Why bird courses are a bad idea Elective space should be seen as an opportunity, not a way to sidestep hard work

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By: Takhliq Amir

One of the earliest pieces of advice I remember getting when I began studying at McMaster was one I can almost guarantee every student has heard: to take bird courses.

Now I’m not sure where the “bird” in this phrase comes from, but its general meaning is to take courses that have easy content and are taught by easy professors.

There are several problems with this strategy.

Approaching one’s undergraduate degree with the mindset that a high GPA can be maintained by taking courses based on their level of “easiness” is fundamentally wrong for many reasons.

There might be individuals out there who may genuinely be interested in the course — trust me, you might think Earth Sci 2WW3 is just a bird course because it is about water, but it could be the best thing ever for someone out there — and if it has limited seats, then you may be taking a spot away from someone more deserving and definitely more invested in the content.

Even more than that, it represents beginning what should be the foundational point of one’s career with a way of thinking that essentially puts more trust in the difficulty (or lack thereof) of a course than in one’s own capabilities.

By deciding to take “easy” courses, students are essentially beginning a new journey considering themselves not competent enough to excel in tougher courses.

This certainly won’t apply to everyone, but there are many out there who begin university with the fear that their averages are going to drop by 15 per cent so they must try their hardest to avoid the “inevitable” failure.

There are people I know who have taken “bird” courses only to struggle often because they had absolutely no interest in the topic, thus eventually not putting effort into the course and suffering academically as well because of that.

Studying at a university allows you the freedom to choose courses from an incredible list of options. As a health science student, I was so excited to have had the opportunity to take a history course this semester, even though it may not necessarily count as one of the easier electives that others had recommended.

I took it because it is a subject I have always found to be fascinating — there are a lot of lessons to be learned from the past, and it can be incredibly entertaining too — but could not take due to limited elective space in the past.

It has required effort but it has also been rewarding and enjoyable, which has done a lot to push me to work hard for the course.

By deciding to take “easy” courses, students are essentially beginning a new journey considering themselves not competent enough to excel in tougher courses. 

This is what I see as the purpose of elective courses. Most often it is an opportunity to pick the courses that you might be interested in, but it can also be a chance to step out of your comfort zone or explore something completely unique.

From beginner language courses to community-based engagement projects, all this elective space is there to give us students the resources and opportunity to increase our knowledge, improve our skills and develop our own undergraduate pathway.

It can expose us to other cultures, beliefs and perspectives, and push us to open our minds and see things in a way we may never have otherwise.

These types of scenarios can be so invaluable in teaching us about the incredible complexity of the world and the diversity of the populations that inhabit it.

I can completely understand the need to maintain a high GPA, and I would never say that students should not be strategic about choosing their courses.

It certainly would not be the best to take a course that is just not manageable in a particularly difficult semester, but it may not be to the benefit of one’s personal development to take courses that are also too easy (and sometimes boring).

When the interest is there, the hard work and effort usually follows. By taking courses simply on the basis of an easy mark, students do themselves the disservice of not trusting their own abilities and thus limit their experiences, knowledge, and growth.

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