Con

As Parkway considered its reopening options in December, the district launched Thoughtexchange pages for students, parents and staff members to provide feedback regarding first semester. I read through every comment discussing the quarter system, and I’ll even do the pro side the favor of discarding any post that also criticized virtual learning as a whole. That leaves us with 79 responses. All 79 viewed the quarter system negatively.

Lower comprehension and higher stress levels were just several of the frequent grievances. These aren’t problems that would be waved away by the magic wand of curriculum rewriting or post-pandemic normalcy; they are intrinsic to the quarter system’s structure. I’ll compartmentalize my objections into three parts:

  1. Educational quality
  2. Staff and student wellness
  3. Logistical challenges

Educational quality

Teachers working under a quarter system are faced with a choice: cut course material altogether or move twice as quickly. Needless to say, the former chips away at the depth of the course. The latter seems innocent enough. After all, what’s the problem with a faster pace if students are taking fewer classes at any given time? The issues lie in some of the questionable assumptions the quarter system makes. The first of which is that the brain is akin to a piggy bank and schools merely need to cram all of their curriculum inside that bank. Just as important as what is being taught is how it is being taught, the time frame included. Students need time to process, review and, if falling behind, ‘catch up’ on concepts. A quarter system creates problems on this front for secondary and higher education alike, especially in courses that are predicated on skill development. Learning a new language, for example, isn’t as simple as rushing through 20 textbook chapters; students need consistent repetition and practice over an extended period of time.

Proponents claim the quarter system removes ‘fluff’ activities that amount to wasted class time. Not only would I assert that a proverbial brain break has value, an idea I’ll discuss in more detail in the next section, we have to consider the opportunity costs at play. For every seemingly purposeless movie day the quarter system cuts out, genuine experiential learning opportunities are lost to the condensed schedule as well. When brevity is prioritized over depth, there simply isn’t as much time to facilitate hands-on learning.

It is also worth examining the quarter system from the perspective of educators. It’s true that faculty at the University of California, Los Angeles voted to maintain their quarter system, but don’t let hackneyed mission statements about “momentum” and “can-do spirit” fool you: their rationale wasn’t necessarily related to their work as instructors.

“Professors, on the other hand, have championed the quarter system because it coordinates well with their research schedules: teach for a quarter or two, then spend the rest of the year conducting research,” the Daily Bruin Editorial Board wrote in 2019. “That sounds like the perfect system for someone prioritizing their magnum opus and research grants over the quality of education for which students shell out thousands of dollars.”

As far as promoting student growth is concerned, providing insightful feedback is an integral part of any educators’ job. If a teacher is, say, grading essays for a quarter-long English class, they have three paths forward:

  1. Provide less thorough feedback to keep up with the accelerated pacing
  2. Maintain the same quality of feedback, but since the next due date is now twice as soon as it would be on a semester system, struggle to return assignments to students in a timely manner
  3. Sacrifice neither by abdicating their familial obligations and discovering a way to make the heart pump out coffee instead of blood

I should also address the notion that the quarter system would foster curiosity and open the door to an overhaul of our education system by shifting from summative to formative assessments. This argument falls flat for several reasons. For starters, it falsely posits that an emphasis on formative assessments is uniquely tied to the quarter system. There are no reasons why the opposition’s proposals to change the way we measure learning couldn’t be implemented just as well, if not better, under a semester system. Additionally, the pro side needs to prove that the quarter system actually would spark bigger picture changes. If teachers had to work twice as quickly, I highly doubt their response would be, ‘this is the perfect time for me to take up the task of completely restructuring all of my classes!’ If anything, I would argue that the breathing room a slower-paced semester provides is more conducive to self-reflection, planning and actualizing philosophical changes in the classroom.

As for the allure of greater course diversity, this is a textbook ‘breadth over depth’ argument. That sounds nice on paper, but, as was previously mentioned, getting a handle on some courses requires repetition and time, two things that the quarter system is physically incapable of delivering as well as its semester counterpart. This isn’t mere conjecture: a study conducted by Robert Tai, an associate professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, concluded that high school students who spent more time studying in-depth performed better in college than their overstretched peers covering a wider array of topics at shorter intervals. Why? Doctor of Philosophy and educator of 30-plus years Jon Vogels explains that “students develop better long-term learning strategies and critical thinking if they are allowed to go deeper.” Of course, that depth can’t be achieved without sufficient time.

Even then, all of these points still rest on the assumption that acquiring curricular knowledge is the only goal in education. Staff and students’ ability to improve interpersonal skills and forge stronger relationships also suffer when each class lasts for a short duration of time. No matter what angle you take, you inevitably run into trouble when evaluating the quarter system.

Staff and student wellness

I’ll segment my arguments as to why the quarter system is detrimental to staff and student wellbeing into two strands: one for those with a soul and one for those without one.

