Why the Quarter System?

Posted by at 1:41AM

So, like many other students here, my Facebook wall is plaguing me with statuses from friends suffering through finals and anticipating summer. In a week. My own mother called me last week and asked if I was taking my finals soon – the joke was not appreciated. The majority of universities across the country have the semester system. I can’t help but wonder why, in this one case, Stanford is different.

The general spiel I get can be found on Stanford’s website:

Stanford’s unique quarter-system calendar allows students to take advantage of dozens of additional courses not possible under a more traditional semester calendar.

But after thinking about it for 2 seconds, there are more disadvantages than advantages. Just today, a professor of mine was upset because he couldn’t cover all the material he had planned because of the limited amount of weeks we have. Both students and professors alike are being rushed through material that should be explored for longer amounts of time. Or worse, professors believe that the difference between 10 and 15 weeks is infinitesimal and hand out assignments as if it really were a semester system. I have no doubt that this mentality is part of the reason why the Duck Syndrome exists.

May is a month of celebration for others. Here, we have midterms.

Student work suffers. And so do their interpersonal relationships. Stanford is extremely proud of its seminars – apparently 75% of the university’s classes have under 15 people. This might mean that you can develop a relationship with your Professor but the odds of you getting to really know your classmates are slim to none. The first half of the quarter is awkward  – you’ve been in a room, possibly arguing with someone for 5 weeks but you can’t really always remember their name. And by the time students feel completely comfortable with each other, the quarter’s over. You’ve officially made a new acquaintance, someone else you can say hello to as you bike through campus. It’s pretty hard to develop a friendship during that 10 week ticking time bomb. If you’re never going to see any of those people again, why bother?

I’ve only heard one other tidbit about the quarter system – it allows our renowned School of Engineering to proudly allow its undergraduates to leave after only 4 years. On the one hand, this means that there are enough quarters to allow engineers to take all their required classes, explore a little, and graduate with their friends. On the other hand, it means that some students are rushing through a 5 year major in only 4 years. I can’t tell you if I think engineers are lucky or not.

So the main question is, why do we have a quarter system? Generally I’m too busy to even focus on it but this quandary has taken a front and center place in my  mind at this time for the past two years. Maybe someone else can give me a better explanation.


12 Responses to “Why the Quarter System?”

  1. LT says:

    I would say, why a 12 unit minimum for full time enrollment? I think someone mapped the units inversely proportional to course load.

  2. JC says:

    The worst part about the quarter system is that the quarter is over in ten weeks. The best part is that the quarter is over in ten weeks.

  3. LS says:

    Good point about the difficulty of making friends in class. I’ve otherwise been a fan of the benefits of the quarter system, but as an undergrad who didn’t live in a very social dorm, I definitely felt the weirdness of attempting to make friends with cool classmates — unless I was fortunate enough to run into them in a subsequent class.

  4. DD says:

    Because if we didn’t have the quarter system, we would have “Spring Quarter” – it’s the bomb.

  5. DD says:


  6. KN says:

    I like the quarter system more because it does allow you to take more classes. If you dislike a class, it’s over quickly. If you like a class, it’s still over fast, but you then know that you liked the material, and given the huge variety of courses we have, there are usually similar courses that segue well into one another, so you can take that related course after the first one’s over. (This is the whole idea behind class sequences.)

    Also, think about it: the more selective a school is, the more grade inflation there is (a very very strong correlation there). So what does Stanford do to keep us on our toes? Pummels us with the quarter system, squashing a semester into 10 weeks. So in the end, our grades may be inflated, but the education itself is rigorous. It doesn’t matter if you’re techy or fuzzy; you don’t get off easy on the quarter system.

    I also don’t think that the Duck Syndrome would be different under the semester system; sure, students might be marginally less stressed, but they’d be just as unlikely to show the stress they do have. It’s just the nature of the beast. And by “beast” I mean “overachieving students who have never before had to own up to personal failure/struggle.”

    By the way, students on the semester system also complain about not being able to make friends in a semester. I don’t think another 5 weeks really contributes to building relationships; it’s just the nature of classes in general to have difficulty building relationships.

  7. TA says:

    I agree with KN – the opportunity to take more classes in the quarter system is just so valuable esp as a dazed and confused freshman like myself. That’s one of the reasons I chose Stanford- because I was able to really explore. There’s a reason why our motto is so attuned to freedom; if I’ve learned anything during my freshman year, it’s that it’s okay to explore. There are some classes that I absolutely hated and some that I loved so now I’m getting closer to what I want to do. If I was only on the semester system, I’d only have two new chances to start all over but with the quarter system, we have three new starts. Sure, that means more buying books and more exam periods, but ultimately, we have more “Second chances” so to speak with our course load.
    And although our time period may be a little off with other schools, it’s easier to visit friends during school and really see them in their element. When my friends visited me on campus, I was pretty busy but we were able to do some on-campus stuff together. Now that my friends are done with school, they’re gonna visit me and go to all the cool events and parties this weekend (for instance Exotic Erotic!).
    So yea, I agree the quarter system has its down sides. I still remember when I was twiddling my thumbs with nothing to do before school started in late September while all my East Coast friends were already experiencing the awesome college life. But overall, I believe that Stanford’s quarter system allows us to be true explorers in our own academic journey (sorry that was really cheesy haha).

