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Opinion: Online classes focus too little on meaningful learning, too much on accountability

A first-year student reviews education under the pandemic
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FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY
FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY

As the fall semester of online learning comes to a close, many first-years’ college experiences have been defined by impending weekly deadlines, eating dining hall food at desks, and ironically savouring walks to the library — the brief time outdoors we get. 

Although this may seem a bit disheartening, first-years have no past involvement with the university lifestyle to compare their experience to. Academically, there is an unrealistic standard being set for what will suffice in the future for first-year students. 

Many may expect the same methods and routines they are using now in online classes to scrape by, to be successful in the future — a damaging mindset corroborated by current courses’ structures. 

Some U of T classes have transitioned into accountability and task completion-oriented structures to ensure that students get practice outside of lectures and don’t fall behind. This structure seems to try to imitate in-person courses, but unfortunately, ends up being overwhelming and counterproductive.

To succeed each week in some classes, one usually completes: frequent assignments to ensure lectures have been watched, discussion boards to substitute in-class discussion, and frequent open-note quizzes. For example, these discussion boards that are meant to emulate class participation have given rise to redundant, roundabout, and vague responses, acting as busywork rather than meaningful class discussion. 

For first-years, this participation format perpetuates mindless task completion over learning and understanding material. 

Additionally, the accountability-obsessed format discourages first-years from learning and makes them focus on meeting deadlines instead. When students fall behind, they may resort to completing the task by any means necessary, even if that means not having learned the material simply because they didn’t have the time. 

Although this may work for weekly scraping by during our time online, it creates a sense of helplessness when it comes to truly learning the material and is simply detrimental for first-year students. 

Instead of having frequent weekly assignments, focusing on material with spread-out deadlines and group work may allow students to recover and learn effectively rather than solely complete work. For example, the format of MAT133 — Calculus and Linear Algebra for Commerce puts weight on well-spaced-out group work and projects, which allow first-years who may have been falling behind to take time to learn and work together to solve problems, rather than mindlessly complete an assignment. 

Instructors may not recognize it now, but their current formats are perpetuating a dangerous form of academic learning that can seriously harm their students in their future academic careers.

The sudden necessity of online learning has been a challenge for professors, teaching assistants, and students alike. However, from the perspective of a first-year student, there is still much improvement to be done. We still don’t fully know how online learning is affecting retention of what’s being taught, but the little information we do have isn’t promising.

Students are falling behind, overwhelmed, and invested in regurgitation rather than truly learning. Next semester, we must learn from these past few months. It is imperative that first-year courses cater to students’ learning rather than accountability — a goal that should be adopted by every course.

Keah Sharma is a first-year arts and science student at Victoria College.