Let’s begin with the soulless crowd, those who believe mental health is irrelevant and milking out every last ounce of productivity is the only worthwhile pursuit. It’s no secret that courses at double speed exert more pressure on all involved parties to keep up. The impacts of this learning environment aren’t as abstract as you might think. There is a wealth of research linking stress and burnout to, ironically enough, a decline in academic performance for students at all levels. Even if you disagree with everything I’ve written thus far, this single-handedly turns any arguments about how the quarter system allows students to enhance their studies. Even the brightest brainiac in the world can’t function optimally when their brain is fried. This isn’t to say that other causes of burnout don’t exist or that semesters are stress-free, but the quarter system is incontrovertibly net-worse in this regard.

To my soul-bearing crowd, welcome back. I hope you enjoyed your paragraph-long rest because, under the quarter system, it’ll have to hold you for another nine weeks. I’ll let articles written by or quoting people who study and work at quarter system institutions offer firsthand perspectives on campus-wide wellness. Keep in mind that all of these sources predate pandemic-induced closures; they are assessments of the quarter system in its natural habitat, and also serve as proof that creating ‘college-style’ quarters isn’t the solution either. I also implore you to note how these excerpts — unlike those in the pro column — directly compare the quarter and semester systems.

  • Mark Reed, Director of the Health Service at Dartmouth College: “He said that use of Dartmouth’s on-call counseling services has increased by 60% over the last six years, and mental health-related admissions to Dick’s House have increased by 45% over the same period. Reed said that the D-Plan and Dartmouth’s fast-paced 10-week terms add to the strain that students feel and underpins the need for mental health services on campus. He added that the quarter system may create more sources of anxiety and stress than a traditional semester plan. With only 10 weeks of classes, a mental health issue that causes a student to miss a few weeks of class can be detrimental to their ability to complete the term.”
  • Robert Watson, Undergraduate Students Association Council president at the University of California, San Diego: “When I think of the possibility of switching to a semester system, I think a lot about mental health concerns and the wellness of students on campus. Obviously, the quarter system is pretty stressful for everyone. It’s quick-paced tests on a very frequent basis.”
  • Ciara Gaffney, student at the University of Oregon: “With a schedule that is extremely fast and remorseless to those who fall behind, it can be a very difficult adjustment [from the semester system] for students. With midterms spanning constantly from week three to week eight — and finals always looming — the stress is more than enough to skyrocket blood pressure.”
  • Mona Dugo, associate dean of students in Student Assistance and Support Services at Northwestern University: “She described the quarter system workload at Northwestern as a ‘different beast.’ Dugo adds that she believes a lot of student stress is perpetuated by our quarter system.”
  • Gene Block, chancellor of UCLA: “At a meeting with the Daily Bruin editorial board during week 10 of winter quarter, Block said he thinks changing from a quarter system could reduce stress for students. In a semester system, classes could have reading days before exams and give students more time between midterms, he said.”

As mental illness rates continue to swell, the quarter system’s accelerated workload for staff and students can easily become the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Logistical challenges

Finally, let’s bring our analysis of the quarter system back home by taking a look at some of the obstacles it creates logistically. I’ll run through these in a bullet point format:

  • For classes that must be taken in a certain sequence, be it in high school or college, students can become ‘rusty.’ A student might take the first half of a full-year class or the first part of a multi-course sequence during first quarter, only to have to wait until third or fourth quarter to take the sequel. These content retention concerns also mean teachers must spend already precious time reviewing the previous quarter.
  • As many staff and students are finding out right now, the quarter system presents a lose-lose scenario for standardized test takers. Case in point: Advanced Placement (AP) exams are scheduled to begin worldwide in May. Students completing an AP course during third quarter do not have the luxury of testing while the material is still fresh in their minds. Fourth quarter students, on the other hand, face the opposite issue: many testing windows for programs like AP begin with a substantial portion of the quarter still remaining.
  • There are a certain amount of what I’ll refer to as ‘lost’ days of instruction on any calendar. To list a couple of examples, inclement weather days or class periods conflicting with other school events still occur during the quarter system. However, these lost days now comprise a greater share of the overall term. Thus, some classes may have to learn at an even-faster-than-double rate to accommodate these inconveniences. Perhaps some of these worries are compensated for elsewhere in the quarter system’s structure, but, if nothing else, they present yet another headache for educators, who must scramble to adapt their plans on the fly.
  • As I mentioned above, missing an individual class period becomes significantly more costly under the quarter system. This matters for two reasons. First, the Dartmouth evidence from earlier shows how uptempo classes discourage staff and students from prioritizing their well-being. Humans don’t work through a depressive episode or recover from the flu twice as quickly just because classes move at double speed. Secondly, academic issues compound for students that do miss class. Not only is the work to catch up twice as strenuous, but the course itself is still chugging along twice as rapidly. All of a sudden, a situation you had no control over risks putting you behind the eight ball for the rest of the quarter.

For all of these reasons, the quarter system lays the groundwork for an ineffective educational setup. Parkway certainly made the correct decision in returning to a semester-based schedule, and I hope others will follow suit.