“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!