Discussions are currently underway within the California State University system about the possibility of transitioning universities on quarter systems to semester systems — which might directly affect Cal Poly.
If implemented, this new academic system could affect students’ experiences at Cal Poly in a variety of ways. One could be a possible reduction in stress, counselor Mary Peracca said.
Peracca is no stranger to stressed students — she runs the Student Success Seminars on stress management each quarter through the Academic Skills Center. Peracca said during the past four or five years, Cal Poly students are more anxious and overwhelmed; she attributes this to events such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina that raised national anxiety, as well as the state of the economy. She’s seeing more students with higher course loads trying to finish their degree sooner and more with jobs trying to support themselves or help pay for school.
“When you add any other kind of stress in your life, it becomes cumulative,” Peracca said. “There’s only so much time in the week.”
And stress doesn’t just mean academics — it’s a “big umbrella word,” Peracca said — a student saying they’re stressed could mean they’re depressed, angry or overwhelmed. Stress related to academics is one of the top five reasons students come to Counseling Services, along with anxiety, depression, relationship issues and drug and alcohol issues, she said.
Stress can lead to obsessive thinking, Peracca said. Students tell her they spend up to 90 percent of each day thinking about all the things they have to get done. Academic stress can be a focus of that, Peracca said, but often it’s more generalized.
“They have a hard time focusing on the present moment or what they’re doing because there just seems like so much that still needs to get done,” Peracca said.
Cal Poly’s quarter system can contribute to that academic stress in multiple ways. The length of the quarters is too short, Peracca said: It doesn’t allow for repetition and for information to soak in, and students get anxious early on. Illness, injury or family tragedy can have an impact too — if students lose a week or two, “the quarter’s pretty shot.”
“There’s just no room for personal or medical problems or emergencies without it being pretty impactful on their academics,” Peracca said.
If Cal Poly switched to a semester system, Peracca said she thinks it would reduce students’ academic stress — and by reducing stress in that area, it would hopefully help in other areas of stress. The longer semesters would also allow students to have more time with the therapy groups Counseling Services offers, which cover a variety of areas including depression, stress management and substance abuse. Stress management seminars are held once a week for four weeks around the middle of the quarter, and Peracca said the attendance varies each quarter.
Psychology emeritus professor Charles Slem, who created the psychology department’s class on stress in the ’80s, said stress is a response from the body and the person to a demand placed on it. That demand can be good or bad, but the critical issue for psychologists is how people interpret those events: neutral, somewhat negative or extremely negative.
And several things can affect the way individuals interpret stress, according to Slem, such as the environment, past experiences and biology.
When looking at how students deal with a semester system versus a quarter system, the demands of each must be looked at as well as how each individual fits those demands, Slem said — and it’s different for every student.
“For each individual, there is an optimum kind of situation,” Slem said.
For Cal Poly students coming from high school or junior colleges with semester systems, the quarter system is a faster pace, Slem said. He also said block scheduling can intensify the stress caused by the quarter system — and there are university and parental pressures for students to max out the number of units they take per quarter.
If Cal Poly were to change to a semester system, the effect would be different for each class level, Slem said. Juniors and seniors used to the fast pace of a quarter would get bored, but semesters would ease freshmen into university life.
Slem said the semester system is like a soap opera: getting up to speed after missing a few days isn’t a problem.
“That’s the semester system — it moves very slowly. People disappear, they leave for a week and come back and they’re at just about the same place as they were before,” Slem said. “You do that at Poly — you miss two days, and it’s like they’ve covered 12 chapters and there’s been two papers assigned.”
It’s difficult to say what the impact of switching to a semester system would be on individual Cal Poly students, but Slem said he does anticipate a drop in the “frantic demand” of classes in the short run because things such as midterms or papers would be more spread out in semesters.
On the other hand, Slem also said he’s met Cal Poly students who “eat up the quarter system” — especially because they only have to be in “bad” classes for 10 weeks, compared to 18 or 20 weeks in a semester. It depends on the individual, he said.
Leland Swenson has also taught the psychology class on stress and been an instructor in the semester system — he currently teaches at Cuesta College. There are pros and cons to both systems, he said.
Students in the semester system take longer to get motivated, Swenson said — and some peak early but burn out faster. There’s also a higher chance of dropouts in a semester system than in a quarter system because there’s more time to choose to leave a class, he said.
In contrast, Swenson said he thinks students perform at a higher level in the quarter system because “things start fast” and students stay at a higher level of stress throughout the quarter. However, being stressed all the time is more exhausting, he said.
“When you’re on all the time, your body never has a chance to rest and repair itself,” Swenson said. “My feeling is when students finish a quarter they’re pretty exhausted.”
If Cal Poly switched to a semester system, it would lower overall stress but would also do the same for academic performance, Swenson said.
It isn’t unusual for kinesiology professor Kris Jankovitz to see stress among students either. She said it changes depending on the week of the quarter with a peak in the first week, another at the fourth and another from weeks eight to 10 where students develop a sense of desperation.
“If you had no other gauge other than looking at students, you can guess what week of the quarter you’re in,” Jankovitz said.
Although there are those more intense times of stress, Jankovitz said she sees “a pervasive feeling of being overwhelmed” in Cal Poly students. When students feel overwhelmed, sometimes they focus on what they have to get done rather than recreational activities they like to do. Doing those things can give time away from daily stress and keep students focused and on task, she said.
Being overwhelmed can also lead people to neglect caring for their physical health through habits such as healthy eating or exercising, Jankovitz said — that can contribute to the wear and tear caused by stress.
The effects of stress aren’t just limited to psychology — it can lead to a range of physical symptoms, Jankovitz said, including headaches, stomach problems, change in eating habits, muscle tension and an inability to sleep.
The quarter system can be an “unforgiving pace” amongst a very competitive peer group, Jankovitz said, and echoed the idea that something unexpected such as a week-long illness or family emergency makes it hard to catch up. The semester system (which she has taught) allows for more time to recover from something like that, she said. And unexpected life events don’t just happen to students — faculty deal with them too, Jankovitz said.
Under a semester system, students will still be in school the same number of days and learn the same things as in a quarter system, Jankovitz said — the things that will change is “the mechanical part of it,” like how many times students have to sign up for classes, buy books or prepare for finals.
“I don’t know that it will be less stressful on people’s lives, all I know is that their calendar is going to be different,” Jankovitz said. “And where I think a semester could potentially be more favorable is when you have those unexpected things come up.”
Business administration junior James Kirschner is also no stranger to the semester system. Kirschner transferred to Cal Poly from a college with semesters and said students aren’t moving at such a fast pace, so they have less periods of stress from midterms and finals.
However, Kirschner said he was more stressed with semesters, and in the long run, it would be more stressful if Cal Poly switched because of the “slack-off factor.”
“Since it was a semester system, you kind of slacked off for the first few weeks, and then it all kind of hit you at once,” Kirschner said. “Whereas here since you expect it to be fast paced, you kind of can prepare for having a final every nine or 10 weeks instead of every 17.”
It remains to be seen whether Cal Poly will make the move to a semester system, but one thing seems clear — student stress levels won’t be immune to the transition.