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Damn the exam cram

Screw ‘term tests’ and final assignments due during the last week of class

Damn the exam cram

As we arrive in December and the semester draws to a close, U of T students are forced to grapple with the ramping up of classes, the approach of exams, and the intensification of winter.

The brutality of this time is particularly felt by students with final assignments and exams that are due during the regular class period. They have to juggle their regular class schedules, readings, and smaller assignments with huge final assignments and ‘term tests’ in the very same week. This puts an unfair amount of pressure on students to constantly perform, without being given any downtime.

The unfairness of it all

This pre-exam period practice only further renders students overworked, overwhelmed, or even hopeless, and adds to the stress and anxiety that they already feel as the exam period arrives. As mental health awareness rises, it seems contradictory to allow the practice of in-course finals or assignments while supposedly supporting students’ well-being.

There’s a reason why the exam period was established as a separate entity from the regular schedule of classes: to help mitigate the intensity of studying for final exams while trying to keep up with regular classes. While professors have a right to enjoy their Decembers, students should not have to pay for it.

Professors also have to adhere to having the final due date of all papers and term tests by the last day of class. This means that if a paper is due this late in the term, students with accommodations may not be able to implement their extra time, because the university gives professors very little freedom to grade papers once school has finished for the semester. This often results in students struggling to finish papers, while also having to start studying for their finals.

Furthermore, this practice puts students with final assignments and term tests at a significant disadvantage to their counterparts who are tested solely in the exam period. These students are given much more time to prepare, organize, and even take a break.

Are we human, or are we robots?

University is supposed to teach students how to think critically and engage with new material. Students are told that this is their chance to expand their horizons, learn more about themselves, and explore different ways of thinking.

But cramming assignments and exams in the last two weeks of November and early December teaches students to be robotic and mechanically pump out content that they know their professors want. Ultimately, they are driven by the need to produce and the mission to get a high grade.

The sheer volume of responsibilities heaped upon students inhibits the genuine learning, growth, and development that they want to derive from the classroom in the first place. While time management is a vital life skill that is developed at university, there is a difference between being responsible and being overwhelmed. Students aren’t given Time-Turners with their admission letters, and shouldn’t be expected to perform as if they had.

Grades over happiness

There is also the added pressure of taking part in extracurricular activities, maintaining a social life, and, for many, the added burden of having to focus on finances. The unspoken rhetoric that ‘if you aren’t doing everything, then you aren’t doing enough’ is heightened during the exam period and, typically, something ends up falling through the cracks. Unfortunately, it’s usually mental health.

At any university, particularly one as academically rigorous as U of T, it is difficult for students to feel as though they are excelling simply by having high grades. Therefore, they often balance feelings of inadequacy with other creative outlets. However, grades will almost always be the main focus of their university careers.

When there are term tests and papers due before the exam period begins, it is difficult for students to escape from the monotony and pressure that comes with being examined, and they therefore stop prioritizing other aspects of their lives that make them happy. After all, there is nothing more important than that A-grade.

Being kinder to students

Going forward, professors should be held to a higher standard of course organization. If professors prefer to assign a final paper instead of an exam, but they weight the paper as if it were an exam, then that paper should be due in the exam period — not during regular classes. Furthermore, if a ‘term test’ is used as a metonym for a full-year course midterm or a half-year course final, it should likewise take place in the exam period.

In other words, the expectation should be that any assignment, test, or paper that is being marked as if it were a final exam should be due when an exam would be. If one is being swapped for the other, the swap shouldn’t carry repercussions for students.

Students should also be given time to breathe between the end of classes and the beginning of the exam period. They should not be burnt out before they have sat their first final.

Grades and exams can themselves be relatively arbitrary, but they can also have a significant impact on the rest of a student’s academic career, especially in upper years. In a world where employment is increasingly precarious and undergraduate degrees seem to matter less, students are constantly worried about their futures. They should feel supported by their university, not hindered by it.

U of T prides itself on being the leading university in Canada. However, if the institution wants to maintain this high standard, it needs to start being kinder to its students. U of T students are doing their best, but they also need to be provided with a secure safety net. Unfortunately, the brand name just isn’t going to cut it.

