MOOCs and Cramming

Working my way through four years worth of classes over the last eleven months required dusting off those academic study habits that tend to go fallow post graduation.

This includes good habits such as pacing your work, reading books and articles closely and quietly, taking notes during lectures, researching thoroughly and double-checking written assignments for typos before submitting them.  But it also includes less pedagogically ideal learning and studying techniques, such as the ones I became famous for during my undergraduate years when friends gave me the handle of Captain Cram.

I earned this nickname Sophomore year while taking way more courses than I should have due to a inability to balance classes I wanted to take (including history and humanities courses) with classes I had to take for my science major.  This led to a series of all nighters during reading period where an endless supply of grinders (also referred to as subs or hoagies outside of Connecticut) kept me nourished and Ramones played at full volume through earmuff-style headphones woke me up just enough to make it through final exams.

It was only after looking at my college transcript for the first time in over thirty years that these memories came flooding back, ‘Nam flashback style.  And as I look out over this week when I’ve got to catch up on a half dozen labs for HarvardX’s Science and Cooking class, those aforementioned bad habits have returned to the fore (coupled, one hopes, with a renewed ability to cram like I used to).

Now back in the day, homework didn’t consist of cooking molten chocolate cake and then answering some multiple-choice questions about the experience.  Nor were deadlines quite as generous as they are in today’s MOOCs.  For example, a lab that asked us to figure out how to cook a perfect egg was assigned during the second week of Science and Cooking back in October with a deadline in November.  And when the edX platform had a glitch after a system update last week, the professors extended the deadline to December, giving us close to two months to do some successful egg poaching and write a few sentences about the experience.

MOOC deadlines are usually stretched out to give students who might start a course a few weeks after the start date the chance to stagger classes to fit their schedule, balancing the regimentation of a synchronous course with the flexibility of an asynchronous one (again, using my eccentric definition for those two terms) to maximize student participation.  And while such deadlines might be generous, they are not flexible (try finding someone to ask for an extension for that MOOC assignment you’re struggling with to see what I’m talking about).

But the breathing room many professors give their online students to complete course work at a reasonable pace also allows a certain type of student to put everything off until the last minute in the hope that they can pull the equivalent of a few all-nighters in order to stuff weeks or months of course work into just days.

I suspect that if you could analyze why students who had every intention of completing a MOOC ended up dropping it was because they let too many weeks go by and, with deadlines looming and work mounting up, it became easier to quit a course that wasn’t going to appear on any permanent record.

Now in my case, it’s just my cooking labs I’ve let slip so I’m not panicky about finishing this or any of the other courses in my Senior Year lineup.  But if there’s ever the chance to dive into enough course data to determine if there are some serious crammers out there, I’d love to hunt them down (if only invite them to get together for a grinder).

One Response to MOOCs and Cramming

  1. Gideon Baumeister November 19, 2013 at 5:01 pm #

    The inflexible structure of University education is often ill-suited to the young adult mindset, the creative eccentrics or the poor planners. Not to mention someone who needs to upskill mid-career with a family to take care of and a mortgage to pay for example. Many online course providers understand that one of the many benefits of the technology over the bricks-and-mortar counterpart is flexibility in delivery. Self-paced learning is essential for many non-traditional students online, allowing them to balance commitments and further their education and careers. ALISON ( is one course provider that has achieved better completion rates than most given that their learning platform is always on and the user can complete each component of a course at their own pace — with 2 million learners and counting, they must be on to something — it’s an element that MOOC providers need to bear in mind.

Leave a Reply