undergraduate majors, or the graduate students, should in my opinion have had some classroom time with almost every single instructor.  So much of life and productivity is about matching!


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