Philip Guo (Phil Guo, Philip J. Guo, Philip Jia Guo, pgbovine)

Mandatory course load limits for undergraduate students?

Students at universities such as MIT tend to take too many classes each term, which worsens the quality of their education and overall undergraduate experience. One extreme proposal that I explore in this article is to limit students to taking three classes per term on grades.

Last week, one of my college friends from MIT showed me this article written by a fellow alum: My World-Class Education At MIT Totally Screwed Me Over. It's a quick read, so take a look. My friend then posted this commentary about the article:

Have thought many of the same things myself. MIT provides amazing opportunities and there are amazing people there. But they need to figure out how every student can honestly learn there and not let kids like this girl, or me, or any number of the people I knew spend 4 years and not feel like we got much out of it but a name on the resume and friends who can commiserate with the experience.

I'm still glad I went [to MIT], but more for the people and experiences than the education. I just wish I had felt like I really learned a ton and understood the basics through the big picture of my degree. Instead, it always seemed like the big picture would click in the 2 weeks before finals and the rest of the semester I was lost. Having spoke to many peers, I know I'm not the only person who felt this way and it was 4 years of this. Maybe some people were talented enough to just understand and excel at things, but most kids at MIT are really smart kids so if they feel lost it means there must be a better way of teaching them.

My friends and I graduated from MIT almost a decade ago, and I've heard this sentiment repeated many times over the years. I also happen to be back on campus this year co-teaching a 250-student course on computer user interface design (MIT 6.813). So once again, I get to see firsthand how some of the smartest, most ambitious, and most hardworking young people are struggling to get through their classwork week after week. As illustrated by these quotes and anecdotes from current and former students, many don't feel like they're getting the most out of their classes.

We could enter into endless debates about how university classes could be restructured to become more pedagogically effective, but there is a simpler and more fundamental problem that first needs addressing. I feel that undergraduates at MIT (and similar colleges) take too many classes each term, so they don't have enough time to learn well in each class. The short-term solution is simple: make them take fewer classes.

Before reading further, note that mental health issues are very complex and serious. I'm not claiming that what I propose here is any sort of cure-all. But my hunch is that a lighter course load might enable students to take better care of themselves and seek much-needed help during this critical phase of life.

An (ab)normal course load

When I was an MIT undergraduate from 2001 to 2005, a normal course load was 4 classes per semester, and each class consumed around 12 to 25 hours per week. Many students took a fifth class either out of personal interest or simply because their friends were doing so (i.e., implicit peer pressure).

Thus, a typical MIT student spent anywhere from 50 to 90 hours per week on classes alone. I spent about 55 to 65 hours per week on classes, which was toward the low end. I purposely tried to take as few classes as possible and instead spent more time on research. (Note that full-time students at most colleges take 4 classes per term, but classes at MIT and similar schools are known to be extremely time-consuming.)

Any reasonable adult knows that these kinds of hours are insane! Nobody can consistently churn out high-quality work for that many hours per week. So is it any surprise that many MIT students fly by the seat of their pants throughout the term, constantly struggling to keep up with assignments, exams, and projects? Is it a shocker that most don't take the time to deeply absorb the course material, hold meaningful discussions with professors at office hours, or retain that knowledge after the term ends? Is it baffling that many are doing sloppy last-minute work, scrambling from deadline to deadline? Heck no! With such a heavy course load, every week is a struggle to keep pace, with no time left over for thoughtful reflection or metacognition.

MIT students start each semester super organized and ready to roll, only to see their well-laid plans crumble after the first few weeks. By the second month, it's a fight to stay afloat. And by the third month, they can't wait until the end of the semester. Repeat eight times, and that's an undergraduate career.

Emergent Problems

Lots of MIT students and alum pride themselves on this trial-by-fire grind. After all, they signed up to work hard and knew what they were in for. So what's the problem?

I suspect that this intense course load exacerbates inequity and gives a bigger advantage to students coming from more privileged backgrounds. For example, one of my good friends from college grew up poor in a small Montana town. Even though he was the best student in his high school, and probably in the entire state, he felt crushed by the MIT workload since it was much more intense than what he had ever experienced. In contrast, my friends from elite high schools such as Stuyvesant, Phillips Exeter, and Thomas Jefferson High came already accustomed to this pressure cooker environment.

A higher course load also gives an advantage to the most socially adept students, such as those who join prestigious social and living groups. These groups often maintain repositories of “bibles” containing assignments and exams from prior offerings of many classes. Thus, students in these in-groups get access to the best study resources to out-compete their less privileged peers. Yet they are often the ones who need the least help in classes, since their social cachet will boost their future career prospects regardless of college grades.

Even worse, such a heavy workload encourages bad habits ranging from flakiness (all too common) to cheating (rare but serious). Regarding flakiness, it's hard for a student who is working the equivalent of two full-time jobs to always be responsive, conscientious, and on top of everything in their lives. And regarding cheating, I'm an optimist, so I don't believe that most MIT students who cheat do so because they lack integrity. Rather, I think they resort to cheating since they simply don't have enough time to complete their next assignment or to properly study for their next exam.

