Opinions, Editorials

Course Curriculum at BC Needs Greater Consistency and Oversight

When a student at Boston College takes a class to fulfill their core or major requirements, their only concerns should be about the class and its content—not which professor will guarantee them a less challenging curriculum.

In the “President’s Message” on BC’s website, a bold quote reads:

“Boston College endeavors to educate a new generation of leaders—men and women who will be capable of shaping the future with vision, justice, and charity.” 

Despite that commendable goal, BC’s students are not always offered the same education and skills to help them shape this future.

As students consider which courses to register for in coming weeks, most will factor in not only which courses they want in their schedules, but also which professors teach the various sections of these courses. What should be a simple selection process devolves into a race for the easiest teacher.

The wide variety of rigor and curriculums among different course sections is no secret in the BC community. From Rate My Professors reviews to anecdotal conversations, BC students are well attuned to the importance of selecting a vetted and well-regarded professor.

Not only can one undesirable professor adversely affect a student’s GPA, but the actual content being taught is oftentimes drastically different. One notorious example involves two sections of Brain, Mind, and Behavior, a required foundational course for psychology (B.A. & B.S.) and neuroscience majors, as well as a common choice for students seeking to fulfill their natural science core requirement.

Within two separate sections of the course, different textbooks are required. It is one thing for two sections of a humanities course—for instance, literature core—to have different assigned books and readings. But a natural science course, the content of which is based on consistent facts, should surely have the same textbook.

Beyond just this, a copy of each syllabus shows further differences. In one section, the teacher administers three in-person exams. For the other section, however, all three of its exams are administered outside of class on Canvas. Students are provided a two-day window to complete them.

Taking a test in a relaxed and comfortable environment is proven to improve performance.

When asked to comment on the inconsistencies across course sections throughout the psychology department, Andrea Heberlein, psychology director of undergraduate studies, said the department was unaware of student grievances regarding inconsistent curricula.

We haven’t heard any complaints about a lack of fairness,” Heberlein said in a statement to The Heights. “Though the two instructors offering the course [Brain, Mind, and Behavior] this semester use somewhat different course structures … we have taken pains to make sure that the same curriculum is covered in both sections in terms of topics and overall difficulty.”

Despite this supposed departmental oversight, students in these two sections continue to have vastly different experiences.

It is not just Brain, Mind, and Behavior either—the issue of content discrepancies between sections of the same course appears throughout the economics department as well.

During his freshman year, Ryan Albertson, MCAS ’26, took Principles of Economics, a required course for all economics majors and minors.

“I was struggling so much in my class,” Albertson said. “And my friend, he’s a bio major, he was like, ‘Dude that’s the easiest class I’ve taken at BC.’”

Albertson’s section of this course had to complete weekly quizzes in addition to the midterm and final exams. The same class with a different professor, however, only had to take three exams in total.

After facing difficulties in Principles of Economics, Albertson ran into even more issues fulfilling his major’s requirements when he took a section of Macroeconomic Theory that was taught by a PhD student.

Instead of administering a traditional in-person final exam, the professor tasked the class with completing a take-home exam. Much to the surprise of students in this course section, the content of their take-home exam went far beyond the material they had covered in class.

“It was the hardest take-home … and it wasn’t [my professor’s],” Albertson said. “He didn’t make it, he just found it. Like, it was on Chegg.”

Professors should administer exams that reflect the content taught in their courses and academic departments should oversee that they do so.

According to Donald Cox, director of undergraduate studies in the economics department, the curriculum of courses within the economics department is intentionally flexible to allow for a stronger and more holistic education.

“Some schools attempt to micromanage teaching with required texts or common exams,” Cox said in a statement to The Heights. “That’s always a mistake. This sort of rigamarole stifles instructor creativity and dilutes the curriculum and ultimately harms students. Far better to strive for consistency in learning in a wide-ranging environment of pedagogical approaches.”

While forcing teachers to maintain a rigidly consistent teaching structure may hinder student experiences, BC needs to strike a better balance with this free rein, or students will continue to experience unequal and unfair outcomes in their courses.

Further, if professors are going to diverge from teaching the standard content of a course, they should, at the very least, reflect their section’s curriculum in exams. How can a student be expected to develop a strong academic skill set if they are not being taught about or tested on foundational concepts?

Academic department heads must provide more oversight to course curriculums and ensure that all students within a course, regardless of their professor, receive comparable exposure to material and a fair assessment of their knowledge. 

Students enrolled in the same course are entitled to the same education.

March 27, 2024

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