Stress Tests

In 1936, McGill research assistant Hans Selye was studying sex hormones in rats at a lab on campus, where he made what was initially considered an insignificant observation. Selye found that all of the rats injected with parts of a cow’s ovary showed the same changes: the cortex (outer layer) of the adrenal glands’ became enlarged and hyperactive; the thymus, spleen, lymph nodes shrank; and deep bleeding ulcers appeared in the stomach and upper intestine. Selye kept investigating, until what was once seen as insignificant by his colleagues became accepted as the key signs of what he would come to call “stress”.

80 years after the term was first coined here, stress is still being studied at McGill—only now we the students are the lab rats. McGill’s policies on midterm examinations, in particular, result in an unwarranted amount of stress on McGill students.

Before exploring these policies further, a disclaimer is in order. I am aware of McGill’s reputation for tough love, a practice that, for decades, has resulted in a strong work ethic from its students—a quality that employers admire. Furthermore, McGill’s education model is completely different from that of small liberal-arts colleges, where students have weekly meetings with an advisor and are held by their hands throughout their four “formative years.” That being said, changes can be made to the midterm process while maintaining McGill’s tough love model.

80 years after the term was first coined here, stress is still being studied at McGill—only now we the students are the lab rats.

Midterms at McGill are hell. This is known across campus, regardless if you study Honours Investment Management or Art History. I am fine with the academic rigor of midterms, but the lack of a well-defined “midterm season,” no cap on the number of midterms in a given time period, and the lack of a fall reading week, are, in many ways, impeding the ability for McGill students to succeed.

Although people complain about final exams and the “McGill bureaucracy,” McGill’s final exams are fair, thanks to well thought out policies. You can defer one exam with no questions asked; if you have three exams in twenty-four hours you can re-schedule one. When it comes to midterms, however, there are no such policies.

In the three years I’ve been at McGill, I have had midterms start from the last week of September to my last one being halfway through November. Why can’t the university designate a period where classes are suspended for midterms? If they don’t want to suspend classes, why can’t they constrain midterms to a two or three week period? This would allow students to adequately allocate their time and effort in a fixed amount of time, rather than having students look like zombies and falling behind in classes for what feels like two months.

On the same note, how can you be expected to properly write 4 midterms in under 24 hours when it is a crisis if you have 3 finals in 24 hours? I’m sure the argument is that finals are worth more, and are thus more serious and stressful than midterms. While there are some classes where the final is worth more than 70% of the final grade, most have midterms worth 25-40% and finals are worth 35-50%. So why can’t the same policy be applied to midterms?

While the points above are significant issues, they pale in comparison to the real question: Why doesn’t McGill have a fall reading week? One possible argument is that McGill is a superior institution than the other top 5 schools in Canada, and, as such, expects more from its students and that means balancing midterms without a break. Indeed, the people who know me, know that I love flaunting McGill’s ranking and wearing the “Harvard is America’s McGill” shirt. This argument, however, is fallacious. The University of Toronto is McGill’s direct competition on almost every metric—yet they have a fall reading week.

I would even go so far as to speculate most students would be willing to start the semester a week earlier if it meant getting a break mid-semester.

Another argument could be that students do not actually read on “reading week”—they spend the week crushing brews, having parties, or going to Punta Cana. While the American Pie movies are sound evidence for that argument, other institutions of higher learning actually understand the use for a reading week. For example, Mont Royal University in Calgary, Alberta added a reading week for the first time this semester. Their reasoning was not to allow students a week to get hammered, but rather a week to get healthy. The university’s administration understood the positive effects of a reading week mainly for “students’ mental health and well-being.”

While a fall reading week might not mean McLennan at full capacity, it would mean that students actually have the time to go to their professor’s office hours or see their advisors. If I had a fall reading week, I know I wouldn’t waste it on St. Laurent. Rather, I would go home and see my family, recharge, and then be good to go for midterms. McGill already starts school a week before all of the Ontario universities, and ends later too, so giving up 5 days of classes would not be too difficult. I would even go so far as to speculate most students would be willing to start the semester a week earlier if it meant getting a break mid-semester.

McGill is a world renowned institution filled with brilliant professors and students, and everyday that I walk on campus I feel proud and a little bit superior to other Canadian students. Stress has been on McGill campus since its founding in 1821, long before Selye discovered it, and will always be around just like McGill’s tough love model of education. But if McGill can reform its mid-term policies to include a defined midterm season, a reading week, as well as a cap on exams, just like the rats in Selye’s lab, McGill’s students will be able to rest and breathe easier.

1 Comment

  • Nick D says:

    A lovely idea for an article, but such atrocious logic and research went into this. The reason, as mentioned endless times by SSMU and the McGill Bureaucracy is to do with a yearly requirement of classes for engineering students (an issue that its the excuse used). If you did research IF you looked at this your article would be more than a half baked opinion peice.

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