Don’t pretend you haven’t taken a “bird course” in university. Easy classes are sought by many students looking to boost their GPA when they feel the pressure. Some students take them just to see if the course really is as easy as their friends say.
An article published in Metro this August, “These courses are bird-brained”, discusses an online resource for students where ratings are posted for classes at many universities, including which are the easiest to get a good grade in with minimal work. Created by Colin O’Farrell 10 years ago when he was almost 30, the website, birdcourses.com, has taken off in the past two years, Metro reports.
The classes are ranked on a scale from one to five, where five denotes the easiest courses. Several courses offered at U of T have ratings between 3 and 4.50, including Introduction to Sociology, Expressive Writing, and an ecology course, to name a few of almost 100 courses listed on the site.
Upon hearing this, professors on campus had a few words to share about how easy they think their courses really are.
Prof. Jayne Baker, who teaches Introduction to Sociology this year, was surprised to hear that her course had been ranked as easy.
“Historically, the average [grade in] SOC100 is around 65%. Last year it was 62%,” Baker says. “If I were to poll my current students, I don’t know that they would agree it’s a bird course.”
She also doubts that the website reflects the significant changes that were made to SOC100 in September.
“I think it’s possible there are some students who believe a course that has multiple choice tests is, perhaps, easier because they think multiple choice is easier,” Baker says. “But 45% of the mark comes from multiple choice.”
Baker revealed that her current class’s average has ranged from 60% to 67% on the past few tests. “I disagree […] because I see the grades,” she continues. “Keep in mind also [that] those end-of-year averages don’t include the students who dropped out early because they did really poorly in the beginning of the course.”
Rahul Sethi, a sessional lecturer in the professional writing and communication program, teaches three writing courses this semester. One of his courses scores 4.5 out of 5 on O’Farrell’s website, but Sethi observes that a passionate writer can mislead impassionate writers into thinking that a writing class is easy.
Sethi has heard that some students take his classes believing them to be bird courses; students have even told him directly that they think his class is easy during one-on-one critique sessions. Sethi believes that students underestimate how demanding a writing-intensive course like Expressive Writing can be. In fact, though 35 students (the maximum allowed in the class) begin the class each term, with more on the waitlist, a large chunk leave after seeing their marks a few weeks into the semester.
“I think one of the things with the writing course is that [in] a lot of them, we don’t tell you to do research, we don’t tell you to write them in an essay format, we don’t tell people to cite all kinds of stuff,” says Sethi. “People think that [because they] don’t have to do all this other extraneous stuff, creating this content will be a lot easier.” Some of the classes labelled “bird courses” have been so for years, and the Metro article cited Steve Joordens, coordinator of pedagogical development at U of T’s Scarborough campus, saying that a perennial bird course can be a sign of a professor’s lack of engagement.
Baker said it was hard to comment on such a claim. “I don’t think it’s fair to equate what a website says to the quality of an instructor. I wouldn’t make that kind of direct link,” Baker says. “I think, as instructors, we have to always look to make our courses interesting and relevant. But at the same time, some courses will appeal to some students and won’t to others. I don’t think that’s carelessness on the part of the instructor.”
Sethi argues that if students understand the content, the instructor could be doing a good job. But he concedes that it’s difficult to gauge. “It’s kind of a catch-22,” says Sethi. “There’s so much involved. Are they getting the content across? Do they mark easy? How do students gauge what is a bird course?”
Baker believes nothing needs to be done about bird courses. “From an instructor’s perspective, I don’t think they exist,” she says, and adds that the more students use websites like O’Farrell’s, the more accurate the information will be, which for her means the disappearance of the label.
In the end, says Sethi, professors don’t blame students for taking what they believe to be a bird course to boost their GPA, especially since there’s so much competition in university. “But what I do think students should do is admit a course is easy due to their personal views,” he says. “There should be more of a dialogue rather than these tags that a class is easy.”