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Op-ed: Overloading coursework doesn’t keep students on track

Weekly graded assignments make it harder, not easier, to stay on top of things
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AMBIKA MAHARAJ/THE VARSITY
AMBIKA MAHARAJ/THE VARSITY

Some instructors have made a key mistake in designing their transitions to online learning during COVID-19. That is, by designing course structures with frequent quizzes, tight deadlines, and significant amounts of the course grade being devoted to such activities. The goal was accountability. The result, however, is simply overwhelming. Students are being pushed behind, and are therefore less accountable.

I understand where instructors were coming from with this design: they don’t want students to fall behind. In an online environment, this seems to be of greater concern than in-person. However, their approach to keep students on track was simply to increase the academic consequences of falling behind, rather than adapting to a structure which allowed for recovery once people inevitably did.

Falling behind is not typically a choice students make. Student lives are busy these days, many often balance full-time school with a job, family, and other responsibilities. And certainly, the more a person has going on, the more that person is susceptible to random events beyond their control.

Sometimes, responsibilities require your attention at an academically inconvenient time. Other times, your health is not always predictable — especially during a pandemic — and this too is academically inconvenient. No random event ever improves your progress on a project — the inevitable chance events in life always push you backward.

These things happened in 2019 as they do now in 2020. The key difference this year is that courses were previously better at allowing students to adapt. In a typical college course structure, with few assignments and far-apart deadlines, it’s certainly possible to have your timeline pushed back and still recover in time. It’s a far more sustainable model for students.

During classes before the pandemic, an instructor may have seen the few students falling behind as some pedagogical failure, and in fear of exactly these cases, the instructor designed an online course structure for this year that ‘prevents’ falling behind. However, weekly assignments don’t solve this problem; rather, they augment it for all of their students due to an increased workload.

Students falling behind is not a new problem; new is the approach of adding more work and tighter deadlines to prevent it. Instructors don’t — and may won’t for some time — see the cumulative consequences of these new productivity systems on students and, therefore, don’t respond to them.

To the instructors: if you’ve significantly changed the structure of your course to favour accountability and keeping pace above all, I’d encourage you to reconsider. At the end of the day, we students are in postsecondary school because we want to be here. It’s not too late to ‘take the temperature’ of your class and propose a syllabus change to your students.

Alex Erickson is a second-year economics and international relations student at University College. He is the director for social sciences for the University of Toronto Students’ Union.