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Paying for Grades

Underlying classism of undergrad sciences at McGill

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 diplomas, university environments can often feel more like a competition, especially in the sciences. Undergraduate general science courses are often filled with hundreds of intelligent med-school 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 500-1000 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 education, 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, however, I am very disappointed. I believe everyone should be able to succeed, period, no matter their financial situation.