On Campus

A two-tier system?

As lectures grow, special classes emerge for the academically-inclined

Photo by Cole Garside

From the 21st Maclean’s University Rankings—on newsstands now.

It’s the third week of her university career and Maya Helferty, a first-year sociology (soon to be philosophy) major at the University of Guelph, admits that she’s already skipping her women’s studies and sociology classes. “There’s no point to those lectures,” says the Canadian who went to high school in Pennsylvania. “We just go over the same material that’s in the readings.”

Don’t assume she’s a bad student. She excelled at high school, in everything from Greek mythology to advanced calculus. Helferty is skipping lectures precisely because she is a good student. She’s read the material. She doesn’t need to hear it again. Being filled with facts is not why she came to university. She came to ask questions, discuss ideas and be inspired.

But asking questions is difficult in a 600-person class with professors several flights of stairs away. Some big-class lecturers can hold the room, even electrify it. Helferty’s 300-person philosophy lecture, which she never misses, is an example. But more often than not, first-year classes in Canada are designed to address broad audiences and to fill students with textbook facts so that they can pass their multiple-choice examinations. Few are designed to nurture individuals like Helferty.

You can’t blame Guelph for packing in more students and sticking to the basics. How else could it have accommodated a first-year population that grew 10 per cent this year alone, forcing the school to rent out a wing of the nearby Best Western hotel to meet the demand for beds?

Schools across Canada have similar challenges after many welcomed their biggest classes ever this year. Collectively, they’ve grown more than 50 per cent in the past decade and a half, according to Paul Davidson, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. At the same time, the number of professors hasn’t kept pace, funding has flatlined and tuition remains relatively low, in line with Canada’s open access tradition. Schools are experimenting with ways to reduce class sizes, but large lectures are here to stay, Davidson says.

And big lectures are only part of the problem. The truth is that many students filling the schools are no longer interested in traditional academics, say James Côté and Anton Allahar, sociologists at the University of Western Ontario and authors of Lowering Higher Education. A growing number now come to university to gain skills and credentials, not enlightenment, they add. Administrators across the country have responded by introducing more skills-based programs and classes, and in the process they’re leaving behind some of the brightest students, like Helferty, who see university not as a means to a job, but a place to learn for the sake of learning. But how do you serve students who feel cheated by big-box, one-size-fits-all education for the masses? It’s a question Davidson, the AUCC president, says should be part of the national discussion on improving undergraduate quality.

It’s also a question that some universities across Canada have already started to answer, however quietly. Schools, both east and west, are setting aside boutique programs, small seminars for keen students, and other perks for those who have proven they’re especially academically inclined. McMaster University’s hotly contested Integrated Science (iSci) program has small classes specifically for students with extremely high marks in high school math and science courses and who have proven, by way of special application, that they’re especially interested in research. There are other perks to iSci, too, including a state-of-the-art interactive classroom and dedicated study areas where students can interact with other advanced students, rather than wasting time wandering through crowded libraries and coffee shops looking for seats.

The University of Calgary offers students with marks above 95 per cent in at least two high school courses a different set of perks: bookstore discounts, early course selection and one-on-one mentoring. Alison Fyfe, from Cochrane, Alta. (90-plus average), hadn’t even written her first mid-term, but the engineering student, who plans to go to medical school, had already formed plans to help with her mentor’s robotic surgery research.

More commonly, schools are offering enriched first-year experiences that aren’t exclusively for smarter students, but that keener students are more likely to find. Helferty feels lucky that she even found out about the First-Year Seminars, a program Guelph pioneered in 2003 and which Wilfrid Laurier and Toronto have since emulated. After having a panic attack during course selection and emailing the school for extra help deciding on courses, she was pointed toward FYS under the title of “interdisciplinary university” in the course calendar. “I guess if they put First-Year Seminars in its own category, everyone would click on it,” she says. “I feel like they kind of hide it on purpose, maybe because there are so few of those classes and there are so many first years.” She adds, “It’s kind of survival of the fittest.”

Such a nod to Darwin makes Jacqueline Murray cringe. She’s the First-Year Seminars director and she makes it clear that FYS is open to and advertised to all students. While she admits that high-achievers manage to find the classes more often, she says the university hopes to ramp up the program so that every student who wants in gets in. Maureen Mancuso, Guelph’s provost (and a huge FYS-booster), says there was a debate about whether to make them mandatory, but it’s currently moot. Tight budgets mean the program is funded entirely with donor money. There’s only so much of that.

To be clear, proponents of these programs and courses aren’t calling them elite. But there’s a common theme. Schools are creating oases for the academically inclined among an increasingly skills-obsessed student body, whether intentionally or through natural selection like at Guelph.

