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Drexel keeping quarter-based calendar

September 23, 2013

Drexel University's Main Building

When he assembled a group last fall to evaluate Drexel’s academic calendar, Provost Mark Greenberg said, most members believed it was time for the University to move to semesters from its long-held quarter-based system.

But about a year later, it’s a different story. The quarter system, for at least the next few years, will stay.

After months of research and discussion, a University committee has emerged with the conclusion that Drexel should not just stick with the quarter system, but celebrate it.

“We were a little surprised that it turned out this way,” said Janet Fleetwood, vice provost for strategic development and initiatives. Fleetwood was chair of the committee that examined Drexel’s calendar.

That group, the University Advisory Committee on the Academic Calendar, sprung from a task force assembled in September 2012 by Greenberg.

It was the first time Drexel had considered a calendar change since 1999, and it was sparked by a question from President John Fry after he arrived in 2010, Greenberg said. Fry, who had experience only with semester-based calendars, wondered why Drexel used quarters instead.

And, Greenberg said, Fry didn’t want Drexel to use a quarter system just because that’s what had always been done.

“Every good organization should question the fundamental assumptions under which it operates from time to time,” Greenberg said.

Fry’s experience wasn’t unusual. About 90 percent of U.S. higher-education institutions use semester systems, according to the committee’s report. Fewer and fewer schools still use quarters, which grew popular in the 1960s as a way to keep campuses open year-round to make room for Baby Boomers entering college, Fleetwood said.

Several elite universities do still use a quarter system, though, including Stanford, Northwestern, UCLA and the University of Chicago. But the committee’s focus wasn’t on what other universities were doing. It was concerned with how a calendar switch would affect Drexel students.

“There was one big thing I was looking for: Will students learn better under a semester system?” Greenberg said.

Some faculty theorized that a system with roughly 15-week semesters, rather than 10-week quarters, might allow students more time to contemplate what they’re learning. Such a system would also allow students to buy fewer textbooks, which are generally designed for semester-length courses.

But when the committee dug into what little research has been done on whether semesters or quarters result in better learning, it found no evidence that semesters would help Drexel students learn better.

That hardly provided reason to make a change that the committee estimated would take three years and cost about $13 million to implement, Fleetwood said.

“There just wasn’t a compelling case to spend all this money and time and not to do other things,” Fleetwood said. Many Drexel co-op employers prefer the quarter system and the six-month co-ops it allows, as well.

In addition, Drexel students made their opinions plainly known, she said: For the most part, they don’t want semesters. Students started petitions to preserve the quarter systems on two different websites. (And those petitions were recorded in the committee’s 100-page report, which is available online at drexel.edu/provost.)

Bill Rosenberg, a professor of history and politics who oversaw a series of focus groups as part of the research effort, said he heard a number of different perspectives from constituencies including students, faculty and administrators. But many students, he said, viewed their fast-paced, quarter-based curriculum as “a badge of strength” that would impress future employers.

“They believed their employer was going to think that they were able to take on challenging work and turn it around very quickly,” Rosenberg said.

Greenberg pointed out that Drexel’s calendar allows students to take more courses over their college careers—perhaps 50, compared with around 32 at a semester-based school.

Siara Johnson, a student who took part in the focus groups on the issue, said this was one reason she chose Drexel.

“I guess I like to challenge myself,” Johnson said, “and I knew it was going to be more challenging.” With another round of final exams never too far off, she said, Drexel students must learn to study effectively right from the beginning of each term.

Besides, Johnson and other students said during the study process, the quick-moving calendar is something that sets Drexel apart. And the committee recommended that the University embrace that and make that point clear to prospective students.

“It’s so much a part of Drexel’s culture—the fast pace, the dynamic, the co-op piece—that we really should be capitalizing on it and publicizing it more,” Fleetwood said.

The group also recommended that the University again examine the issue in three to five years, after data on learning effects and costs are available from some co-op-based universities that recently switched to semester calendars.

But until then, Drexel will embrace its quarter calendar and move ahead—quickly.