09 Dec Semesters May Not Be Serving Our Students
Over the years, the style and duration of school terms and semesters has varied in an attempt to create the perfect balance for family and school life. This month in particular, I am reflecting on the change to semesters from terms in an effort to show that semesters are not serving our students.
Back in April, I read a gag news article: Summer Vacation is Eliminated in Favour of an Eastern Style of Scheduling. This article hoped to trick Canadian parents into believing that summer vacation is no more; schools would be in session 3 terms consecutively with only 2 weeks between each of these terms.
Beneath the article there was mixed feedback from both fans of the switch and those who were quite displeased at the thought of it. There were valid arguments for both being offered on public message boards from parents across the country. The issue of the length of summer vacation was even offered as an essay topic on the grade 10 EQAO Literacy Test a couple of years ago. One argument in favour of a lengthy summer break was the opportunity to make money for students’ future endeavours. One against was the ease with which students forget what they learn when not practicing (use it or lose it). Parents’ main concern here was finding childcare so sporadically and scheduling quality time.
Putting the length of the break aside, these arguments had me thinking of the pros and cons I often reflect on when it comes to semesters versus terms in high schools for the academic year. To be clear, semesters will have students study 4 topics at a time for half of the year while terms have students balancing all 8 topics throughout the duration of the year.
Some schools have tried a hybridization of terms and semesters: math is treated as a term subject (students attend this course every day) and the remaining courses are attended in semesters (blocks that span 5 months). I think this is an important adjustment to straight semesters because math is a subject that students can suffer in when they are allowed to complete an entire year of school without practicing. Let me elaborate:
Semesters allow a unique opportunity for students to experience a school year without math (i.e. A student takes math first semester in Grade 9 and Grade 10 math is scheduled for second semester the following year. I believe that is far too long to go without practicing integral skills such as math, but also other subjects like formal writing and grammar. At least other courses create opportunities to practice writing, unlike math.
I am tutoring a gifted student this year that was struggling in math. It had been over a year since she had practiced her Grade 9 math. Almost everything she learned in Grade 9 was forgotten. Now, this was a gifted student…I pause to think what an additional barrier this creates each year for an average or struggling student.
The only argument that I can provide in favour of semesters in school regards exam review. In terms, a student has to reach to the beginning of the year for content at exam time. In semesters, the student would have only studied a topic for a maximum of 5 months. I personally do not feel that the benefit of this style of scheduling is worth the damage it causes to create learning gaps for so many students.
The length of the school year does not seem to be changing any time soon, but what could stand to be adjusted is the distribution and pacing of math curriculum. If this is considered when scheduling course calendars, students will only benefit.