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email editorial@thevarsity.ca.

Menstruation frustrations

A cycle of quiet suffering on campus

Menstruation frustrations

Several days ago, I was having a conversation with my friends about the worst bathrooms we have seen so far at U of T, and while some of the characteristics that came up were expected — such as laughably-bad lighting, poor design, and lack of hygiene — a recurring theme also emerged: most of the bathrooms mentioned were not designed with menstruation in mind.

Whether it is dim lighting or cramped space, these spaces are already frustrating on a regular day, but when it comes time to deal with all of your period blood, the ridiculousness of the situation becomes even more evident. Since these unpleasant and tough situations only come about once a month, it seems much easier to just forget about those problems entirely.

This perspective is often shared by those who don’t see the value in investing in better bathrooms or creating better policies. In high school, my friends and I would have issues keeping up with school events and exams while dealing with our periods, but we were advised to “just deal with it,” since the ‘issue’ would go away in a few days and then we could forget about the problems until next month. But the real systemic issues never go away: somebody is always going to be menstruating, and members of the community will continue experiencing the same problems day by day unless the problems are addressed.

Although the taboo surrounding menstruation has lessened quite a bit over the last few decades and conversations surrounding it have become quite normalized, important changes have yet to be made with how the topic is handled. One would expect U of T to be better at this than other institutions, given its work on inclusion and its position as a global leader, and yet it still fails to have the most important conversations surrounding menstruation and provide appropriate avenues for support.

On a small scale, it’s generally much easier to have conversations about menstruation face to face, but even that approach has its own difficulties. How comfortable can it be to approach an old, male professor to talk about your bodily functions? In any case, these face-to-face conversations are nearly impossible at U of T, where classes are being taught to over 90,000 students every semester, making staff members even harder to communicate with and access.

But why are we even having these conversations? Why can’t we “just deal with it” and move on with our lives? Shouldn’t we be used to it by now? Can’t we just go to the doctor and get our problems permanently fixed? Why is menstruation such a big deal?

Well, periods can range from merely irritating to debilitating, and they don’t stay the same from month to month, much less throughout one’s lifetime. Along with a loss of blood, accompanying symptoms include headaches, exhaustion, cramps, nausea, light-headedness, and even fainting. There are several options to deal with these effects, such as birth control pills or painkillers, but the fact of the matter is that for many people, menstruation is difficult to endure, and no matter how many times they experience it, there’s still no guarantee that they’ll be prepared.

What are the systemic challenges that can be expected for someone getting their period at U of T? Let’s say that you go to the bathroom half an hour before the beginning of a midterm, and you’ve been feeling a bit off all day. You realize that you’ve gotten your period early and you’re completely unprepared: you don’t have anything to stop the flow and you’re freaking out in your stall. While U of T bathrooms have sanitary waste disposals for period products, some bathrooms don’t have operable pad and tampon dispensers, with some appearing to have been around since the dawn of time.

So, instead, you can ask a friend, or even a stranger, if they happen to be carrying a tampon or a pad. But this isn’t high school; your friends might be in a class on the opposite side of campus or there might not be anyone around. If you want to buy period products, you’ll likely have to go to the nearest drugstore, since they’re not nearly as easy to get on campus as free condoms and lube. As a last resort, you may be left relying on paper-thin toilet paper, an option that is used far too often, even in today’s day and age.

Now that you’ve successfully staunched the flow, you start feeling those dreaded cramps, and nausea on top of that too. What can you do? Perhaps you can buy some painkillers and ginger tea, but your midterm is now in 15 minutes and you know that it might take up to an hour for those cramps to go away, even with the painkillers. If you take the midterm, there’s a chance you’ll screw something up because of the pain, but there’s also no guarantee that you’ll be able to take a makeup test.

It’s generally more likely that you’ll be allowed to reschedule the test last-minute if the class is a small one, but for larger classes, you might run into trouble; some courses require valid documentation to be sent within 24 hours of a missed test. This documentation should either be the equivalent of a doctor’s note or a note from your college registrar, and missed labs require a doctor’s note. It’s easy to see why this system is flawed: doctor’s notes can be bought and faked; some doctors give notes too easily, while others never give them; and ultimately, pain is difficult to prove in any circumstance.

