Mon­e­tary in­ac­ces­si­bil­ity in the sciences at Mcgill

The un­der­ly­ing clas­sism of un­der­grad sciences at Mcgill

The McGill Daily - - Contents - Laura Bren­nan The Mcgill Daily Laura Brenna is a U0 Sciences stu­dent. To con­tact the au­thor, email laura. bren­nan3@ mail.

When you at­tend univer­sity, you are pay­ing for an ed­u­ca­tion. Uni­ver­si­ties were founded upon the love of learn­ing and the de­sire to an­swer unan­swered ques­tions, al­though ac­cess to these op­por­tu­ni­ties has al­ways been limited to those priv­i­leged by class, race, gen­der, and abil­ity. How­ever, the con­tem­po­rary in­ter­pre­ta­tion of univer­sity life has come a long way from the ini­tial pur­suit of knowl­edge – as un­der­grad­u­ate de­grees are be­com­ing more and more like a high school diploma, univer­sity en­vi­ron­ments can often feel more like a com­pe­ti­tion, es­pe­cially in the sciences. Un­der­grad­u­ate gen­eral sci­ence cour­ses are often filled with hun­dreds of in­tel­li­gent med­school hope­fuls (my­self in­cluded), all grap­pling with the new­found fact that they are no longer the “smartest in the room.” I can imag­ine these classes are as chal­leng­ing to or­ga­nize and in­struct as they are to at­tend. How do you as­sess a class of 500 to 1000 stu­dents who were all the top of their re­spec­tive high school classes? Pro­fes­sors often re­sort to dif­fi­cult mul­ti­ple choice ex­am­i­na­tions that are worth the ma­jor­ity of your fi­nal grade, as it is just too lo­gis­ti­cally dif­fi­cult to do any­thing else with the pro­vided bud­get, limited teach­ing as­sis­tants, and time.

When I en­tered Mcgill this year, I ex­pected that just like in high school, with a fairly in­volved study sched­ule and reg­u­lar class at­ten­dance, I would be pro­vided with the re­sources to suc­ceed in ex­ams. I have no trou­ble spend­ing many hours study­ing, and I have never missed a sin­gle class – some­how, I still find my­self strug­gling to keep up in al­most ev­ery sin­gle class. I have no trou­ble ad­mit­ting that I am often very lost in class as the pace of univer­sity cour­ses and style of learn­ing is not some­thing I am used to. Some­times, I feel like I am just not given the proper re­sources to suc­ceed – and I know I am not alone in feel­ing this way.

In fact, there is a whole in­dus­try that preys on this feel­ing of help­less­ness – and for $200 to $500 or more, you can at­tend an exam prep ses­sion with small class sizes, and an in­struc­tor who breaks down com­pli­cated prob­lems and teaches you in a style sim­i­lar to high school, even pro­vid­ing exam prob­lems and their so­lu­tions that often hap­pen to mag­i­cally be the ex­act ques­tions that end up on the exam. I am not tar­get­ing any par­tic­u­lar com­pany or busi­ness – there are many of them out there. Not only that, there are even web­sites with a paid sub­scrip­tion of $20 or more a month where you can have tu­tors work out your on­line as­sign­ments for you.

There is, of course, noth­ing in­her­ently wrong with these prep ses­sions or want­ing to at­tend them. Af­ter all, it is re­as­sur­ing to feel like you un­der­stand the con­tent that is go­ing to be on an exam. The prob­lem is that there are peo­ple who can af­ford at­tend­ing these ses­sions be­fore ev­ery exam, and there are those who sim­ply can­not, es­pe­cially when the ex­ams start to add up. Due to the fast paced nature of sci­ence cour­ses, it’s pretty much guar­an­teed that those who at­tend these cour­ses will per­form bet­ter on the ex­ams, and be­cause a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the class does pay for these ses­sions, they drive the av­er­age up, leav­ing be­hind those who strug­gled through the con­tent on their own be­cause they had no other choice. If the exam is curved, those who could not af­ford the prep ses­sion will be neg­a­tively af­fected. An­other con­se­quence of this is that pro­fes­sors often end up with feed­back that shows a greater un­der­stand­ing in their course than there ac­tu­ally is, and thus low­ers the re­sources even more for the stu­dents who can­not shell out up­wards of $200 ev­ery time an exam rolls around. To put it sim­ply: those who are more fi­nan­cially well off are much more likely to do well in un­der­grad sciences at Mcgill.

The more I think about this is­sue, the more com­plex it be­comes. I have at­tended a few of these prep ses­sions, and they did sig­nif­i­cantly help me suc­ceed on the ex­ams I wrote. How­ever, I also felt an im­mense sense of guilt and hypocrisy, as I knew I was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a priv­i­lege that my peers often did not have ac­cess to. I also felt cheated, con­sid­er­ing I am al­ready pay­ing for my edu- cation, yet I have to pay for my grades on top of it. Many pro­fes­sors and teach­ing as­sis­tants rec­og­nize this is­sue, and some cour­ses have free teach­ing as­sis­tant-lead cram ses­sions to mimic these paid ses­sions, which I greatly ap­pre­ci­ate. How­ever, an in­struc­tor, know­ing what is on the exam, is never go­ing to sim­ply give away the an­swers to an exam ques­tion. At paid prep ses­sions, this is ex­actly what they do, and this is where the fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence will al­ways lie un­less some­thing changes.

What would this change look like? In my opin­ion, the best strat­egy would be to im­prove the teach­ing and sup­port at Mcgill. This would in­clude hir­ing more pro­fes­sors as in­struc­tors based on their teach­ing abil­ity rather than their re­search ca­pa­bil­i­ties. This would mean al­lo­cat­ing more of the de­part­men­tal bud­get to teach­ing-as­sis­tant lead tu­to­ri­als and re­view ses­sions. Per­haps this could also in­clude teach­ing work­shops for present fac­ulty so they are more able to con­nect with their stu­dents and get their in­tended point across. This would mean chang­ing the pri­mary struc­ture of un­der­grad­u­ate sci­ence cour­ses at Mcgill so stu­dents no longer feel they need to turn to ex­ter­nal sup­port to un­der­stand the con­tent.

As for the present state of my un­der­grad­u­ate sci­ence ex­pe­ri­ence, I don’t know if I am sur­prised that this is the way it is, I am very dis­ap­pointed. I be­lieve that those that work hard should suc­ceed, pe­riod, no mat­ter their fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tion.

I have no trou­ble spend­ing many hours study­ing, and I have never missed a sin­gle class – some­how, I still find my­self strug­gling to keep up in al­most ev­ery sin­gle class. I also felt an im­mense sense of guilt and hypocrisy, as I knew I was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a priv­i­lege that my peers often did not have ac­cess to.

Jennifer Guan | The Mcgill Daily

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