Return to terms of endearment

November 12, 2004

Not so long ago semesters were heralded as the future of the academic calendar, enabling universities to offer a more flexible year-round learning enivironment for the modern student. But already it seems they are on the way out.

A number of academic institutions are ditching the two- semester year and returning to the three academic term cycle. The aim is to help reduce student dropout rates, create more coherent degree courses and even aid research efforts, according to a number of university administrators.

De Montfort and Brunel universities are the latest to swap the two-semester year back to three terms for all degree courses at the beginning of this academic year.

Judy Simons, pro vice-chancellor at De Montfort, said: "We moved to terms because we were worried semester systems did not suit our undergraduates.

Some first-year undergraduates left at Christmas and did not return because they were nervous about exams at the end of the semester.

"All exams have been moved to the end of the year, and we have introduced more formative assessment and steps to identify students at risk, and we are managing to improve retention of students, particularly those who are unused to exam culture."

Philip Tasker, De Montfort's vice-chancellor, said: "I do not believe in a smorgasbord of choice where students pick and choose their modules randomly. Students should expect choice and flexibility, but we have to guide them towards coherent choices."

Brunel, which also switched back to terms this year, had encountered similar problems. Semesters and modular courses allowed students control over their study, but the pendulum swung too far. Linda Thomas, pro vice-chancellor for quality and teaching, said: "What we found was that the curriculum lacked the overall coherence that academics, professional bodies and employers look for. They want students with a well-rounded education."

She said returning to terms helped the research effort, too, by making sure teaching was done as efficiently as possible.

Plymouth University changed back to terms in 2003, as did Huddersfield University two years ago and Glamorgan University, three years back.

Ivan Sidgreaves, Plymouth's pro vice-chancellor, said: "We have annual monitoring of all our programmes and have had no negative feedback about the change."

John O'Shea, dean of quality at Glamorgan, said: "We moved to semesters in the first place because we... believed the international market was moving in that way and we would get people joining us in the second semester, but that didn't happen."

"The big problem was that learning blocks were too small so students were not getting the opportunity to assimilate their learning. It was assessment driven as opposed to learning driven."

Glamorgan now has year-long modules. "We have seen that our programme rates and retention rates have got better, and this is contributing to improvement in graduation rates, too."

Edinburgh University however, along with other Scottish counterparts, is bucking the trend. The university moved from three terms to two 11-week semesters in September so it can offer courses on a full-year or a half-year basis. Dundee and Glasgow are also in the process of making similar changes.

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