It’s challenging to figure out how the rules should be fixed, since a balance should be maintained between not encouraging people to lie about their pain, while also helping those who really are experiencing it. In terms of solving these bathroom problems, all bathrooms on campus should meet certain standards. All stalls should contain proper sanitary waste disposal, and functioning pad and tampon dispensers. For such a necessary part of daily life, menstruation products are quite hard to find, and U of T certainly isn’t making it any easier to get them where they’re most needed.

How should we start addressing these concerns? First, we should acknowledge the problems and ask students and staff what changes they want to see across campus. Then, the bathrooms on campus should be improved, starting with those in colleges and buildings with higher foot traffic. Course and testing policies concerning sudden illness should be updated, and U of T should explicitly outline what measures should be taken when conflicts arise between schooling and personal health issues, such as those brought about by menstruation.

It’s important to realize that most of the people dealing with these issues are female, and failing to address them would mean giving half the students at U of T, around 45,000, a systemic disadvantage. The issues aren’t going to go away by themselves, and it’s incredibly easy to forget about them unless it happens to you. Once you start noticing flaws in U of T’s system, though, it’s impossible to stop, and every time you count yourself lucky for not being stuck bleeding in that dark, cramped bathroom in the basement, you’re neglecting to realize that your inaction only means that someone else will experience it instead. 

“Ableist and discriminatory content” described at training sessions for test invigilators

Invigilators at Test and Exam Services speak out against training

“Ableist and discriminatory content” described at training sessions for test invigilators

Invigilators at Test and Exam Services (TES) are speaking out over what they see as discriminatory training sessions, which have been described as “clearly [pathologizing] students with disabilities.”

TES is “the department responsible for coordinating quiz, term test, and final examination accommodations for students with documented disabilities,” according to its website. It employs roughly 40 to 45 “highly-qualified graduate students” to act as invigilators.

The issue regarding training sessions was first brought to light by a Facebook post made by an invigilator who had attended a training session on September 5.

In her post, which has been shared over 100 times, graduate student Elizabeth Davis wrote that “the training contained strong ableist and discriminatory content which is inappropriate and wrong to disseminate in a training environment for Invigilators working with students with disabilities.”

In particular, she and other invigilators took issue with two presentation slides that they believed described students with disabilities as “difficult” and comparable to US President Donald Trump.

The slides were presented as part of their training to become invigilators.

In an interview with The Varsity, Senior Director of Student Experience David Newman clarified that those slides were part of general de-escalation training given by the Student Progress and Support Team and were not specific to students with disabilities.

Powerpoint slides from a training session. Courtesy of ELIZABETH DAVIS

“The training was really about dealing with difficult situations and it was not about any specific group and it was not developed specifically for this group,” said Newman.

Newman continued that this presentation is given to many groups on campus, though he did not specify which ones.

“It’s a general type of presentation that is given to any group that there’s a large population of at the university… It’s a wide range of groups that training is provided to.”

Davis questioned the university’s explanation, saying that “if they weren’t there to talk about students with disabilities, why were they training us?”

“They’re invited to come train people who work with students with disabilities and they weren’t talking about students with disabilities… There’s something that doesn’t add up to me about that defence,” Davis said.

U of T Professor Tanya Titchkosky, who specializes in Disability Studies, told The Varsity that she saw the issues brought up at this training session as part of a growing trend at U of T of a “disregard of disability as a human rights issue.”

“To train people to conceive of disability as a burden and as a problem and not to include any training on human rights, I don’t know how that’s going to help anybody, including the employees at [TES],” Titchkosky said. “All they do is confirm a stereotype.”

Beyond training that seemingly described disabled students as “difficult,” Davis also said in her post that invigilators were told to see their jobs as related to “customer service.”

“I am deeply upset by this frank espousal of commitment to structuring social justice issues like accessibility as ‘customer service issues,’” Davis wrote. “However, what is directly relevant to this incident, is that a human rights issue is being framed as a customer service issue at the highest levels of administration at the University of Toronto, and at TES specifically, and this appears to be systematically linked to ableism, racism and poor labor practices.”

