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Quality vs quantity: Questioning workload at McGill

Off the Board/Opinion by

It seems like no matter what you study at McGill—English, Finance, Physics, or Nursing—you often find yourself with an infeasible volume of readings, practice exercises, pre-labs, or online quizzes. It’s hard to imagine that the professors assigning the work really believe that their students will be able to finish it all on time. I’ve walked into multiple lectures, sat down, looked around the classroom, and thought to myself, “Who actually finished the readings?” My friends in Science have complained to me that the sheer amount of lab reports, quizzes, and problem sets compounded across all of their courses quickly becomes overwhelming. While being able to read quickly is certainly a worthwhile skill, and repetition and practice may make perfect, the brute-force, volume approach cannot really be the most conducive for learning in university. It should not be natural for McGill students to be constantly drowning in assignments.

Our classes and our professors should certainly challenge us and push our limits as scholars. We all signed up to come to McGill for its promise of a rigorous education. But, rigour does not necessitate colossal volumes of work. Plowing through hundreds of pages of readings or suffering through hours of busywork every night arguably does not promote understanding; it only encourages the student to work towards completion, not real comprehension. The result is a loss of depth, merely for the sake of volume.

 

 

While being able to read quickly is certainly a worthwhile skill, and repetition and practice may make perfect, the brute-force, volume approach cannot really be the most conducive for learning in university.

Students complaining about their workload at McGill should thoughtfully question the purpose and goals of their assignments, as overburdening could seriously affect quality of education. Never-ending, repetitive, or mindless assignments that must be completed simply to earn participation points discourage real learning—in the form of lasting and applicable understanding—and add more stress and exhaustion, physical and mental health problems, and a lack of balance to students’ lives. Professors should be able to make clear when designing their courses the purpose and benefit of each reading, lab, or paper assigned—and students have the right to know. If the question, “Will I ever use this again?” cannot be answered affirmatively, question the assignment. If a reading is meant to be a starting point for a thoughtful discussion in class, make sure the professor gives time to read and to synthesize the content.

Short of banning all assignments outside of class—an unrealistic and counterproductive fix—there is no blanket solution to McGill students’ excessive workloads. The problem is specific to each student, each course, and each semester. In order to voice their objections to excessive workloads, students must complete their course evaluations, and bring up the topic with their individual professors and TAs in a candid and thoughtful way during the semester. When a particular assignment appears utterly pointless or a set of readings feels especially unreasonable in its length, students should not hesitate to speak up. Professors seem to forget that their students are enrolled in other courses, engage in extracurricular activities, and still need to find time for their friends and families.

Though it may not seem so at times, professors are human, too, and can be understanding, especially when the discussion is about making their students actually learn better. The first step comes from us as students: We must invest ourselves in not just working more or harder, but in communicating with our instructors to shift the focus from quantity to quality for the sake of learning.

 

Nicholas Jasinski is a managing editor at The McGill Tribune and is studying economics and finance.