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Fall reading break won’t solve problem of student mental health, expert says

Many UBC students believe the recuperation an extra break provides would be a welcome change

By Ben Boddez , in City , on November 19, 2018

A school-psychology professor at the University of British Columbia warns that adding a week-long reading break to the fall teaching schedule will not be a catch-all solution to the problem of student mental health.

Bill McKee said a properly scheduled break could be crucial to relieving stress and anxiety among students. However, he also cautioned students to “seriously consider” all of the consequences when voicing their opinions at an upcoming town-hall meeting Tuesday. The meeting is the first chance students will have to debate the long-discussed option.

“I think the whole notion of the recognition of the challenges that students are facing is very valid. How we respond to that, of course, there’s lots of ways,” said McKee, a member of the academic policy committee that will aid in making the final decision.

UBC and McGill University are the only major Canadian universities that do not offer a fall reading break. Queens University was one of the first to implement one in 2013, after a survey conducted the previous year found 10 per cent of students had considered suicide in the past term.

UBC teaching schedule makes changes difficult

In recent years, calls for a fall reading break at UBC have grown louder but the university senate has hesitated. It rejected the idea last year due to disagreements about scheduling among voting members.

Giving students a week off in the fall would require adding more teaching days at either the beginning or end of term, as the current number of teaching days during the fall term is just above the minimum of 60 required by the province.

At Tuesday’s town-hall meeting, students will discuss options, including starting the term prior to Labour Day or condensing the exam period. The event is organized by UBC’s student union, the Alma Mater Society.

Compressing the exam period “creates equally significant mental-health challenges,” according to McKee, as students will face more exams in a shorter period of time.

“How do you justify creating a more difficult situation?” he said.

McKee said a shorter break of three to four days might be a more feasible option, but stressed the university should explore the issue of student morale more comprehensively.

Students study intently during breaks between classes.

“I’m not convinced that it’s only a matter of time available to students,” he said. “If opportunities for increasing student happiness are the goal, then I think we need to consider it more and all the dimensions that could contribute to that potential outcome.”

McKee drew attention to student isolation and loneliness as another major problem to be solved.

Jeanie Malone, a student senator assisting with the town hall, said the goal of the meeting is to understand how much students would be willing to sacrifice in exchange for a fall break.

“What we’re trying to get a sense of is what would be the ideal fall reading break in students’ minds,” said Malone, who also sits on the academic policy committee with McKee.

UBC students prefer a shortened exam period 

Many UBC students believe the recuperation an extra break provides would be worth it.

“I’m going through a period where it’s a midterm at least once a week, so I get no break at all until basically finals – and even then, that’s not really a break,” said Eric Newton, a second-year computer-science major. He said he could handle a condensed exam schedule, especially since a week off would allow more time to prepare.

Third-year arts student Britney Cheng sees an additional benefit: “I would prefer a shorter exam period because I’m not from Canada and I go home for breaks, and because of that I would like to spend as much time at home as possible.”

Cheng said the current term has given her less time for herself. “When I finish one assignment, there’s always something else that I have to work on, so that doesn’t give me much time to do things that make me actually happy.”

Malone believes that a strong turnout of students eager for change at the town-hall meeting could be the tipping point.

“If students show that they are very interested and that they would prefer this over any other options of not having a fall reading break, then I think there’s a good likelihood that [the AMS] will take it seriously.”