Powerpoint slides from a training session. Courtesy of ELIZABETH DAVIS

The description of TES as providing a customer service was confirmed by two other invigilators who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal.

Davis also noted in her Facebook post that she was the only person who spoke out at the training session because “the environment for Invigilator staff at TES has become so toxic, and Invigilator staff are subject to such punitive reprimand for any disagreement with management staff, that no one wants to speak up about anything even when what is happening is clearly wrong.”

Two current invigilators and one former invigilator agreed with Davis’ description of the “toxic” atmosphere at TES. The former invigilator told The Varsity that staff would be admonished when they tried to speak out against problems that they saw, particularly when it was about standing up for students.

The invigilators who spoke to The Varsity said that issues with the university’s treatment of disability have been a longstanding problem that has become worse in recent years. They point to the example of training that increasingly recommends that invigilators call police when they encounter difficulties.

Davis confirmed this in her post. “One thing that was continually emphasized in this training was that Invigilator staff can and should call Campus Police, as well as 911, when appropriate.”

When asked about what the university plans to do about these complaints, Newman said, “Certainly we are always reviewing the training based on feedback and we will be doing so in this instance as well.”

Titchkosky, when asked what she thought the university could do, said that people need to “start thinking about the conception of disability they’re working with.”

“It seems to me most classrooms seem to think disability is something you might encounter elsewhere,” Titchkosky said. “But they don’t really expect that blind students are showing up or deaf students are showing up.”

Looking for questions

Recent changes to the exam review policy show that the university is receptive to student feedback

Looking for questions

In May, I saw a popular Reddit post about the university’s examination policies on the U of T subreddit. The post brought up many of the challenges that students face when trying to view and request rechecks and rereads for their exams.

While students expressed their concerns and proposed potential solutions, I noticed that they didn’t propose steps that they could take to change these policies. This bothered me because it reminded me of my experience as an undergraduate student at this university.

One of my most frustrating experiences at university occurred during my third undergraduate year, when I was not provided with the exam questions during an exam viewing for STA302. Due to the nature of the course, I could not infer the questions from my solutions. The exam was also marked by assigning grades to each question without indicating where marks were deducted or the total amount of marks available.

Due to these limitations, there was no way for me to comply with the exam reread policy and “demonstrate that examination answers [were] substantially correct by citing specific instances of disagreement.”

This was highly unexpected because I had previously submitted remark requests for both the term test and assignment, the course’s only other assessments, which resulted in an increase in both marks. I was also able to increase my final mark for another course in the same department, STA347, during the same semester, when I was provided with the exam questions during the exam viewing.

I consulted the individuals supervising the viewing and was told that there was nothing they could do. After the viewing, I contacted the instructor and we met in person, but I was told that I would not be provided with the questions. Since I believed that there was nothing I could do at the time, I stopped pursuing the issue.

I was recently reminded of the importance of this issue as a teaching assistant for an introductory Computer Science course last semester, CSC165. I was told multiple times to be very careful when grading, as entry into Computer Science programs of study is very competitive and that this course is used to select students.

After seeing the Reddit post and realizing the consequences that a mistake in grading a single final exam could have on a student’s whole degree, I decided to contact the Faculty of Arts & Science (FAS).

I was put in contact with Christine Babikian, Associate Director of Scheduling & Examinations, who informed me that for exams written after April 2018, students will always be able to see the exam questions during exam viewings. I also learned that the FAS is already in the process of addressing many of the concerns that were presented in the Reddit post, such as shortening the reread and recheck process.

The most important thing that I learned was that the FAS, and the university overall, is very receptive to student feedback and use it to improve their processes. While my own efforts were too late, I now believe that students have the power to change this university by voicing their concerns to the administration.

Daniel Hidru is a first-year PhD student in the Department of Computer Science.

