Debating the quarter system
March 31, 2021
You don’t need us to tell you that the world is jank, and it feels like everything has changed over the past year.
Here in the Parkway School District, “everything has changed” truly has felt like, well, everything. Incredibly enough, the whirlwind of *inhales* the initial return to learn announcement, then news that the school year would actually begin 100% virtual, then a reopening of school, then a reversal of that reopening just a few weeks later, then a reversal of the reversal of that reopening, then an entire school shutting down after the second reopening *exhales* is just the tip of the iceberg.
In a decision driven at least partially by a desire for more reopening flexibility as the pandemic progressed, Parkway also switched from two high school semesters to a quarter system for the 2020-21 school year. Courses that were traditionally 18 weeks in length were condensed into nine as students enrolled in four classes for first and third quarter and three for second and fourth.
The quarter system will presumably be a single-year deviation; Parkway’s most recent 2021-22 calendar indicates a return to semesters. Regardless, the quarter system remains prevalent across the United States and isn’t going away anytime soon, prompting us to weigh its various pros and cons.
The quarter system encourages curiosity and provides students opportunities to narrow their focus and delve deeper into fewer subjects. Having a reduced number of classes at once has helped me put more focus into each class, and I’ve found myself really caring about the content and asking more questions. It also lowers the stress that comes with remembering and completing seven classes worth of homework and tests, instead of just four. We get a long weekend at the end of every quarter, which means three true breaks, breaks where we don’t have to worry about homework or finals right afterward— cough cough, spring break, cough cough.
Faculty of higher education systems are in favor of the quarter system as well; the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) proposed the idea of reverting back to a semester system before its faculty twice, and both times the movement was voted down, the second time by about a 60% margin.
The opposition may attribute this to the university’s emphasis on research and claim it takes away from a student’s learning experience, but this is unfounded. The quarter system keeps coursework moving at a faster pace; one of UCLA’s priorities includes fostering the “palpable sense of momentum” that fosters a “can-do spirit”, the same constant drive I’ve been feeling all quarter.
Keeping up with the speed is by no means a walk in the park— sometimes it really feels like a full on sprint— but it provides opportunities to rise to the occasion, makes it easier to track your personal progress and creates a sense of belonging to something bigger than yourself. This momentum helps build a life-long attitude of always seeking to do more: pursue knowledge, give back to the community, make discoveries that further society.
An increased pace always raises questions regarding burnout and mental health of students at schools operating on the quarter system. If you take a look at the Harvard Business Review’s causes of burnout, however, you’ll see that five out of the six mentioned categories result more from our educational priorities rather than true content overload.
Placing emphasis on final grades over true learning can lead to students (1) feeling like our efforts are not valued, like we have (2) no control over their learning and situation. This can (3) strain our relationships with our community, and leave us (4) hyper fixated on the reward— or consequence— that is our final grade; and, when we don’t feel like we match up with those around us, (5) we feel like outsiders. That’s five causes of burnout caused by a problem larger than the quarter system.
The quarter system gives us a blank slate to be able to shift the focus from product-driven learning to student-driven learning; the increased class period and lower breadth of work at any given time (1) encourages more effort and curiosity into the subjects at hand. This allows for students to (2) play an active role in their own education, (3) strengthening their relationships with teachers and fellow students, (4) lowering fixation on reward and (5) fostering a sense of belonging.
The sixth cause of burnout, increased workload, can be addressed through this shift in academic priority as well. Yes, shorter terms result in an increase in workload; however, when students are given the room to be curious and active learners, workload feels less like a chore and more like an opportunity.
This greater emphasis on learning to satiate curiosity can be achieved through the quarter system in two concrete ways: increasing both reliance on formative assessment and responsibility on students for their own learning.
Due to the shortened course duration, teachers simply do not have the time to grade and provide feedback on as many summative assessments. This provides an opportunity to shift focus away from product-oriented learning and place more value on class time and formative assessment.
We’ve all wondered how much RogerHub could make during finals season if they placed advertisements on their website; they must get a lot of hits from the number of times we try calculations again and again, hoping to see a different number each time. Instead of wasting time on this, we could be researching topics to discover in self-designed labs or student-driven seminars. We could, as an educational system and a society, begin to value learning for learning itself so the next generation of students think critically about what they want to explore and how they can get there.
To give students a chance at all these benefits, we must revise high school education standards to better support a true quarter system. The collegiate quarter system is essentially a glorified trimester system with three quarters, each approximately 10 to 12 weeks long from Sept. to June, and the fourth quarter during the summer term. Colleges take advantage of this to offer a greater diversity of classes. Because each “year-long” credit only lasts 10 to 12 weeks, students can take three sets of classes, instead of two. These are all stipulations high school education standards must adhere to in order to adopt the quarter system.
High school courses tend to be cookie cutter and build on the knowledge you learn in previous classes and terms. Adopting the quarter system might cut a little information out of high school biology, but it offers a chance to diversify the high school curriculum. In our increasingly globalized world, it is valuable to make Human Geography a required course, even if it takes away from the depth of American history. The changes necessary to make it feasible must start with the state-mandated curriculum.
A final plea for an increase in the diversity of course offerings: as more college-level courses leak into high schoolers’ course loads, we need to remember that even colleges on the semester system don’t subject their students to seven courses at a time. Updating course requirements to reflect the current trends in society means more courses to take, and we prefer three per quarter over seven year-round.
The quarter system, if implemented properly, could bring a lot of benefit to students. It might ultimately fall victim to a “we’ve always done it this way” mentality, however, change does not happen without action, and the education system is long overdue. I am beyond grateful for the brief sampling of the quarter system I got to experience, and I hope high school students in the future get to experience it as well.
No matter how many comments you filter out, it is still impossible to separate the effects of virtual learning and COVID-19 from the impacts of the quarter system; together, these were two huge adjustments to education in an already tumultuous year. For the sake of future students, we need to give the quarter system a fair chance.
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:
- Educational quality
- Staff and student wellness
- Logistical challenges
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:
- Provide less thorough feedback to keep up with the accelerated pacing
- 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
- 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.
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.