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A Comparison of the Quarter, Semester and Linear Systems
June 24, 2022
Natasha Karolewska, Grade 11

You submitted your course selection form 2 months ago, but now you’re beginning to regret your decisions. You’re a busy person who attends early-morning swimming practices, plays piano, and has volunteer commitments on weekends, so there’s no way that you’ll be able to handle those 3 science courses. Or will you? You’ve heard that next year you might only need to take 4 courses at a time instead of all 8 at once, so maybe you can pull through. But on the other hand, does it matter whether the school adopts the quarter, semester, or linear system? 

Under the quarter system, students take 2 classes at a time for 10 weeks each. This system tends to be more flexible than the other options, because it is easier for students to switch courses that they are scheduled to take in later quarters. But under the other systems, students who change their minds in the middle of the year would have to remain in the courses that they initially signed up for. 

However, there are several disadvantages that come with the quarter system. It often encourages cramming, the practice of learning a large amount of material in a short period of time. Cramming has often been viewed as an obstacle to long-term retention of subject material, and seldom leads to a deep understanding of concepts. Advanced Placement (AP) courses are especially challenging to learn in 10 weeks, because they are university-level courses that cover a greater number of topics in more depth. For students taking APs in the first quarter, poor exam performance is also a concern, because of the large time gap between completing the course in November and writing the exam in May. Unless students consistently review the topics in the months leading up to the exam, they will forget what they learned.

Under the semester system, the school year is divided in two, and students take four classes at a time. Research has found that the semester system in universities is associated with higher procrastination rates among students, because more time is allocated to learn the material. However, for Canadian students taking AP courses in the second semester, there’s still the rush to prepare for the exams in a little more than 3 months. In addition to this, students have to juggle two more courses than in the quarter system. This may increase homework and reduce the time that students can dedicate to hobbies and extracurricular activities. 

Under the linear system, students take all 8 courses at once. This system is advantageous in the sense that challenging courses can be spread out over an even longer period of time, so that students seldom have to cram. This may support students in cultivating a deeper understanding of the course concepts. However, this system will not cater to students looking for a challenge, because of the slow pace at which the courses progress. But on the other hand, grade 8 students adjusting to the demands of high school may also find this system easier to handle. 

Clearly, not everyone will benefit from the same school system: your preference will vary depending on your grade level and the types of courses you want to take. In order to reduce stress and support your studying, it is important to be realistic about your level of commitment. If you have a busy schedule packed with multiple extracurricular activities, it may not be wise to sign up for 5 AP courses under the semester system, especially if 4 of them end up in your second semester. 

Overall, strong arguments can be presented in both cases. One allows classes to last longer, deepening students’ understanding of the course materials, while the other may reduce the stress placed upon students. These systems are undeniably a core factor in our learning journeys, and it is up to us to determine a path forwards.