Overwhelmed by term tests and papers? You’re not alone

Grouping numerous assessments in the final weeks of classes causes unnecessary stress for students

Overwhelmed by term tests and papers? You’re not alone

As my peers and I progress into 300- and 400-level courses, there comes a sense of accomplishment as we near the completion of our undergraduate degrees. Yet getting closer to the finish line, the workload and expectations increase, and students can become particularly overwhelmed when a substantial amount of coursework is unloaded in the final week of the term. Especially in upper years, U of T courses often culminate in term tests and final papers, with due dates scheduled during class time instead of within the designated exam period.

Final assessments for 100- and 200-level courses are frequently scheduled during the designated exam break. When I was a first-year student, having time off from school to study became normal for me. As an upper-year, however, I became overwhelmed and angry that my exams for 300- and 400-level courses held assessments at the professor’s whim, which are often held before the exam period and during the inherently busiest weeks of the semester.

Deborah Robinson, Faculty Registrar & Director of Undergraduate Academic Services, provides a rationale for why this issue may arise: the increase of term tests experienced during the conclusion of the fall semester may be due to enrolment in full-year courses, which mostly host midterms as the first semester comes to a close. It should also be noted that specific programs recommend that professors hold tests on the last day of classes rather than have an exam during the exam period.

Yet as more professors opt for end-of-term assessments as opposed to exams, the workload snowballs for students, turning the final weeks of term into one long, stressful period of continuous coursework. Simultaneously balancing final papers,term tests, and external responsibilities in the final weeks of school collectively results in an unfair situation for students.

The exam period — during which no classes are scheduled — provides students with the opportunity to more comfortably devote meaningful time to studying. Often, when in-class tests are held during the last week of a course, students just don’t have enough time to prepare.

Furthermore, by scheduling tests before the exam period, professors do not have to comply with strict examination rules, including rules about scheduling multiple exams on the same day. Meanwhile, students are forced to choose between preparing for these assessments and completing readings for active classes, sometimes skipping lectures and tutorials to complete other work and thereby losing participation marks. Ultimately, the exerted effort of finishing exams and assignments can burn the student out and compromise their academic performance.

Tests and assignments are expected avenues for assessing students’ academic abilities, and therefore they are arguably necessary to an academic environment. What is unnecessary is having so many overlapping due dates for these assessments. Solutions to this problem should be explored to relieve students’ stress.

For example, professors could strive to manage their assigned coursework so that evaluations are spread out over the duration of the course, as opposed to being clustered in the final weeks of the semester. There could also be increased communication and coordination between instructors as to how they intend to set their deadlines, an option that might be feasible within smaller departments. If scheduling overlapping assessments is inevitable, open-book or online options might be pursued to alleviate student stress.

The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) has also raised this issue with the U of T administration. “It’s not too much to ask that students have all of their exams scheduled during the exam period,” UTSU Vice-President University Affairs Adrian Huntelar told The Varsity.

We are now in the last leg of the semester, and an incoming wave of final assessments means that student stress will only go up. Identifying this problem, and pursuing potential solutions, should be a priority for the university before the start of the next academic year.

 

Erin Calhoun is a third-year student at Victoria College studying Book and Media Studies.

A playlist for the impending doom of finals

Exam season is upon us. Here’s a list of some mellow tunes to make those all-nighters at Robarts a little more bearable.

A playlist for the impending doom of finals

“Mykonos” by Fleet Foxes

Anything from Fleet Foxes is good study music, but this song will help you turn out that final paper while swaying along to this melancholic tune.

“I Need My Girl” by The National

A slow tempo song, great for some reading on a rainy day.

“Rivers and Roads” by The Head and the Heart

This song is full of nostalgia, which will make you look forward to going home for the holidays.

“The Night We Met” by Lord Huron

Any 13 Reasons Why fans will recognize this one. Sorry if it makes you cry to think about Hannah and Clay again.

“Michigan” by The Milk Carton Kids

I’ll admit it, this song’s really depressing. But so is emailing your professor 10 times in one day asking for help on an assignment and getting no response, so it’s fitting.

“Sense of Home” by Harrison Storm

A classic melancholic acoustic track that will make you wish you were sipping some hot chocolate by the fireplace at home right now.