  8. LS says:

    As someone who transferred to Stanford from a school on the semester system, all I have to say is… Semesters are the bomb.

    But, that’s not all I want to say. I think the only real good argument that people can have for quarters is that it allows you to take more classes over the year. Yet, I feel like it’s just another way of saying that students are allowed to take too many classes and overload themselves. On a semester system you would take more classes per semester so it would even out over the year anyways.

    The biggest reason why I advocate for a semester system is having time to process. Usually the time that I actually start to understand material is around week 10. Yes, this may be due to the fact that I’m cramming for finals and that’s the only time I actually study (What??), but I think there is something to be said for having time to ponder and work through things that we are learning instead of it being shoved down our throats in 10 weeks.

    People always complain about how there’s not enough time to do everything on campus, which is true because there are so many great opportunities, clubs, activities, etc. to join on campus that sometimes school seems secondary. Semester systems allow for extra added time for students to focus on extra-curriculars that are meant to enhance the undergrad experience. Not only this, but semesters allow students to take time for themselves. How many times have you been able to explore San Fransisco, San Jose, or even Palo Alto just for the sake of exploration? Maybe a couple of times over the year? In other words, not a lot. Stanford makes everything so convenient on campus that there isn’t really a reason to leave.

    Don’t get me wrong. I love Stanford and I’m so fortunate and grateful to be here, but when it comes to thinking about graduate school, I definitely want to go to a university on the semester system to be able to actually spend time with the material being presented to me.

  9. Crystal says:

    I’m actually going to have to agree with LS here in the flaws they see in the quarter system. The more classes excuse is really the only excuse I get for why its better. I like the idea of exploring all your academic interests but that doesn’t change the flaws in the system. The quarter system suffers all the same problems as the semester system – difficulty in making friends, the duck syndrome – but the difference is that the quarter system exacerbates all of them. I didn’t name exclusive problems, but they are just a wee bit worse here because of our schedules.

    I chose to come to Stanford and I love it here. But I still question the quarter system because giving students the ability to explore a few more classes doesn’t seem like it should be the only reason why Stanford should go against the grain with its schedule. I think a tiny little bit of the reason why we have it is because, by nature, Stanford is the “alternative” top school. It’s not a conscious decision but a part of our culture. And considering the fact that students still thrive, the administration have no reason to change things. Its just good to question the school’s infrastructure every now and then.

  10. Kathy says:

    I agree with all that you say, but I’d still choose to have quarters. I doubt that as an engineer I would have been able to study overseas and graduate in four years if there had been semesters. In fact, it was one of the reasons I chose Stanford.

  11. KN says:

    I don’t think the # classes is the only benefit. It’s also the rigor, esp. as a product of the pace. Semesters move too slowly; quarters keep you on your toes, forcing you to work hard, never slack off, etc. Yeah, a semester gives you more “time to process,” but that’s what’s great about the quarter system: you are challenged by being forced to process in less time (and every Stanford student is capable of that). That’s a big reason that I prefer quarters over semesters; the pace is intense, but the intensity is exactly what I want. (A related point: grade inflation is great, but it’d be cheapened by the semester system, which isn’t as rigorous. Even if I feel that the ‘A’ I received was unexpected, I always feel that I worked for it. Quarters pummel you and are pretty unforgiving if you fall behind.)

    I also don’t think that the quarters detract from extracurricular activities; after all, students on the semester and the quarter both spend 30 weeks a year on campus. Since your activities tend to be independent of your classes, they aren’t constrained by the start/end of the quarter. All the activities I’ve been involved in the past few years don’t “conclude” at the end of the quarter, nor does the short break in between quarters change any planning. The activity continues at the beginning of the next quarter as though there were no interruption. And of course, there’s only one additional interruption on the quarter system (spring break, not significant).

  12. John says:

    I attended Georgia Tech when they used the quarter system. It was far superior to the semester system I thought. Most of our classes were in fact a semester crammed into quarter. During my senior year I took classes that were graduate level at semester schools. It had the added benefit of spring break being a true break and made the co-op program work really well. In fact the co-op program has really fallen off since we were switched to semesters.


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