The traditional university and college schedule divides the school year into two semesters-one in the fall and one in the spring, with summers off and breaks in the winter and middle of the spring. Students generally take an average of 15 credit hours (approximately five classes) both semesters. Although this schedule has been standard in colleges and universities throughout the country for decades, some schools have begun experimenting with another model where schedules are divided into three semesters, rather than two.
The three-semester schedule can come in two forms. One is to shorten the other two semesters and add a third, leaving three semesters of equal time length. In this structure, students generally take an average of 10 credit hours per semester. The semesters last for approximately two-and-a-half months.
Another version of the three-semester model is to have the traditional fall/spring schedule, and add a third “mini” semester during what would traditionally be Christmas break. This allows students to take three to six hours during the mini semester, while maintaining a traditional fall/spring schedule. It also allows for a decreased course load in the remaining two semesters.
The three-term academic year offers advantages to students. First, regardless of the model, the three terms allow students to take a decreased course load in each semester. This permits a greater concentration on the material in a given course. Since students are enrolled in fewer credit hours, they are able to concentrate more heavily on their remaining classes. Second, the three terms allow students to transition more quickly out of difficult semesters. Unlike the traditional two-term model, where semesters are long and force students to remain in courses they dislike for weeks, the three-term model permits students to limit their exposure to these classes for a shorter time.
Of course, there are disadvantages. Students end up taking more courses in a condensed period of time. This can create difficulty with memory retention, as students are forced to learn more quickly and move on to a new class with a limited break. Additionally, from an academic perspective, professors may feel rushed to complete all course material in the shorter semester and skip topics normally covered in a class. Perhaps for these reasons the three-term year has not become wildly popular, and is instead currently relegated to a handful of universities and colleges.