Books stacked on top of each other.C/O Cindy Cui

Students shouldn’t feel the need to “hold on” until reading week in order to be okay

Fall reading week has come and gone this year and I don’t know about you, but it felt like a blur.

Many Canadian universities, including McMaster University, have introduced a fall reading week in response to increased stress and mental illnesses in post-secondary students. Although introducing a week-long break from classes seems ideal in alleviating school-related stress, a 2018 study conducted at McMaster found that supporting students’ mental health is a bit more complicated than that. The study, which was conducted in 2015 when the fall break was introduced, found that although students had fewer stressors after reading week, they felt higher levels of stress overall. 

Although introducing a week-long break from classes seems ideal in alleviating school-related stress, a 2018 study conducted at McMaster found that supporting students’ mental health is a bit more complicated than that.

Many students commented that because of the added break, a shortened semester resulted in them having an increased number of midterms and assignments that occurred right after the break. So even though there was a break from classes, reading week is often spent studying or worrying about upcoming assessments.

Although this study was conducted five years ago, much of the data is still relevant. Since first-year, I’ve been fortunate enough to have a full reading week for the fall and winter semesters, but each year I’ve felt the need to catch up on work that was either overdue or prepare for a hectic week of assignments after the break. Reading week is simply not enough to support students’ wellbeing — and it is especially not enough if instructors just condense the work we have to do to “make up” for lost time during the break.

The university has a lot of work to do in order to give us an actual, restful break that helps improve our mental health. Second-year hit me hardest in terms of stress and as a result, I deferred two fall exams. As a result, I had to write two exams during the winter reading week. This meant that on top of taking my full course load, I had to prepare for two final exams right in the middle of the semester when many of my winter courses also had midterms or major assignments’ deadlines coming up. While these week-long breaks are supposed to be for our mental health, the winter break exacerbated my stress that year. 

This past reading week seemed even less restful, which was likely due to online classes and the pandemic. As our whole semester has been spent at home, spending another week — well, at home — didn’t really offer me with that mental pause in work and assignments. Yes, I didn’t have any synchronous classes to attend, but due to part of my course load being asynchronous, I already had fewer classes that I needed to attend synchronously this semester.

What I did have this reading week was a lot of work to catch up on or prepare for next week. This tends to be the norm for students every year, but with the anxieties surrounding COVID-19, being isolated from your friends and family and not being able to go out many places, this week was a lot more exhausting for me. Since in-person social interaction was limited and I was at home for the entirety of the week, every day I felt like I needed to do work and be productive.

I had a paper that was due right before reading week and four assignments due the week after — so of course, right after I finished my paper, I wanted to start working on the assignments so that their deadlines didn’t loom on the horizon.

Student mental health is more than just having a mid-semester break from classes and assignments. Many students like myself find that we just need to hold on until reading week; to simply finish our work and that as long as we don’t burn out until then, we will be okay. But once it’s reading week, we are allowed a moment to breathe before we must pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off again and continue working until we finish our exams — the light at the end of the tunnel. Then this cycle continues for the winter semester until summer break — unless you have spring or summer courses or work a job, of course. In that case, there are even fewer breaks that allow you to take a breather and actually, truly relax.

Student mental health is more than just having a mid-semester break from classes and assignments.

Giving us a reading week is a band-aid solution to a much larger problem. Students shouldn’t feel the need to “push through” to reading week and then “push through” to the end of exams. 

If McMaster wanted to ensure students had a restful break, fall exams wouldn’t be deferred to a break meant for our mental health. If McMaster wanted to ensure students had a restful break, we shouldn’t be overloaded with midterms, assignments and papers right before or after reading week.

I don’t have all the answers or solutions on how to improve student mental health. But what I do know is that if we want to truly support students, we need to do more than just providing two reading weeks.

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