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Nuances in part-time study
While one can appreciate that it may not be the best decision
for students to work extra hours to fund the car or cellphone
account at the expense of taking their courses seriously, it
seems naive to presume that those are the only reasons that
drive them to take a reduced load (“Talking out of school,”
January 2012). There are many reasons why students must take
a reduced load, encompassing everything from single parent-
hood and elder-care to personal disability. To talk about how
institutions could give incentives for full-time classes or penalize
reduced loads is just another example of the institutionalization
of barriers to those who must do things differently from the
“average” student. These students do not ask to be evaluated on
a different scale. They simply ask that they be given a chance
to show what they know, even if sometimes they must do things
differently. Every time we introduce a new requirement without
first considering the impact on these students, we unthinkingly
put up another roadblock in their educational journey.
Don’t be fooled
The high cost of
by Craig Monk
CraigMonkisaprofessorof Englishandassociatedeanin thefacultyofartsandscience attheUniversityofLethbridge. Hiscolumnappearsinevery secondissue.
44 / www.unverstyaffars.ca / January 2012
rom college town to urban campus,you
see them night and day. They are serving
coffee, waiting tables and stocking shelves.
They will check your gym membership
when you stand before them in sweats;
they will decline your credit card at the supermarket, and you will wonder whether they laugh
at you behind your back.
They are your students.
There is a long, proud tradition of working
while going to school. Part-time students take a
class or two, usually at night, while they pursue
careers during the day. But many working students are full-time students, taking retail shifts
at the expense of classes.
As an undergraduate in the 1980s, I paid my
tuition by working at a record store and avoided
student loans. But, I only worked 16 hours a
week and full-time in summer. Students today
cannot meet their financial obligations by working three shifts at minimum wage, yet they still
need to supplement personal savings and government aid – so they commit to more work.
For as long as I’ve been teaching, I’ve been
asked to accept that reduced course loads are good
for students. Parents repeat this to each other on
orientation day. Our academic regulations normally require students in academic peril to take
fewer classes. But mounting evidence suggests
that this approach may be wrongheaded.
At my institution, studies show no statistical
difference in performance between students tak-
ing four classes a term and those taking five; but
students taking three classes actually perform
worse. While students taking four may need extra
study time to compete with classmates taking
five, students doing three – considered “full-time”
by loan administrators – are likely distracted by
what they are doing elsewhere.
Two years ago, our academic advising unit
began a project to assist struggling students with
course selection. These students were asked to
revisit an adviser during the semester and to
attend remedial workshops. Four in five students
in this program improved their standing by
maintaining a full course load. By comparison,
only about half of our students in peril improved
their grade-point averages by reducing their
Of course, students in the advising unit’s
project were more motivated; for a variety of
reasons, they wanted to keep taking five classes.
And you could argue that such extensive remediation would help anyone improve.Still, the
success of students who were made to focus on
schooling draws into question any “go slow”
While a reduced course load might lower
tuition in any given semester while allowing students to make the rent, there are long-term costs
for everyone involved. Students who take five
classes a semester will be able to graduate most
undergraduate programs in four years.
Universities’ sequencing and staffing plans
assume that students follow 10 classes a year, but
that isn’t always the case. Students on reduced
load will inevitably miss a critical course offered
only in autumn, and they will demand that we
mount an additional spring section that numbers
don’t justify. They may even expect that, instead
of being asked to wait for the missed course,
they’ll be absolved of having it in their programs.
So,while student achievement in degrees earned
more slowly is likely to be hindered by distrac-
tion, there is also pressure to dilute the content.
Mediocre performance in compromised programs
does much more harm to careers than part-time
jobs do good.
While there is no simple fix to the student
funding crisis, it seems to me that bold action
is warranted. It begins by acknowledging that
part-time work that requires students to reduce
full-time study is harmful to us all. We could
reorganize programs to mandate a series of co-requisites that obliges students to do programs
in blocks; and tuition schedules could be rearranged to provide an incentive to students doing
a full load of five classes.
But when students have come to expect education “their way” (like the fast food sold in the
restaurants where they work their off-hours),
which school will be the first to blink? Will a
public that believes universities to be impractical
support any plan to shelter our students from the
real world? And, though we're told that retail jobs
aren't careers for graduates,can businesses afford
to have their staff move on without the promise
of a new generation shackled to the till?
Mr. Reinhardt, who teaches psychology at a postsecondary institution in Toronto, is currently on sabbatical.
Part-time student heroes
Sadly, one of the reasons for buffet-style learn-
ing is the idea that everyone needs a university
degree to get a job. The university experience,
then, is merely an endurance test, much like high
school (“Get through but don’t worry because
most of what you learn won't be applicable any-
way”). Genuine learning takes time and effort,
whether students are taking three, four or five
courses. The critical reading, thinking and writ-
ing required for that kind of learning is difficult
and often daunting to those who have no real
idea why they are in university in the first place.
As former coordinator of Weekend Univer-
sity, a University of Calgary program designed
for the adult student who wanted a degree but
ies out with the murky bathwater that is the post-
secondary world today. Are our universities put-
ting pedagogy at the forefront? Or are they
creating an industrialized conveyor belt to crank
students through as quickly as possible, with
maximum flexibility of course choice, much as
we choose between potato or macaroni salad in
the cafeteria? Or are we designing educational
systems that flow, that make sense, that have an
internal integrity which would make taking
course X before course B not only impossible but
Margo M. Husby
Dr. Husby is a senior instructor of Western heritage in the depart-
ment of communication and culture at the University of Calgary.