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Opinion: Students learn more during the summer than they do in the year

Why summer courses promote better learning
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JESSICA LAM/THE VARSITY
JESSICA LAM/THE VARSITY

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I enrolled in summer courses. I thought the courses would play out to be harder than in the school year, but in my recent experience, I found that the structure and duration of summer courses enhanced my learning and improved my performance on assessments.

Although you learn the same material in summer courses as you do in fall and winter courses, the duration and structure of summer courses vary greatly compared to those in fall and winter. Summer courses typically take place in six-week sessions, whereas fall and winter courses take place over an entire four-month semester. 

In any given week during a summer course, you’re focusing on one or two courses at most, as opposed to a fall or winter semester when you’re focusing on around five courses at a time. 

Tracking deadlines is easier with two courses. When juggling deadlines between a number of courses during the fall and winter semesters, it is easier to lose track of some, which can negatively affect your overall grade. 

Since the summer course load is lower than during the fall and winter semester, your deadlines between courses are also less likely to coincide during the summer semester. When you’re focusing on many courses, you’re more likely to multitask and switch between tasks because of coinciding deadlines.

Multitasking impairs learning

Focusing activates the prefrontal cortex, which is the mind’s motivational system. While you’re focused on one task, the left and right prefrontal cortex work together. However, when you multitask, you’re switching between two sides of the prefrontal cortex. 

This switch causes a 40 per cent increase in the time required to complete the same tasks when you’re multitasking as opposed to doing them individually. When you’re focused, your brain also functions differently on a neural level in that your neural signals become clearer.

In addition, trying to do more than one complex task at a time increases the likelihood of making a mistake. This is because your working memory is a short-term storage system with a limited capacity. Working memory is responsible for reasoning, learning, and decision-making. 

Complex tasks drain your cognitive resources and are more taxing on your working memory. Consequently, your brain is unable to process more than one complex task at a time, which is why you’re more likely to make mistakes while multitasking.

Multitasking also makes you feel more fatigued, because switching between tasks causes your body to consume more glucose. That’s why people tend to feel disoriented after even a small amount of multitasking. 

Therefore, focusing on one task — as is the case with summer classes — is significantly more efficient than taking on multiple classes and thus multitasking. 

Other benefits of summer courses

German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus conducted an experiment which revealed that we remember less and less of what we’ve learned as time goes by. 

Therefore, it is easier to forget the details of a fall or winter course by the time of the final exam, as the course spans over a longer duration. Thus, retaining information for tests becomes easier during summer courses and you can perform better.

Summer sessions are a good idea for dealing with difficult courses. They give you a chance to solely focus on tackling a tough course and get it out of the way before a regular semester. The summer may also be an opportunity to take classes that are harder to get into during the fall and winter semesters because they are in such high demand.

Summer courses also tend to have smaller classes, so you get more time to interact with professors. This can help improve performance and build connections with them. 

However, it is important to consider that summer courses may not be for everyone. For many students, dealing with so much information from one course in a short period of time proves to be more difficult. In addition, it is also important to have some downtime and take a break from studying.

Summer courses are a great idea for students who struggle with balancing many commitments and learn better when concentrating on one subject. They also may work in favour of students who wish to finish their education early, or want to get a difficult course out of the way. 

So now that we’re moving into a new school year, I encourage everyone to re-evaluate their schedules and plan ahead so that they can take full advantage of what the summer semester has to offer! 

Shreya Vanwari is a third-year psychology student at Woodsworth College. She is a former columnist for the Comment section.