The Faculty of Science has seen a 10 percent increase in the number of enrolments in its undergraduate courses for Winter 2021 in comparison to the winter semester last year. The statistic, which represents not only an increase in the total number of students taking science courses but also an uptick in the average number of courses each student is taking, has left some wondering what has motivated science students to press forward with demanding academic workloads following their experience of remote learning in Fall 2020.
The Faculty of Science’s Associate Dean (Academic), Axel Hundemer, points to the removal of enrolment caps on many science courses as one factor behind the increase – a change made possible by the fact that on-campus space constraints do not apply when courses are delivered remotely.
“Availability of rooms was not an issue this term (or last),” Hundemer explains. “In the past, we often had to turn interested students away due to lack of room space.”
Julia Czubik, a U2 anatomy and cell biology major who is taking five courses this semester just as she did in the fall, says staying on track with the requirements for her degree and setting herself up to pursue research next year have been the primary reasons for sticking with a workload she admits is “a little intense.”
“I know research courses can take up a lot of students’ time and a lot of their effort, so I knew that if I wanted to leave space for that next year, there were certain prerequisites I needed to get out of the way this year,” Czubik explains.
“My adviser said I needed to take at least one 400- or 500-level course — and I ended up taking two because they were interesting,” she adds with a rueful laugh.
When asked if the pandemic itself has had an impact on her academic decision-making, Czubik says a sense of there being “nothing really else to do” played some part. “It was the reason I took a summer course this summer. I wasn’t intending to, but I figured it would be very unlikely for me to get a job over the summer, so I decided I would take a summer course to fill my time and keep me busy.”
But it is far from certain that the increase in science enrolments in Winter 2021 can be attributed to students seeking to fill up whatever additional space in their schedules may have been created by Montreal’s nighttime curfew or the elimination of a daily commute to campus. Anyone game enough to make predictions about enrolments for the winter might have bet instead on students opting for a lighter course load after a fall semester of remote learning that many found difficult.
“Last semester was certainly challenging with all the time on Zoom,” says Freeman Taylor, a U2 science student whose degree focuses on conservation biology.
“It was a very hard adjustment because [before the pandemic] I was someone who liked to spend most of the day on campus,” he adds, singling out the Marvin Duchow Music Library as one of his favourite places to study between classes.
Nevertheless, having completed five courses in the fall, Taylor says he came into the winter semester with a sense of what to expect from the remote learning experience. He signed up for another five courses for Winter 2021, dropping back to four only after deciding he would prefer to take one of his 300-level geography courses once he had completed a recommended prerequisite next fall. His efforts in Fall 2020, which included the completion of a demanding organic chemistry course, also put Taylor ahead on credit points, giving him greater leeway to take a lighter course load this semester.
Resilience in challenging circumstances
While Julia Czubik says she doesn’t regret her decision to take on five courses this semester, she says the experience of studying remotely during the pandemic has taken a mental and emotional toll on her and her classmates.
“I was a little bit surprised to hear there was an increase [in enrolments], because a lot of my closest friends in my faculty have actually chosen to take fewer courses this semester,” she says.
Czubik notes that the pandemic-related cancellation of field semesters and Study Abroad opportunities may have been a reason some students ended up with a reduced course load this semester, but she also refers to two specific examples of friends who decided to take fewer courses “just to be able to stay on top of things, and also because they found last semester rather difficult.”
While there is likely to be as many individual experiences of studying during the COVID-19 pandemic as there are individual students, both Czubik’s and Taylor’s accounts suggest an underlying resilience and a capacity to adapt to challenging circumstances. Outside of study, Taylor does what he can within the public health restrictions to connect with friends and remain active.
“I feel like I have a good work-life balance,” he says. “I don’t feel like I’m clouded with work all the time. I feel like I can allot of good amount of time to it and still talk to my friends and go out and walk and do things that are safe when I can.”
Like Taylor, Czubik is grateful to have the company of a roommate: “I can’t imagine what students living alone right now would be going through. There’s only so much that Zoom can do.”
Upsides to remote learning
At McGill, the transition to remote course delivery has meant more than the obvious changes in where students and instructors are located and how they communicate with each other. In describing the adjustments instructors have made in their approach to engaging students in class and in the design of assessment tasks, Czubik notes a shift in emphasis from memorizing facts to applying conceptual knowledge.
“For me, at least, that’s a better way of learning, because I understand the concepts more and I think I can apply them better,” she says.
“I see that this format of learning almost pushes me to do the work and encourages me to stay on top of it, because I know I’m going to have to say something in class and talk about how I thought through a problem.
“The more I think of it, perhaps that’s why I chose to continue with the five courses [this semester], just because it’s an intriguing way to learn.”