On December 15th, 2021 the University of Toronto announced that all remaining in-person exams for the Fall 2021 semester would be canceled due to outbreaks of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 across Ontario. However, the Faculty of Engineering was ill-prepared to handle everything that followed. Their response was not well communicated at all, and arguably insulting to the larger student body.
Before we delve into anything else: the response of most U of T faculties to outright cancel all in-person exams was outside of the norm; the vast majority of other universities had a few days buffer period of in-person exams or exams that got rescheduled for later in December, and then moved the rest of them to an online format. The option to move exams online was explicitly laid out by the Vice Provost in their initial email, released in advance of any faculty-level decisions. It was the individual faculties of Arts & Science and Engineering that opted to cancel exams outright. Considering the circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic as a whole, the lack of a contingency plan that would allow a smooth transition to online exams is simply unacceptable for faculties that deem themselves amongst the most prestigious and advanced in all of Canada.To give credit where credit is due (haha – get it?), the Faculty of Arts & Science gave students the option of declaring any of their courses with the exams affected with a “Credit or No Credit” (CR/NCR) notation (including program requirements). Moreover, students from this faculty could request a late withdrawal (LWD) instead. They also had the option to take deferred exams in April 2022, all after receiving their marks back in January.
Some more context for those of you unfamiliar with all of these policies and notations: any course with the CR/NCR option selected on Acorn will appear as either CR, meaning you have received the credit for the course (i.e., passed it), or NCR, meaning you have not received credit for the course (i.e., failed it). LWD means you withdrew from the course past the drop deadline, with no distinction of if you passed it or not. The key idea behind all of these notations is that they completely replace both the lettered and numbered grade for the course on your transcript, and prevent that numerical grade from being counted towards your GPA. In normal circumstances, Arts & Science students are eligible to choose CR/NCR for up to 2.0 credits (i.e., four half-year courses) on their transcript through Acorn. However, they must do this before taking their final exams and without seeing their final mark in the course, and they cannot apply this notation to program requirements, meaning any course that counts for a major/minor, leaving them only to be used on breadth requirements. They can also LWD from 3.0 credits. The Engineering Faculty, by contrast, does not allow for either under normal circumstances.
“Normal circumstances” is an important distinction, as there have been two exceptional circumstances in which the faculty has allowed for CR/NCR and LWD for its courses. The second instance was during the Winter 2020 semester when COVID-19 first began affecting academic proceedings. All instructors were forced to modify their course delivery and examinations to be run online for the first time, something which most of them were extremely unfamiliar with, and thus the faculty allowed for CR/NCR that semester as it felt that it could not properly distinguish the exact grades/knowledge levels of students (“a lack of integrity of grades”) given the spontaneity of the online transition. When student representatives went to the faculty to argue that this was again the case in Fall 2020, when many instructors still had little clue how to navigate an online environment, the faculty refused, arguing that instructors felt that they had enough time to modify their courses during the summer to preserve that sense of integrity, with better ideas of how to virtually run both lectures and assessments. While true in many scenarios, the opinion of many students is that this wasn’t the case for certain courses and professors.
The first instance of CR/NCR for the Engineering Faculty is a bit more interesting. This occurred in the Winter 2015 semester, when there was a massive strike by TAs and sessional lecturers that resulted in some assessments and termwork not being marked on time. The faculty’s decision to offer CR/NCR options due to late marking seems inconsistent with their decision to forgo it in Fall 2021, given that canceled assessments have the potential to be even more stressful for students. For individual students, some could argue that the exam cancellations benefitted their own marks in some courses, however the logistics surrounding the sudden pivot still caused undue stress for many students who were already dealing with pandemic-related issues in their personal lives.
The Engineering Faculty Council’s Undergraduate Assessment Committee (UAC, formerly known as the Examinations Committee), drafted a letter/guideline to be sent to all professors outlining the two methods they required to be used to “assess” student final marks. It was a best-of-both approach on a student-by-student basis, which seems rather fair, but that wouldn’t last. The Engineering Department Chairs later forced the UAC to modify their guidelines to a mere “recommendation”, citing that professors should have more “academic freedom”. As a result, many professors opted to assess student marks using only one of the two methods class-wide, or simply use their own custom method that could disadvantage certain students. Class Representatives tried to remedy this, and some succeeded in convincing professors to change the marking scheme, but in the end many could not be swayed. Some justified their actions, saying that if you are unsatisfied with your assessed mark, you could always sign up to take a deferred exam.
Unfortunately, the process for taking deferred exams was confusing as well. Students could file a special consideration petition on the Engineering Portal by January 7th, or 48 hours after they received their marks, to take a deferred exam for the course sometime in January or early February. Since the university is not re-opening until February 7th, and the scheduled deferred exams are still online. If online exams were always an acceptable option, why not offer them to all students in December? Additionally, for those who were not happy with their professor’s chosen grading scheme and saw the deferred exam as their only option, being forced to study for an exam while also settling into a new semester can be more taxing than they were prepared for. The university is typically rather strict about professors communicating grading schemes in advance so students are able to feel prepared at the start of a course for the ways they will be graded. The option of deferred exams is not consistent with this principle.
The biggest issue with these exams from the start is obvious: the lack of clear communication from the faculty about the logistical details. It was discussed at UAC that there would be at least a week’s notice before the first exams, and that very few would be scheduled on that first Saturday the 15th. This information was then passed to the student body by the Engineering Society. This promise was not kept, as the vast majority of the exams were on the 15th at 9am, and first year Core8 students had another on Sunday the 16th, which was not communicated as a possible date to students. These exam dates were sent to students on Tuesday the 11th, a mere four days before most exams. In addition, many students reported that the exact format of individual exams was confirmed just a day or two prior to the exam itself. This is a completely unacceptable timeframe for students to work with.
As for the CR/NCR option, student representatives including the Vice President Academic sat down with the Dean and Vice-Dean Undergraduate to argue for it to be available to students using many of the same arguments covered in this article, but were met with resistance. They reported that the faculty had walked into the room with their minds already made up and they didn’t consider any of the students’ arguments. One of the concerns they raised was upper years having too many CR/NCR’s on their transcripts and how it would look when employers and grad schools review them. However, recent graduates reported that their CR/NCR during the Winter 2020 semester were not questioned, and CR/NCR was still enabled for Arts & Sciences programs that compete with certain disciplines for these positions. Interestingly enough, the Engineering faculty enabled CR/NCR for all ArtSci courses with canceled exams that engineering students were taking. The faculty has also argued that restricting options like CR/NCR is necessary to ensure rigor in their programs; however the Computer Science degree is also very rigorous and well known, yet still implemented the CR/NCR option. The Dean also cited that back in Fall 2020 when we went completely online, he had a discussion with other engineering deans about avoiding CR/NCR as much as possible, and he was not comfortable going against that. I admit that I was not able to check if other engineering universities had followed through with this. There was also disagreement over whether CR/NCR would disincentivize students from taking deferred exams by offering them relief. The student representatives felt this would have meant that a lot more students wouldn’t be sitting and waiting till February to hear whether they passed a course or what their academic status will be.
As the new semester dawns, students have little reason to hope for more clear, consistent messaging in the case of emergency shifts in academic policy. Especially for those whose lives outside of school remain chaotic due to financial stress, health issues, and other pandemic-related disruptions, the faculty needs to do better. Otherwise, how can they claim to truly value student experience?