College Calendars and the College Semester System
Academic Calendar for Colleges and Universities
The academic year usually starts in the fall and ends in the early summer. This means that in the United States, it starts in late August or early September.
There are three main types of calendars that are used by colleges and universities in the United States - quarters, trimesters, and semesters. I will describe all three of them here and then discuss the semester system further.
College Quarter Calendar System
The quarter calendar system divides the school year into four parts, with different classes being taken each term.
Each quarter provides about 10 weeks of class instruction. Students will take three or four courses each quarter. For example, in a quarter system, classes could start in early January for the winter quarter, March for the spring quarter, June for the summer quarter, and September for the autumn quarter. Even though there are four quarters, the summer quarter is optional and many students choose to have a summer vacation instead.
A quarter system means that the school can be open year round, and students who choose to attend all of the quarters can catch up on classes they missed, or may be able to graduate early. This system may be especially helpful to foreign students and employees who would otherwise have to find something else to do during the long vacations. The quarter system was used primarily to accommodate more students by teaching them throughout the year.
Compared to the semester system, students on the quarter system tend to be the last to start school, so they may be lonely when all their friends have already gone off to college. They are also the last to leave school for summer vacation and after graduation, so they may find it harder to find jobs and other opportunities for the summer.
College Trimester Calendar System
In the trimester system, the academic calendar is broken up into three sets. Each trimester is about eight to sixteen weeks long. During each trimester, students take about three classes. For example, a fall trimester can begin in September and end in December, the winter trimester begins in January and ends in April, and the summer trimester begins in May and ends in August.
The amount of work that is completed in each trimester is the same as any other class. Since you take fewer courses at a time, you can focus on a few and learn about the subjects in depth. A benefit is that if you don't like the class, it will be over fairly quickly.
Because there is less time in each trimester, classes tend to be intense, and there is not a lot of time to make up your work if you miss any. A disadvantage of trimesters is that they go quicker than semesters. You only have five weeks before the midterm and another five weeks before the final exam.
Lawrence University uses a trimester calendar system.
College Semester Calendar System
The semester system divides the academic year into two sessions, with a long summer break in between. Each semester is about 14-20 weeks. Students take about five courses per semester.
There are usually classes that can be taken during the summer break to help students make up for any classes they may have failed or otherwise missed during the semester.
Modified Academic Year
Schools tend to modify the calendar from these three systems to meet their needs and the needs of their students. The University of Michigan, for example, breaks their summer session into half terms, providing the opportunity to take more classes. The classes meet more often or are longer to provide sufficient time to learn the material.
There are other ways to break up the academic year, of course. Some students implement the block program, where students only take one class at a time, while others off a class that can be taken during the winter break in January.
Switch to the Semester Academic Year
Many schools that were previously using the quarter and trimester system are switching to the calendar system. In 2008, only four of Ohio's 14 four year public colleges - Ohio University, Ohio State University, Wright State University and the University of Cincinnati - were on the quarter system. Since then, all four of these schools have switched to the semester system. This is due to an initiative as part of the University System of Ohio requiring that all public institutions of higher education convert to a semester calendar.
There are growing pains as colleges make this switch, such as converting your current credits to the new system. There are also other growing pains in ways you may not have considered, such as getting used to new deadlines, dealing with parking, new traffic patterns, and making sure you graduate on time.
What are the Benefits of the Academic Semester Calendar?
The semester system has many benefits that help student learning while saving the college money at the same time.
- The semester system helps students learn a subject over time. This helps add depth and breadth of information provided in the curriculum. There is time to read the material, do research and fieldwork, do homework assignments, and rewritten paperwork. The extra time may help students retain the material better, instead of just learning it for the class, and gives them time to do longer term projects such as research papers.
- A semester system allows unprepared freshman students more time to adjust to the rigors of academic life.
- If a student gets sick or misses some time in class, it makes a smaller impact in the semester system. The student has time to get the notes or make up the classes. If you are sick for a week in a quarter or trimester system, you have missed a significantly greater proportion of your class time.
- Since the semester system is the most common system, it helps to switch to it in order to be able to partner with other institutions. This helps facilitate study abroad, student teaching, and letting students take specialized classes at other universities. In addition, when schools use the same calendar, students who go home for the summer may be able to take a summer class at their local university.
- Using the common calendar system also makes it easier to transfer credits if you choose to switch to a different school.
- Since semesters end before quarters, graduates can enter the workforce at the same time as their peers instead of starting later and missing out on a lot of employment opportunities.
- A semester system allows more flexibility to switch or add classes, because you haven't missed a significant proportion of the class in just one day or one week.
- There are cost savings to the school in having to deal with admissions, advertising, registration, sending out invoices, and calculating and disbursing financial aid less frequently.
- Class periods are somewhat shorter to accommodate the attention span of students.
- The students and the professors have more time to get to know each other, which is helpful in getting recommendations, as well as developing comfort in asking questions.
The Collegiate Semester System
The semester system has a great advantage over the others. Besides helping provide consistency with the most common system being used, it helps students learn, and saves the college or university some money as well. While some students may still prefer the quarter or trimester system, it seems that more and more academic institutions are going to continue to switch to semesters.