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During the fall term of 2015, McMaster University sent students in Level II and above a survey, asking them to evaluate their undergraduate experience thus far.
The Student Satisfaction Survey, created by the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, touched on a variety of different themes including resource availability, teaching quality and overall satisfaction with students’ chosen program of study.
The majority of the survey was multiple-choice with occasional boxes giving students the option of providing further comment. Since McMaster did not independently create the questionnaire, the survey only queried students’ overall university experience and general satisfaction.
With many students switching programs multiple times, McMaster has failed to create a system that asks targeted questions about academic experiences or gives students the chance to address their program-specific concerns. The OUSA survey may have brought up concerns about education in Ontario, but on our campus, there is no clear avenue for students to express their dissatisfaction without red tape getting in the way.
According to a recent four-year study by the National Centre for Education Statistics, 80 percent of undergraduate students in the United States change their majors at least once over the course of their education. A comparable study has not been completed in Canada, but with post-secondary teaching standards being comparable, and often ranked to be lower than those in the States, Canadian students likely face a similar level of indecision and dissatisfaction.
While the University does offer course evaluations and shared this survey as a stride to address student satisfaction, there are still numerous students who feel unfulfilled with their programs and degrees. The Silhouette sits down with four students who have had disappointing academic experiences to address the three main reasons why they feel or have felt dissatisfaction in their programs — waning interest, a lack of university guidance and the perpetuation of a harmful academic culture.
A change of pace
Shivani Seth, currently a second-year Philosophy and Biology student, found herself looking away from her initial program of study, Chemical Biology. Seth found that despite her love of the field, ChemBio’s focus was far too narrow. Seth was looking for a more holistic experience and she did not share the aversion to essay writing and formal presentations that her peers had.
“I remember one day in class we got a lecture on how to write: grammar, spelling, filler words, and I just sat there like, ‘we are getting a lecture on this.’ I think that’s when it hit me that maybe, what I like to do is different from what the rest of the class liked to do and I think that became more pronounced over the year.”
Upon realizing that the program was not her fit, Seth chose to transfer into a program in a completely different faculty — a decision that didn’t come without challenges.
“It was horribly difficult,” said Seth. “Switching to a whole different Faculty of Humanities, it felt very bizarre. I had to acknowledge I was giving up on previously earned credits. Some would be counted as electives … it was hard to swallow what I was giving up because it means I spent time in another field, basically building my way up there to find out I have to restart at the bottom of another field.”
Unlike Seth whose program was too narrow, fourth-year Honours Life Sciences student Umair Majid considered switching from his program during second year when he felt that the open-ended nature left him without a clear direction. The actual structure of the program streamlined Majid into a vague curriculum that wasn’t what he had in mind. With little guidance from academic advisors and administration, instead of switching programs, Majid looked to extra-curricular activities to find fulfillment while at McMaster.
For students who find themselves interested in their field of studies, but still not completely fulfilled, switching programs can be an extremely difficult decision. For some students, clubs have been the only way to find full satisfaction with their academic experience.
“I spend more time doing non-academic work than academic work. It’s about a 90/10 split, and that 90 percent basically makes my university experience so vibrant because the majority of those things are related some way to my studies.”
Majid used the program’s once overwhelming flexibility to orient his studies to those non-academic activities. Majid eventually became involved with lobbying for a new Life Science course and the start of the student organization “Overcome the Gap.” However, his faculty did very little to promote these non-academic opportunities for students looking for more guidance, yet it is a viable option for people struggling to fit into the broad program.
“The Life Sciences program did not provide the resources or the opportunities to take the knowledge I necessarily gained from all these different courses. I had to do that myself.”
The red tape
As with any other large organization, there are a number of areas where university resources can stumble and fail students. For Seth, it was her own expectations of the curriculum. But for Majid, it was his academic advisors and a lack of guidance from the university.
He found that due to the unspecified nature of the Life Sciences program, the advisors in the Faculty of Science were unable to help him and other students find some direction within the program.
“I feel that in the Life Sciences program they don’t understand what students go through,” he said.
“They should really do a better job at transitioning once you get your acceptance letter.”
According to Majid, the department makes occasional use of a bulletin board and email blasts, but the majority of information relates to environmental science, which is not necessarily the focus of the majority of students in Life Sciences. For him, research into his own program of study was of great interest, but not all students have the time or ability to make that a priority.
“To put it very simply, the students want something but … they don’t know where to reach out and they don’t know how to navigate [their program],” he explained.
The Faculty of Science currently provides five academic advisors for its roughly 6,000 students. While support staff are expensive to uphold, and asking for more advisors may not be feasible, there should still be other methods of guidance available to students so those asking questions are able to find answers.
