Many research universities trade on their names. These schools are thought to grant valuable degrees because of its academic reputation. We tend to view research universities as the epitome of high-quality learning environments, when in fact, they are anything but. The structures research universities put in place to maintain their reputations directly contradict what is understood to be a good learning environment. What’s more, prioritizing research puts the education of undergraduates on the back burner, and students are tested using methods that only suit a few. If schools such as McGill really want to lay claim to being the best school in Canada, they need to adopt an alternative approach.

McGill has an institutional culture that is common in research universities: undergraduate education is undervalued, while academic research is prioritized. The result is a cold and informal brand of education. Look, for example, at how first-year courses are structured: lecture-style courses with huge enrolment numbers in which students have little to no contact with the professor, but rather with a group of teaching assistants (TA) who very often have next to no pedagogical training.

Because class sizes are big, students can often feel ignored. This is harmful because a lack of individualized attention stunts educational development. It’s true that some academic staff don’t care, and teaching is merely something they have to do to receive grant money; however, it’s an oversimplification of the issue to place the blame solely on TAs and professors. Instead, we should blame the constraints that are placed on them by the research-university structure. It’s nearly impossible for a professor to give 500 students individual attention, even if all the professor had to do was just teach. Research universities require staff to do much more than teach in order to get tenure, and it’s expected that they will produce work that will increase the prestige of the school. While this work is valuable, in some ways the cost is paid in the quality of undergraduate education.

Evaluation methods that favour the few

Further, multiple-choice exams, which are common at large universities, don’t foster critical and connective learning. Knowing the right answer does not equate to being able to connect it to the big picture, and regurgitating information is not indicative of critical thinking. If anything, this method of assessment stunts intellectual development. Some will still argue that having everyone do the same assessment provides a level playing field, but this is just false. Everyone has a different way of learning — whether it be visual, auditory, kinesthetic, or otherwise — and the way in which you learn will directly affect how you well you will do on tests.

The fact is, there is no one way to measure someone’s intelligence or grasp of a subject. Trying to impose one form of measurement is not only unfair to some, but often discouraging and dismissive. The reason the system is set up this way is to make it easy to point out who is the ‘best’: either to make it easier for companies to hire from a mass of similar people, or for universities to be able to boast of their success and secure more funding. But what’s the point? Standard assessment methods are almost completely subjective — the only thing they show is that the student can succeed within the specific constraints of the institution. Test results do not measure the kind of creativity and independence of mind that make one grow as person.

Education should be a mutual agreement between student and teacher, where the student tries his or her best to learn, and the teacher does his or her best to convey information to the student in a way that fits his or her learning style. A good learning environment accomplishes this by focusing on the quality, rather than the quantity, of the content. Real learning requires a personal relationship that allows new perspectives to not only be heard but valued, and an environment where different styles of learning are welcome.

Unfortunately, this is not the kind of learning environment that we have at institutions like McGill. In order to improve the quality of education at research institutions, students need to be considered the priority, instead of numbers. McGill needs to turn toward alternative models of education, which put individual student needs ahead of everything else, in order to stop discriminating against students based on poor teaching and subjective assessments.

Alternative models of education 

Though the situation seems bleak, it’s actually not out of the grasp of research universities to adopt an alternative model. Take the faculty of Education at McGill: students are able to form a distinct and meaningful bond with their professors, which allows them to express how they want to learn. In my experience, it’s not uncommon in an education class to have the professor offer several options for final assessments in order to cater to the different learning styles of their students. In other words, students are put first, and everyone has an equal opportunity to learn. This learning environment fosters the idea that knowledge is the main goal, and grades are secondary. It also creates an enjoyable atmosphere that allows students to look forward to classes and learn out of genuine interest, and not out of fear of failure.

Research universities could also place greater emphasis on community-based education. The value of engaging with local communities as a form of education is that people’s lived experiences become just as valuable as the professor’s voice. This is incredibly important for tackling social justice issues, because it allows students to view the issues that they study firsthand and engage with people who actually have a stake in them. It’s clearly more valuable to learn Indigenous history from an Indigenous community, rather than from a book written by a white settler.

Research universities could start shifting to this model by actually valuing their communities, and working toward community engagement. The Social Equity and Diversity Education Office (SEDE) at McGill already does this. Another example is the ECOLE project, which not only conducts applied research on sustainability, but goes beyond this by offering a community space and a model for sustainable living. This allows students to continue their education beyond the walls of the classroom, leading to self-motivated and exploratory learning. These initiatives are good, but things would improve further if the model were applied more widely.

Some people might argue that there is no use for alternative education, and that they went through a large research institution and were able to thrive. But whether they would like to admit it or not, most people have had a teacher at some point in their life that encouraged real learning. This may sometimes happen at research universities, but the institution is not set up in such a way as to encourage real education. If anything, it discourages learning, and discriminates against some forms of learners. It’s only fair that we structure our higher education systems so that we might all have that chance.

This article was originally published in the McGill Daily. It is reprinted here with permission.

Artwork by Lia Elbaz.