Have you ever wondered what students look for when they read a course outline? What do they think about the assignments they’ll be asked to do? This 3-part blog series describes one student’s reaction when reading a course outline for the first time and their subsequent conversation with the prof about concerns regarding the outline. In this first post, we learn about why Dominique, the student, has concerns about the assignments and how students need to be strategic with their time.
Students come to university to learn, and while we’re taking courses to help us learn, we also have other responsibilities to take care of, such as working part-time jobs, looking after our physical and mental health, doing our housekeeping, and maintaining relationships. All of this takes time, and for this reason, the first thing most students look at when the semester starts is their course outlines to see how they’re going to be assessed. Then, we can plan to manage our time strategically so that we can do our best to succeed at the assignments, while simultaneously managing our other responsibilities.
Part of our strategy is to consider how much each assignment is worth and when the due dates are. These considerations impact the amount of time we spend on and effort we put into assignments. I consider things like what my busiest weeks of deadlines will be—inevitably, there will be a cluster at midterm time and at the end of the semester—and which assignments might suffer because I’m too stressed and overloaded with those clusters of assignments. Some course outlines make me wonder how I’m going to survive the semester! Really, we have to use a Jenga-like strategy each semester to piece together our days and fit in the responsibilities for each course and for our lives apart from our studies.
There are two things in particular that I immediately look for in a course outline: a group project assignment and an assignment directly associated with required readings. Group projects are a concern because they’re often time consuming, especially when there’s no class-time allotted for group meetings. Group projects require scheduling around several other students’ busy lives in order to meet and get the assignment done well. They can also be problematic because there’s usually at least one group member who doesn’t pull their weight, which means additional work (more time!) for the other members. Group projects are difficult to integrate into in our busy lives—imagine the time involved in working on group projects outside class time for four different courses! Just planning the meetings would take an enormous amount of time. This situation can be a serious source of stress for students, and it can have a negative impact on our ability to succeed.
The list of required readings is another concern because often it’s so long that it’s overwhelming and it’s not directly associated with marks. Students understand that profs are eager for us to develop in-depth knowledge of the course content through reading and see different perspectives on course themes that will be explored. That’s why they assign the many readings that are intended to help us learn. But sometimes, the list of assigned readings provokes more anxiety than interest. It feels almost as though profs don’t consider that we have four other profs who also want us to read and engage with their course content. No matter how badly we want to learn the course content or how much we understand that reading will improve our learning (and consequently our grades), the thought of tackling a lengthy reading list is overwhelming because of the time it will take to do all the reading. And of course, we’re strategic with our time: if there is no grade directly associated with reading, we may end up just skimming and doing surface reading.
It’s the beginning of the semester. With all of this in mind, I look at one of my new course outlines to see the breakdown of course assessments and immediately feel discouraged. There’s a group project with a heavy grade value assigned to it and a required reading list that’s so long I don’t even want to count how many readings there are! It’s so overwhelming that I feel as though I want to just skip the readings altogether … especially since there’s no “reading assignment” that will contribute to my course grade. Managing my time for this course will be difficult and stressful. I’m honestly worried about just being able to pass given that I have four other courses … and I want to balance my studying and the other parts of my life. I decide to discuss my concerns with the prof while it may still be possible for them to make some changes, so I send an email requesting an appointment.
Tune in to the next post in this series to see what happens at the meeting between Dominique and Prof. Lambert.
Simone Tissenbaum is a second-year grad student in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education at McGill University and a current Graduate Student Assistant with Teaching and Learning Services. Outside of the world of academia, Simone is a dancer. She has blended these two worlds together in her research, which uses dance to explore the topic of safe and healthy relationships with youth.