St. Olaf’s culture pushes good grades, not learning

When I helped first year students during their move-in in the beginning of this year, I would always let out a small giggle every time I helped carry a student’s TV. I think they are too innocent and they are yet to discover the academic workload that St. Olaf has to offer. Good luck with even having time to watch TV.

St. Olaf, as stated by its mission, is a place to “cultivate breadth and depth in the skills, knowledge, and capacities that help students flourish in whatever future emerges.” Put it simply, it is a rigorous academic environment. 

The term “academic rigor” can have various definitions, depending on who defines it. For the school and the professors, it means to challenge students to think critically, perform and grow. For students, it can mean a higher standard of learning expectations and more school workload, more than their ability to discern the information and reach the learning outcomes they are accustomed to reaching. 

Does St. Olaf’s rigorous academic environment prompt students to want to actually learn, or just get good grades? As I was writing this, I spoke with my roommate and asked what his thoughts were on this matter. He was reading a book called “Stranger in Their Own Land” for his Political Science class, and the book is about the political divide in the United States. He told me how interesting the book is. But then he also told me he wishes he had time to spend and delve more into the subjects in the book, and understand the political climate in the country better.

 “Right now, I have to do a skim reading, because I have other commitments that I have to worry about,” he said. The point is, many courses at St. Olaf are reading-intensive, especially the humanities and social sciences and readings before the class are important for students to be able to participate in the classroom discussions. But most of the times, the readings can be overwhelming. 

With this enormous amount of reading, students (at least talking from my personal experience) opt for the speed-reading or skimming style in order to balance with other homework for other classes. Now, skimming is useful when it comes to reading newspapers and magazines, but not when you have to read about Keynesian economic theories or a book about globalization in India. Studies have shown that skimming doesn’t help you to generate sufficient insights from the pieces of information of the readings, and very little is being comprehended. 

This brings me to my second point, which is about balance. Can one maintain a good academic standing, while at the same time have enough time to spare between socializing, sleeping, exercising and studying in a highly competitive environment like St. Olaf? I would argue that often times homework is disproportionate to students’ ability not only to finish it, but to actually achieve the intended learning outcome from those assignments. Nevertheless, I would say that during my year and a half at St. Olaf, a lot of people I share classes with are very proactive in response to the pressure, such as finishing their assignments on time, meeting deadlines or getting grades that are no less than “B’s.”

As a trade-off, there are always people in the class who just look fatigued, sleep in class and are just exhausted after pulling an all-nighter the previous night. 

Funny thing is, I feel like professors generally are aware of this, but it seems like having academics stress and anxiety is a casual thing to happen, and it has been normalized.

On the other hand, an academically rigorous environment hinders participation in co-curricular activities. While rigor in academics is not only a phenomenon at St. Olaf, the overload of schoolwork can prevent students from participating in extracurricular activities, despite the fact that St. Olaf has over 200 co-curricular programs. 

Some students show up to the co-curricular meetings in the beginning of the year but gradually realized that they have no time to allocate to learn the things that they are passionate about. 

Thirdly, the liberal arts nature of St. Olaf challenges students through general education requirements, which allows students to take classes outside of their major, including two religion classes, science and lab, quantitative studies, multicultural global and domestic studies, to name a few. I have to admit that I really like this concept, as it prepares me to be an intellectually equipped person with broader knowledge outside of my expertise. But it is also not a secret that St. Olaf students take classes with the mindset “only to fulfill the GEs.” 

A lot of students compete to take classes that fulfill up to two GEs at the same time, without necessarily pay consideration to the content of the course. Also, some courses, especially from the language department, offer out-of-class language-related activities where students can earn extra credit for the class. However, this leads to students only going to the event for the credit. for example, most of the students who go to the language department movie nights only to get their name down, but spend the whole time on their phone, or leave before the movie finishes. 

St. Olaf, while it has outstanding academics, prompts good grades, not an actual learning environment.

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