A Look into the Lawrence University Trimester System

One of the most salient characteristics of Lawrence University that sets it apart from other universities is the trimester system. Most Lawrentians accept this fact as a part of life at Lawrence without a thought as to its history, benefits and drawbacks. Actually, the trimester system at Lawrence affects several aspects of campus life.

According to Lawrence University Archivist and Reference Librarian Erin Dix, Lawrence has been operating on the three-term trimester system since Fall of 1962. “The History of Lawrence” by William Francis Raney asserts “Most colleges in the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century had an academic year of three terms.” Then, many changed to using a semester system, including Lawrence, which switched in September of 1904. Lawrence continued using this semester system until 1923, at which point it switched back to using three terms for only three years. Then, Lawrence again adopted a two-term system from 1926 to1962, and in 1962 the university made the switch to the three-term system that we all know today. Dix refers to this final system as the “three-three plan” due to the fact that the typical class load for trimesters is three classes for each of the three terms.

Currently, the trimester calendar system offers certain advantages. Rather than having a week off for Thanksgiving and having to return to campus afterwards to finish up finals, as is the case with many schools that follow a semester schedule, students finish up school before the Thanksgiving holiday which facilitates one-way travel home for the entire break. This enables students to start new again with Winter Term in January.

The long winter and summer breaks also allow students ample time to secure jobs or have long vacations with family. Students can also use this time to relax and prepare for the upcoming year at their own pace and it allows room for personal projects and internships. However, some view this break as a time in which students who were just beginning to succeed in a subject may stagnate or regress in their progress. Several Conservatory faculty have expressed concerns over their students having to spend the long six-week winter break without monitored instruction and feedback for their practice.

Additionally, many classes not just in the Conservatory but in the College as well function sequentially, so the long break that comes with Lawrence’s current schedule system often provides an opportunity for students to forget the knowledge they learned Fall Term by the time that Winter Term rolls around. Moreover, the fact that Lawrence’s school year does not end until early June makes it difficult for students to attend certain summer festivals or take part in internship opportunities, many of which begin in May or early June.

The long stretch of classes from January to June can also be tough for many students. With only one week of break in between Winter Term and Spring Term, this stretch of work can feel very tiresome to some individuals. This is not to mention the fact that a Lawrence trimester is supposed to be somewhat equitable to a regular school’s semester—thus, the 10 weeks of each Lawrence term are chock full with instruction, which is not a system that is very forgiving to a student who may become suddenly ill and has to miss one week or even a few days of classes.

On the other hand, Assistant Professor of Music Matthew Arau notes that the trimester system offers “fast-pace and intensity” that is attractive to some driven students. Within the Conservatory, it is also worth noting that ensembles perform more repertoire within the given trimester system—with each ensemble giving approximately two concerts a term and six a year—than they would on a semester system. Of course, this fact means that the rehearsal cycles for ensembles are relatively short, but this rehearsal schedule more closely mimics the rehearsal schedule of a professional ensemble, thus preparing Lawrentians for life after college in the world of music.

Due to the fact that Lawrence operates on the “three-three” trimester system, students do have a little more room in their schedules for class variety. The system does lend itself particularly to unique topics in classes, allowing instructors to teach more in depth in some cases. But not all classes function as well on the trimester system. Bonnie Glidden Buchanan Professor of English Literature and Associate Professor of English Professor Tim Spurgin noted that as a professor in the Humanities department, “There would be opportunities for someone like me… and there would be losses,” should he have to adapt some of his classes to a semester system. The trimester system allows for professors to focus more in-depth upon the classes they teach, since many teach solely two classes per term, whereas on a semester system a professor may be expected to juggle twice that load for every semester they teach.

The effect that the trimester system has on sequential classes is not just a problem for Conservatory students; the Science and Foreign Language departments also experience difficulty with sequences and scheduling. Some classes in the Sciences require space and time for labs and therefore would not lend themselves to working on a semester system. Associate Professor of Music David Bell commented “I would love to see the school go back to semesters, but I am realistic, and I respect my colleagues in the College and particularly in the Sciences who cannot adapt to such a change and who need more flexibility.”

Discussion about the trimester system has been ongoing with faculty and staff at the school. Some believe that a change of Lawrence’s current trimester system to a semester system, while monumental, would not be impossible. Bell experienced the change from a trimester system to a semester system while on the faculty at Baldwin-Wallace University and observed that though the change was difficult and drastic, it was successful and in the end, doable. If Lawrence ever were interested in making the change from one system to another, administration and faculty could take the opportunity to study and learn from other schools who have made such a transition.

Still, some professors advocate a change to Lawrence’s existing calendar and schedule in general to ameliorate some of the existing issues with the current system. A closer look at the way Lawrence organizes itself with regards to its trimester system and resulting calendar and schedule could reveal some insights as to how the institution could be better serving its faculty and students.

At the end of the day, the trimester system is one of the things that makes Lawrence the wonderful place that it is—one that is welcome to civil discourse on difficult topics, among many other things. Along the way, with a little research and discussion, they may find some interesting information that could lend itself to some useful improvements.