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You say semesters, I say trimesters

Deciding which system works best for your university can be complicated, but let’s not call the whole discussion off, urge two professors.

By TIM JOHNSON | OCT 12 2010
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The structure of a school year isn’t exactly the stuff of great drama or hot debate, but an op-ed piece by two retired University of Alberta professors, published in April in the Edmonton Journal, brought the topic into the spotlight and started people talking.

In their article, Allan Warrack and Ross Denham, professors emeriti in the business school, say that the time has come for their university to move to a trimester system. They argue that such a move would lead to a higher quality of education as well as better use of time, facilities and resources. In a recession-strapped economy, they felt the timing was right to broach the subject.

“In tough times, there’s a better chance of getting people to adjust to new initiatives and arrangements,” says Dr. Warrack. “We felt that the odds of making an efficiency move for the university would be better now than in normal times.”

Canadian universities, in general, organize their time in one of two ways: the two-semester system, like the University of Alberta’s, or a trimester schedule. (A third option, rarely used here but fairly common in the United States, is a four-quarter “quad” system.)

In the first example, semesters run for about 15 weeks, from September to December and from January to April, with much shorter courses (typically three or six weeks) offered in the spring and summer, a time of year when these campuses can be very quiet. In a trimester system, the individual study periods are a bit shorter – about 13 weeks – but they offer a full-length third session in the summer.

Dr. Warrack observes that, while not uniformly true, there tends to be a divide between older institutions established many decades ago (including Queen’s University, McGill University, the University of Toronto and U of A) that favour a semester schedule and those in the wave of universities founded in the mid-20th century (including the University of Waterloo, Simon Fraser University and the Université du Quebec system) that often use trimesters. The semester system, he notes, is related historically to agricultural cycles: students would study for two terms and then work in the fields during the summer.

It’s time, Dr. Warrack continues, for the older schools to shake off their historical attachments and follow the lead of the younger universities. “From a policy point of view, it’s a slam dunk. We really ought to do this.”

In the next-door province, at Simon Fraser University, many of the positive attributes heralded in the op-ed have been realized. Dormitories, classrooms, libraries and other facilities are used all year long and, importantly, both faculty and students are offered a more flexible schedule, notes Jon Driver, SFU’s vice president, academic.

Professors aren’t forced to do the bulk of their research in summer, a key advantage for those, like biology profs, whose research is time-sensitive. Faculty members also may teach back-to-back trimesters, so they can bank larger blocks of research time.

For students, having three terms to choose from means they don’t have to compete with the droves of their peers seeking temporary employment in the summer. And, they can skip a seasonal break if they want to finish their program sooner.  “Students have access to the university throughout the year, and they can always count on a 13-week semester,” says Dr. Driver.

The Université du Québec system, with its nine degree-granting institutions, hasn’t always offered a third semester of equal length. But, students demanded it, explains Louis Mathier, director of studies for TELUQ, the online arm of the Université du Quebec à Montréal. Although the summer course offerings have expanded since they were introduced some 30 years ago, the choice remains slimmer than in the fall and winter sessions.

The entire Université du Québec system operates with three distinct terms of 15 weeks. The summer semester is convenient for attracting international students from France or Switzerland as well as mature students who rely on holidays and looser summer work schedules to register for classes on campus, says Dr. Mathier.

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It can be helpful for the average student, as well. “Students can go faster in their program, or they use the summer semester to catch up on courses if they have had something go wrong, like an extended illness,” he says.

At U of Waterloo, the trimester schedule is a perfect fit with the school’s renowned co-op program, says Feridun Hamdullahpur, formerly the university’s vice-president, academic, and now serving as interim president. With thousands of students rotating between campus and co-op sessions, having three full study terms is an absolute necessity to accommodate the “revolving door” that is their school year. And, he says, without the extra term, the school’s expensive facilities would be overloaded. “It’s very beneficial in terms of resource utilization. The load distribution is much better.”

And that’s key, says Thomas Scott, vice-dean and accounting professor at the University of Alberta’s school of business. He has studied the issue informally. Student demand must be there, he says: the efficiency of a trimester system completely disappears if you’re not serving more students than you would otherwise but instead are simply spreading two semesters’ worth of students over three.

“If you just take a third of your students from the fall and a third of your students from the winter and plunk them in the summer, you’re still using the same facilities and no efficiency comes out of that,” says Dr. Scott. He also notes that the move to a trimester system should make sense within the context of an institution’s larger educational mission.

For Simon Fraser, with its big commuter population and a share of its students working part-time, the trimester system suits the school’s needs. It also works very well for institutions with large co-op programs; this is why the U of A’s business school is making some very preliminary plans to move in this direction. But Carl Amrhein, U of A’s vice-president, academic, isn’t convinced that trimesters would work for the rest of the university.

“If I had strong, compelling evidence that the students were clamouring for a third 13-week session in the summer, then I would work through the issues, and if it made sense, I would do it,” he says. “But we just don’t see the evidence.”

Those universities that have gone down this path warn others that are considering a trimester system to be aware of what they’re getting into – it’s far from a perfect schedule. York University, based on its mission to provide social justice and accessibility, offers a full range of options throughout the year and provides many different entry points, making it one of the most flexible systems in the country, although it is not strictly speaking a trimester system.

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“People underestimate the cost and the resources needed to create new situations,” says Joanne Duklas, university registrar and assistant vice-president, enrolment management, at York. Ms. Duklas, who’s also president of the Association of Registrars of the Universities and Colleges of Canada, observes that extra sessions make for more complex scheduling and a heavier workload for those responsible. The scheduling of classes is important behind-the-scenes work that’s not always recognized by the broader campus community, she says. It affects not only registrars, but also many maintenance workers and other support staff who must remain on campus through the warm months, and of course faculty members who continue to teach. Dr. Hamdullahpur of U of Waterloo agrees: “It’s business as usual in the summer, so staffing is a challenge.”

Summer classes often don’t appeal to professors, who may be accustomed to a slower pace during the summer. “They have families, and they want their vacation time with their families,” says Dr. Amrhein, and he notes that U of A has a very young professoriate.

“If you’re in a climate like Edmonton’s, telling a professor that they can have off January to May, when their children are in school – that’s a very short-lived conversation.”

Another drawback with trimesters is that the academic timetable can be extremely tight. Midterms and exams come in quick succession, reading weeks are scarce or non-existent, and there’s little time for exam periods or buffer days between terms.

Faculty who work in the two-semester system often point to the advantage of more time. “Trimesters seem too short and herky-jerky,” says Gil Troy, a history professor at McGill University, which uses semesters. “I often feel semesters themselves are too brief, and that just as we’re getting cooking, the semester ends.”

Morton Mendelson, McGill’s deputy provost, student life and learning, says the two-semester system meshes with the school’s academic needs. McGill maintains 39 contact hours of instruction and offers a lengthy exam period to allow the most study time possible while minimizing conflicts and evening exams. With almost half of its student body drawn from foreign countries and other provinces, McGill “would have to think about the impact on a range of students,” he says.

So, while some may be tempted to blame inertia for the continuing status quo at universities with two-semester systems, especially at older institutions, it seems that traditional arrangements are sometimes the best. The ability to change is important, but universities have to be convinced the change will be an improvement. “It has to all pull together,” says U of A’s Dr. Scott. “It can’t simply be, ‘We could have this classroom busy.’”

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