“We Never Met” by Donovan Woods

Don’t you wish you had never met your professors and you could be at home sipping that hot chocolate instead of writing a 15-page essay in one night? Or is that just me?

“Walk Unafraid” by First Aid Kit

This Swedish sister duo is one of my favourite bands of all time. Their harmonies and Americana tunes are out of this world. This track was originally released for the movie Wild and will make you feel just as empowered as Reese Witherspoon so that you can crush your finals.

“Blessed” by Daniel Caesar

I am eternally jealous of those who have tickets to his December shows in Toronto. If you’re one of the lucky ones, use this song as a small reminder that you’ll be having fun again soon.

“Monday Loop” by Tomppabeats

A groovy instrumental that will make reading an entire semester’s worth of readings in one night seem easy.

“A Little Death” by The Neighbourhood

Another groovy tune that might make you want to start dancing in the library. Don’t worry, I won’t judge.

“Let’s Go Surfing” by The Drums

Everyone needs a study break. Blast this song and dance around your room for some much needed stress relief, and maybe start dreaming up your next vacation.

Not as safe as you think

A U of T nursing student explains why e-cigarette smoking should not be your preferred stress-relieving habit

Not as safe as you think

For most students, spring means too many hours in the library.

As a graduate nursing student, the Gerstein Science Information Centre is my second home. Last week, just outside of Gerstein, I polled fellow students about their health concerns during this stressful time of year. We discussed many exam-related stresses: lack of sleep, increased consumption of coffee, and other vices.

During one of these discussions, a young man explained — with an e-cigarette in hand —  “I smoke more during times when I’m stressed.” His roommate added, “thank goodness it’s just vapour because we spend a lot of time together these days.” I held my tongue as we continued our light-hearted chat and wished them best of luck with their exams.

Contrary to what has become a popular belief among many U of T students, “just vapour” is not without harm. Although there is a lack of concrete evidence at this time about the exact dangers associated with e-cigarette use and secondhand exposure, there is evidence suggesting potential harm. 

Here’s how it works: e-cigarette vapour is visible and emitted only when the user exhales. What is exhaled in this vapour are the contents of e-liquid.

The e-liquid is often a combination of water, natural or artificial flavouring, nicotine and most often propylene glycol (PG). Known to irritate the upper airway, which includes the nose, mouth, and throat, fine particles of PG and nicotine can end up deep in the lungs, acting as an irritant.

It is obvious that an e-cigarette user is exposed to these chemical irritants, but just as with second-hand smoke from regular cigarettes, even a non-user may be exposed when the vapour is exhaled into the surrounding air. 

It is important to note that there are many factors that may affect a non-user’s exposure to the vapour; for example, temperature and room size can influence the amount of aerosol (vapour) inhaled by a non-user.

Jenna Liao/The Varsity

Jenna Liao/The Varsity

There is also the often over-looked risk of thirdhand exposure from what is left unseen after the visible vapour dissipates. Since nicotine can live on inanimate objects such as curtains, couches, and clothing, it can enter the body through the skin. This may result in prolonged exposure to the carcinogens associated with vaping for anyone living with an e-cigarette user. 

Though the research about the risks relating to e-cigarette use and exposure is in its early stages, I still believe it is also important to communicate that harm is harm. Even though the precise level of risk is not quantifiable, it is clear that vaping is not entirely without risk.

Despite the knowledge that there is some risk involved, there is currently no ban on “vaping” in public. There was a previous policy to ban vaping in certain public spaces, which was to take effect January 1, 2016, but it has been stalled while the Liberals determine new rules that will include medical marijuana.

If some harms have been identified, why wait for this ban?

The ministry of health admits this is an oversight and has committed to addressing this as soon as possible, yet it took us decades to acknowledge and act upon the harms of smoking cigarettes; do we really want history to repeat itself?  For more information and updates on the regulations around smoking and vaping please visit Smoke-Free Ontario.

Free exam tip: for a stress reduction tactic this exam season, instead of reaching for that cigarette (electric or not), I would encourage my fellow students to take a few laps around King’s Circle, since physical activity is well known to help reduce the negative effects of stress.

Good Luck!