Another thing is clear, too. They work. Research from Guelph shows that students who take First-Year Seminars get much better marks by their fourth year, even when self-selection bias is taken into account.  But to really understand the benefits, just look at Helferty’s class. Tucked away inside the office wing of the ’60s-built MacKinnon building, she sits around a heavy wooden table with nine others (yes, nine) waiting for Gender, Sex and Sexuality to start. “Does anyone have Jaz’s number so we can text her?” asks Murray, who’s sitting right there beside them—the class doesn’t even start until all nine students are seated. In the worst of Helferty’s big lectures, students play on BlackBerry Messenger while someone drones on at the front of the room. It’s easy to drift off. In this seminar, students wouldn’t dare pick up their smartphones because they’re too busy working, thinking, asking questions. More, they have a top researcher there to prod them and assess their individual progress each week.

Benedikt Hallgrimsson, senior associate dean, education, in the faculty of medicine at the University of Calgary, sees entire programs for high achievers, including his own school’s bachelor of health sciences, as one part of the solution to better education. He says it isn’t elitist to suggest that Canadian universities carve out more programs for such students, because the sooner we admit that most students aren’t suited to research-based degrees, the sooner we will offer them a university-hosted curriculum that serves them equally well. “Universities are no longer the place where the academic elite go,” says Hallgrimsson. “They’re not quite an extension of high school, but an extension of general education. We’re still trying to expand the old models to fit the needs of all students and it’s clearly not working.”

The new model Hallgrimsson proposes includes two streams. The general university stream would teach the cultural literacy and technical skills needed to adapt to the knowledge economy. The other stream, “boutique” research-intensive programs, would offer more contact with professors and more academic work. Those students would be chosen in part by marks and in part by interviews, a step he’s hoping to take next year. There are two big caveats to his plan. First, to ensure fairness, students who show promise for academic research in their first year should be able to switch into the boutique stream. Second, the general stream also needs to be of high quality, even if it inevitably involves big classes.

James Côté, who literally wrote the book on student disengagement and the quality crisis, takes an even bolder approach. He says that many students shouldn’t come to university at all, but, instead, be streamed into vocational trades, diplomas and four-year applied degrees that match their interests and abilities better than research degrees. In order to do so, he agrees with Hallgrimsson that we need a culture change, that non-academic skills need to be highly prized in our society, like university degrees.

A country that does things better, in Côté’s mind, is Finland. In many cases, only those who score in the top quartile on matriculation exams get into universities. But by the time students write the exams, roughly half of students are well on their way to a job already, as vocational training is provided to them in high schools. The other half, who were in the academic stream, have the option of attending polytechnics should they not get into universities. The benefits, says Côté, are no $50,000 bills to pay at graduation (tuition is free), those who do attend research universities get a rigorous education, and those who don’t can get jobs earlier, rather than making up for lost time after university.

It’s not surprising that Côté has the word “elitist!” hurled his way, as disadvantaged groups will inevitably end up in vocational streams more often than in universities. His counter is this: “If you take all these students and give them a B.A. Lite, they graduate and get jobs they could have done with a high school diploma, but the difference is they’re $50,000 in debt.” He wonders whether social justice has been achieved.

David Trick, a top Ontario bureaucrat turned political scientist, thinks a better idea is the creation of more universities exclusively for teaching. Many students, he says, would benefit from the smaller class sizes such teaching universities could offer. Theoretically, when teachers spend most of their time teaching, class sizes can be halved. But critics argue that teaching universities are inevitably of lower quality, because research lures top professors and makes them better teachers.

Janice Stein, director of the Munk School of Global Affairs, is known to be a great teacher, even in 800-seat classes at Toronto’s Convocation Hall. She argues that although great lecturers can’t be made, most lecturers can be improved. “The key ingredient in a successful large lecture course is that the lecture is about solving a problem together,” she says, sounding very much like the goal of Murray’s seminars. Nick Mount, another University of Toronto lecturer and 3M Scholar, echoes the idea, saying that inquiry-based learning is the goal of good lectures: “That’s what I want every class to be—a feeling that we are in this together, that it is a process of mutual discovery,” he told Maclean’s. Both Stein and Mount accept that it’s more difficult to problem-solve in big classes, but they make it work.

What everyone does agree on is that big lectures aren’t working for all students. But as urgent as the discussion may be, Trick reminds us that the debate isn’t new. In 1955, Sidney Smith, then president of the University of Toronto, welcomed the onset of the baby boomer generation as an opportunity for universities to raise their standards and be choosier about their new recruits. “Clearly it didn’t happen that way,” says Trick, “and even if you could rewrite history, I don’t think we would have turned away the students who showed up.” That’s a statement that most Canadians would agree with. Whether or not Canadians will agree to creating a two-tier system to challenge high achievers is still up for debate. Just don’t call them elitist.

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