Three Terms Pt II — What should Attila do?

Attention, you have just entered a battlezone… It’s time for us to find out who’s, really the best, with the freshest crew, no time for words, we’re through with that, all there is left is pure combat.

I wrote a blog post back in June about the realities of the UTS and UNSW teaching calendars, with a study of actual term dates from 2014 through to 2021 to highlight the important differences between the calendars, and debunk aspects of statements made about their comparison.

Ever since that post, I’ve wanted to get around to a follow-up post on how I can see the current UNSW 3+ calendar might be turned into something functional that isn’t just a direct retreat to the old UNSW two semester system that predates UNSW-3+.

As a prelude to discussion, let me go back to the diagram from my initial post on the UNSW 3+ calendar and slice out the calendars for 2018 and 2019, as I think they highlight an option well worth considering going to.

The major problem with the UNSW 3+ calendar, if you look at the above, is actually the summer term. It is the term that puts the ‘plus’ onto the three and it’s actually, as a whole, a minus. You look around the campus, almost no one uses this term. It’s just too short to do anything in, and with most staff on campus ready to drop dead as Week 11 of Term 3 arrives, it’s little surprise!

If you offload that pointless summer term, you free up something in the vicinity of six to eight weeks, which might not initially seem like much, but actually makes a massive amount of difference, because what it enables you to do is rotate your calendar a bit so you can get to the UTS three-term calendars for 2018 and 2019 as a set of dates.

Before we get to the benefits, let’s just quickly unpack what this true three term calendar would look like. Just to avoid confusion, for the rest of this post, I’m going to call the UTS Autumn term as Term 1, the UTS Spring term as Term 2 and the UTS Summer term as Summer term. One thing I was fond of when I was working in Sweden was week numbering, so I’m going to use that here. Readers wanting to see 2018 and 2019 as week-counted calendars can see here.

Term 1 runs from 12th March (Week 11) to 8th June (Week 23), a total of 12 teaching weeks and 1 break week (late April) with a 1 week study break at the end (Week 24) and 2 week exam period (Weeks 25 and 26).

Term 2 runs from 23rd July (Week 30) to 19th October (Week 42), a total of 12 teaching weeks and 1 break week (mid Sept) with a 1 week study break at the end (Week 43) and 2 week exam period (Weeks 44 and 45).

Summer term runs from 19th November (Week 47) to 15th February (Week 7), a total of 12 teaching weeks and 1 break week (xmas to new years) with 1 week study break at the end (Week 8) and 1 week exam period (Week 9).

Some will immediately notice the decompression from the UNSW 3+ calendar that you get from killing the summer term. You now go back to 12 week terms, each with a 1 week break in the middle and a 1 week break at the end before exams. And this isn’t a Microsoft-style patch like the current ‘flexibility week’ in the UNSW 3+ calendar, or ‘inflexibility week’ as many have taken to calling it because not only does it remove a week of teaching from already desperately short terms, but it makes scheduling of labs, projects, assignments, etc. incredibly difficult to implement. There are more substantive breaks between terms too.

There’s an additional gain to be had here, and it comes from being smart about how you use that third term (summer), in particular, by giving the faculties & schools greater autonomy over how they spread their courses across the terms in the calendar.

For some degree programs, e.g., business or commerce, the content is pretty trivial, students want to come in and get out as fast as possible so they can get busy making money, and the school wants high turnover because it’s all about the money for them too. Fine, business is business. They can run courses in all three terms if they want — that’s ultimately a decision about whether demand drives enough income to cover the cost of running that high a course turnover. I’ll leave that to consultants with MBAs, it’s not a difficult problem.

For other degree programs, e.g., science or engineering, the content is far more technical and the pace that the material comes at you really matters. It might not seem like going from 12 weeks of 3 lectures a week to 9 weeks of 4 lectures will hurt much, but when it comes to coping with subjects like particle physics or higher differential geometry, the difference is brutal. The courses have lab components and research projects, which have a higher cost to run and are heavily constrained by things like lab bench spaces, number of equipment sets available, etc. Here, it makes sense for these faculties and schools to pull back most of their courses just into Terms 1 and 2, and we just accept that science or engineering takes time to learn properly — compression doesn’t bring benefits in the technical subjects. These faculties and schools can then use the Summer Term to deliver either selected ‘catchup’ courses where demand is sufficient or repeats of Term 1 or Term 2 courses where the student demand justifies the cost and effort of running them. Additionally, students can use the summer term off for summer vacation scholarships or internships, which have actually become harder rather than easier to access with how far out of alignment the 3+ calendar has put us with the traditional academic year. This summer break is quite long giving a solid period for those internships and research scholarships (i.e., they don’t need to be rushed or made into flimsy projects to fit a shortened break). A solid summer break with time to decompress and let your brain digest the technical content of the year will also lead to far better student outcomes and student experience.

Some other benefits to this calendar:

  • Term 1 doesn’t start until after the Australian Research Council Discovery Projects deadline, which means that staff have time to write better proposals and improve success rates in funding rounds.
  • In research intensive schools where Term 3 is not heavily taught in, the staff have a solid block of time to generate research outcomes and output. The lab and technical staff also have sufficient periods without students to perform maintenance and/or upgrades of lab experiments and projects to ensure they continue providing optimum student benefit and experience.
  • The admin overhead is reduced (3 terms instead of 4) but the intensity of that overhead is brought down also, simply because things are more spaced out in the transitions from teaching to exams, exams to results, and end of term to start of next term. This reduces stress, reduces fatigue, reduces risk of errors arising from tired staff racing under high time-pressure to complete tasks.
  • The campus is a nicer place to be around. The staff are happier, the students are happier. Everyone has time to do their job rather than struggle just to keep their head above water.
  • A pointless and largely unused term is removed from the calendar, reducing organisational waste.

I’ll let everyone else be the judge, but having thought about this for a while now, my opinion is: TKO.

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