Yes, I know each student must take personal responsibility to better themselves. But such an intense, class-heavy university environment makes it hard to foster good work habits without extraordinary effort. Back in college, I remember everyone collapsing to bed on Friday night, having barely survived the prior week, only to wake up on Saturday morning and start the endless weekend homework grind. There's just not enough time or energy left over for self reflection or improvement.

But what's the point?

What's the point of this self-imposed suffering? It doesn't help anyone's career prospects. Never once has any employer I know cared about how many classes someone took in college. Nobody even lists their classes on a resume. The only class-related item on a resume is GPA, and taking more classes each term will probably lower it.

If you're a student, I'd argue that taking more classes actually worsens your chances of getting an interesting job since it leaves you with less time in college to develop deep expertise or to create anything original. For four years, you're surrounded by some of the most ambitious, creative, and hardworking peers of your generation. And yet you're spending most of your time doing routine classwork that already has a right answer just waiting to be found and graded with a check mark.

In the nearly ten years since college graduation, never once have I heard any of my classmates say that they wished they had taken more classes, or pulled more all-nighters, or done more problem sets, or crammed for more exams. If anything, my college friends wished that they had more free time to pursue their existing hobbies or to develop new ones during those formative years.

I totally understand that some students want to challenge themselves by taking more classes. One of my dorm-mates regularly took 6 to 8 classes each semester just for fun, not because he cared about jobs or glory. But he was an outlier, and people shouldn't look to him as a model for expected behavior.

But no matter how much I, a crusty old alum, rant against taking so many classes, students will still look up to their peers who are doing more, more, more. They're not going to take fewer classes and aim for a balanced lifestyle when all of their friends are pulling 80-hour work weeks and bragging about how busy they are. I wouldn't expect any less from a pack of overachieving 18-year-olds who are all accustomed to being the best.

My proposal: A mandatory course load limit

My extreme viewpoint is that the only way to start changing the culture is by setting healthy expectations from day one via official university policies. Here is a proposal for a school like MIT:

  • Nobody can take more than 3 classes per term on grades.
  • Any additional classes must be taken on pass/fail, which essentially turns them into extracurricular activities.
  • Students can petition to take extra classes on grades if they have a high GPA, but they are discouraged from doing so.

This proposal establishes a baseline of 3 classes per term rather than 4. Doing so will bring class-related work hours down to an estimated 45 to 60 hours per week, which is the equivalent of a demanding full-time job, not an unsustainable cram-fest.

Also, a few classes must be eliminated from each major's degree requirements. However, those can be replaced with pass/fail electives. And double-majoring will be nearly impossible. A possible remedy is to still allow double majors, but to designate one as the primary major, and the other as the secondary major comprising mostly of classes taken on pass/fail.

I'm not expecting this change to be easy, or even feasible, since there is massive amounts of politics around re-organizing course requirements. Professors are rightly proud of their own classes and will not want to see them cut or downgraded to pass/fail electives. Any policy this drastic needs to be carefully thought-out, but hopefully this idea sparks some initial debate.

Hopeful Outcomes

At my idealized version of MIT with this policy in place, everybody will take at most 3 classes on grades, and nobody will be praised for taking more. I want students who petition to take a heavier course load to be explicitly viewed as outliers, not as role models. And I don't want anyone to feel inadequate for taking only 3 classes, since that's more work than a full-time job.

I hope that all students can learn something substantive from their 3 classes rather than spreading themselves too thin in 4 or 5 classes, scrambling to finish one class's problem sets while sitting in the lecture hall of another class. And imagine what they can do with 10 to 30 hours of extra free time each week. As much or as little as they want! That's the point.

A mandatory course limit will finally give MIT students much-needed time to live out the prime of their youth without constantly feeling guilty that they ought to be doing more classwork at every waking moment. A ton of situated and serendipitous learning happens outside of the classroom. I want students to experience the joy of that kind of learning, since they already get more than enough structured book learning from three classes each term.

I also hope that this policy levels the playing field a bit and gives students from less privileged backgrounds a better chance at thriving than the current sink-or-swim environment does. Nobody is giving any handouts or “watering down” the curriculum for certain students. I want everyone to do better.

Note that this policy doesn't prevent the most overeager students from taking as many classes as they want on pass/fail. I know that some want to take extra classes out of genuine personal interest, so pass/fail gives them enough motivation to do the work without stressing over grades. Taking a class on pass/fail turns it into an extracurricular activity, which can later be dropped without consequence or guilt.

Also, this policy doesn't prevent students from filling up their schedule with tons of time-consuming extracurricular activities and spreading themselves too thin that way. So it's still possible for students to feel overwhelmed despite the lighter course load. But I'm not comfortable with trying to regulate extracurricular time, so it's up to each student to find a balance for themselves.

Finally, why must such a course load policy be mandated? Why can't professors just encourage students to take fewer classes? Because as long as the rules allow it, hordes of overachieving 18-year-olds at MIT and similar colleges will overload on classes because that's what they've been conditioned their entire lives to do – maximize, maximize, maximize – and because all of their friends are doing it too. I don't like this trend, so that's why I want to work toward a future where students can make the most of their college experience without implicit pressure to take too many classes. While policies such as course load limits are not a cure-all, they can nudge students away from unhealthy excesses.

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Created: 2014-04-21
Last modified: 2014-05-02
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