The University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) invited students and panelists to have a conversation around mental health on campus last week, sparking discussion on classroom policies that negatively affect student mental health.

UTM Assistant Dean, Student Wellness, Support & Success Andrea Carter started the conversation by detailing her team’s efforts to provide mental health resources to students.

“We implement a step model of care which identifies chronic, immediate, urgent, and non-urgent needs for care, and engages in the appropriate next level options,” said Carter.

Her team’s goal, she said, is to simplify care through services such as a multilingual after-hours program through U of T’s recently released My Student Support Program service for free text and call support. Text service is offered through the app in six languages — English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Simplified Chinese, and Korean. If scheduled in advance, call service is offered in 146 languages and immediate call service is available in 35 languages.

The move toward equitable classroom policies

As the panel progressed, the conversation in the room shifted away from the mental health resources UTM offers its students and moved toward classroom policies that some students reported were detrimental to their mental well-being.

Fiona Rawle, Associate Professor in the Department of Biology and UTM Assistant Dean of Students, said that she has been in talks with various departments and professors to determine stress points, and how course policies can be adjusted accordingly.

“There’s one thing in particular where I see I can help address mental illness. And that’s in the teaching and learning collaboration,” she said. “This is how faculty and instructors get trained on how to teach effectively, have effective assignments, active learning classrooms and whatnot.”

Later in the semester, UTM students will be able to fill out a survey so that Rawle and her team can gauge what kinds of changes would be helpful to students. So far, her team’s data indicates that students who request exceptions to course policies often come from privileged backgrounds.

“If you’re granting exceptions, you can be reinforcing that privilege,” she said. “And I think a lot of professors might not be aware of this.” She also noted that there is research showing that male students are more likely to ask for and be granted grade changes.

Rawle and her team’s work aims to address these classroom policies to make them more equitable for students from all backgrounds. She also acknowledged that UTM is a commuter campus with its own particular challenges, and said that there is an ongoing discussion surrounding office hours, and whether to provide online office hours for students unable to remain on campus.

Revamping the syllabus

“Have professors ever said to you ‘that’s on the syllabus’ if you ask a question?” asked Rawle to the students in the town hall. Most answered in the affirmative.

Rawle explained that research suggests “students will often ask a question that’s on the syllabus, because it’s safe territory. They might not know how to start talking to their professor.”

Her team also hopes to implement various changes to syllabi, including using a less aggressive tone of writing and listing alternative assignments. One such example, said Rawle, is to offer students the option of filming and submitting a presentation versus presenting in front of a class.

Self-reported illness forms

Rawle and the UTMSU also discussed changes to the current sick note policy, potentially modelling a new system after UTSC reported “positive results” when it implemented self-reported sick notes in 2018–2019.

Currently, students are required to submit a Verification of Student Illness or Injury form to receive academic considerations on the basis of their illness or injury. The form requires a signature from a licensed health practitioner, such as a nurse, nurse practitioner, physician, or surgeon.

Students expressed concerns that some clinics charge a processing fee to complete the forms, and that this burden could be even greater for international students who do not have provincial health coverage.

The self-reported illness forms were first introduced during a UTM Campus Council meeting last May. At the time, Professor Amrita Daniere noted that the self-declared illness form would allow students to submit incomplete coursework for up to three consecutive days without worrying about providing official documentation, and that the form could be used up to two times per semester.

Additionally, Rawle noted that there have been discussions around flexible grading schemes that would eliminate the need for sick notes altogether. In fact, Rawle noted that “there’s a lot of professors who don’t want [sick] notes at all.” 

She offered an example of what a flexible grading scheme could look like: “If you have a reading assignment due every weekend, why not just take the best eight of 12 and not worry about [sick] notes?”

Her goal, she said, is to “give all the professors the same background knowledge so they understand what the options are [on setting the grading scheme].”

“There is no University of Toronto policy saying the late penalty has to be this, or even saying that you have to have a late penalty,” Rawle said. “Some departments have policies and some professors have their own policy.”

Carter also acknowledged how inaccessible the landing webpages of services at UTM are. “I Google everything that I need to find related to UTM because the web presence is difficult,” said Carter. “So we’re working on that.”