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Trimesters vs Semesters


How would a switch to the trimester system affect UMB students?



I was killing time on the Internet the other day, when I chanced upon a forum discussing academic school year calendars. Yes, I know academic calendar debates aren’t exactly the stuff of drama and excitement, but this particular debate got me intrigued. It was a debate about which was the better sort of system to be used in modern universities: the trimester system or the semester system.

Naturally, I went ahead and carried out some research on the subject. I was surprised to find out that I’m in favor of the trimester system even though I attend a school that uses the semester system.

As we all know, UMass Boston currently uses the semester system. Here’s how a semester works: the academic school year is divided into two terms of about fifteen or sixteen weeks each in the fall and in the spring. There are holidays after each semester, our winter and summer breaks. Also, schools using the semester system have an optional third term during the summer. The summer semester, which is usually six or seven weeks term usually offers a reduced range of classes to choose from. UMass Boston’s summer sessions are summer semesters. 

With the trimester system, the academic school year is broken into three terms, each about twelve or thirteen weeks long. Proponents of the trimester system usually offer terms during the fall, winter and spring. Some of these schools refer to their setup as a quarter system, as there is also an optional full length term available in the summer. The two main breaks, the winter and spring breaks, occur just before the winter and spring trimesters. Examples of schools using of the trimester system in the US are Dartmouth College, Union College, and California Institute of Technology.

Ok, now that we’ve established how each system works, let me get to why I think having trimesters at UMass Boston might actually be a good idea.

First off, students in the trimester system can afford to take fewer classes per term and graduate at the same time as or earlier than their semester colleagues. A full time trimester student will generally take three or four courses per term, which will amount to twelve classes in a year. The average semester student takes four or five courses a term and so ends up with ten courses a year. 

At the college level, flexibility is essential for success, given students’ different extracurricular commitments such as children or full-time jobs. The trimester system generally allows students more flexibility in scheduling classes. It offers the average student about twelve open slots for classes in a year, compared to ten in the semester system.

Also, this larger availability of classes means that students in the trimester system have more opportunities to take more diverse subjects. Thus, a student wouldn’t be restricted to choosing only those classes that fulfill a requirement. More options would mean fewer restrictions on what classes are taken, and when.

Trimesters certainly do have their drawbacks. Shorter terms mean a more compact course load during the term, and vacations might be a bit shorter. Despite these issues, a trimester system still seems feasible and advantageous. If UMass Boston ever plans a switch to trimester mode, I’m definitely going to be all for it.