Tobi Abdul, a recent graduate of McMaster’s Communications program, also found that information about her program was hard to come by, and the academic advising network wasn’t putting out the most helpful information. She initially accepted an offer for Social Work at McMaster, not realizing that unlike most other programs of its kind, Social Work was not a direct entry program.
“I like to look up everything,” she said, referring to the extensive university research she did in Grade 12. “And the fact that I didn’t realize Social Work wasn’t a [direct entry] program means that I wasn’t well-advised … I just didn’t have enough information.”
The small amount of information readily available to incoming students tarnished her experience getting started in the program. The lack of information prevented Abdul from entering her initial program of choice, but luckily, she eventually found a program and system that worked well for her.
“In my last year, I did really enjoy school. I got to take my independent study, I took classes that I wanted to, and at that point I knew how to write about what I wanted to while staying within the guidelines. It just came with a lot of experience, but I guess the end was better than the beginning.”
In addition to her early administrative challenges, she also found obstacles with Student Accessibility Services.
“I also had an ADHD diagnosis when I was 15, and when I got my admissions package, they made it seem like ADHD wasn’t accommodated because technically it’s not a learning disability,” said Abdul.
“I did first year twice because I just dropped so many classes I didn’t have enough credits to go into my second year because I feel like I wasn’t well-advised … they should really do a better job at transitioning once you get your acceptance letter.
That package should come with a list of things you need to know and not just the [link to] the website. They need to let students know what to look for. They need to change the way they lecture. They need to change the culture around lecture. It puts one learning style above others and it makes it difficult for people who don’t learn that way. There are professors who don’t have to use slides and that’s not fair. There are no requirements.”
While some may be able to transition out of an unpleasant academic situation with personal or academic changes, many students get caught in an unhealthy cycle that makes it difficult for them to want and accept necessary change.
Despite it not being everything she wanted, Seth clearly loved her previous program. “[ChemBio was an] interesting program, great program, but just maybe not the best fit for me,” she said.
While she found the material engaging, Seth was concerned by the lifestyle she and her classmates seemed forced to adopt. She described a routine where she consumed large volumes of coffee to stay awake to get work done. While other Chemical Biology students went to greater extents to minimize the amount of sleep they required.
“Everyone was on caffeine pills,” she said.
Chemical Biology students are certainly not the only group under this pressure. Helen Zeng offers another frightening version of this scenario. A second-year student in the highly competitive Bachelor of Health Sciences program, she found the mentality it breeds in students to be unhealthy and unsafe.
“I find that all my Health Sciences spaces tend to be much more stressful and anxiety induced … I have seen people who have developed anxiety issues … because of being in the program,” said Zeng.
She added that many of the students in her cohort refuse to even acknowledge the level of stress they are experiencing. “It’s almost like it’s a point of weakness … I think it makes it a very toxic environment to be in because that kind of stress can make you hate the things you’re learning, hate the program and get excessively stressed over very small things,” she said.
In a 2013 nation-wide survey on post-secondary students, 86.9 percent of students surveyed said they were exhausted, 56 percent felt overwhelming anxiety and nearly 10 percent had seriously considered suicide. There is clearly a problem with the way students are internalizing and reacting to stress, but many students can’t seem to let go of this harmful culture that is following their education.
“It’s competitive and it’s petty and I see people doing these things that I don’t think they should be,” said Zeng.
Whether students make the leap to a new program or stay with their original choice remains a highly personal decision that may still present its own challenges.
Ultimately Abdul was far happier in McMaster’s Communications program, however it took until her final year of school to feel satisfied.
Majid provides another case study of making his original program work for him. Now about to graduate, he feels he has a somewhat narrower sense of what he wants to do — education policy being on the list. He has helped revamp the Honours Life Sciences program, spinning his dissatisfaction with the program in a way that helps future students get more out of it.
Even Zeng, despite the unhealthy environment she has found in her program, has no plans to switch out. “It’s just studying alone or getting time outside of the program … I find that getting away from that and studying on my own is beneficial.”
While Abdul, Majid and Zeng all found ways to shape their program to meet their needs, Seth has so far found that she is happier in Philosophy and Biology. However, she is still apprehensive about whether switching was the right move. “I’m that puzzle piece that doesn’t know which puzzle I belong to. I’m watching everyone build their way up and here I am trying to figure out what I want to start working on and where I actually belong,” she said.
Seth acknowledges that her problem is one felt by many students. “I don’t think anyone at the end of the day knows if they’re doing the right thing. As easy as it is for me to say that everyone else has found that puzzle they belong to, I don’t think that’s necessarily true.”