Senate wrestles with student assessment timing

A minor tweak to language defining when undergraduate students would receive a benchmark of their course progress set off an energized debate about academic freedom and course feedback during the university Senate meeting on March 11.

In the end, Senate tabled a revision to the Academic Calendar stating: “At lease one week prior to the deadline for withdrawal from a course without academic penalty, students will receive assessment of work accounting for at least 15 per cent of their final course grade.”

In the past, the policy indicated students would receive an estimate of their standing in the course at approximately halfway through the course. Concerns had been raised about the ambiguity of that wording, particularly what “estimate” means and the practice of providing appropriate feedback.

“As we adapt our curriculum and we adapt our teaching and learning, coming up with an unambiguous 15 per cent, recognizing some colleagues will have to re-work their course in terms of being able to provide that, we felt it was in the best interest of students” said Janice Deakin, Provost and Vice-President (Academic).

The proposed change in wording was sparked by a student complaint. The student did not receive any form of assessment before the withdrawal date.

“It was a problem in that the students were not getting the information they needed to have available to them to make an intelligent decision about whether they should stay in a course to its completion, or whether they should get out of it if they are not doing as well as they need to or think they should be doing,” Deakin explained.

The Associate Deans (Academic) requested the amendment to tighten the guidelines to ensure students received feedback estimates before the drop date, noted Sheila Macfie, Senate Committee on Academic Policy and Awards (SCAPA) Chair.

Diana Mok, Undergraduate Chair and Professor, DAN Management and Organizational Studies, felt the requirement would change the way many Social Science courses are taught.

“A large number of (the courses) are taught with an essay format or seminar format in which a large part of the load is toward the end of the term,” Mok said. “Having 15 per cent of the official assessment midway would change the pedagogy of teaching these courses that would not best fit these level of courses.”

As well, in order to meet the 15 per cent requirement, professors would not have enough time to provide quality feedback on long essays, she added, noting the policy also ignores many Special Topics, Honors Thesis or Independent Study courses.

While English Professor Jane Toswell acknowledged she currently practices this form of early feedback, she echoed concerns about the policy infringing on academic freedoms. Toswell also felt faculties should have a chance to discuss this policy change.

“I teach language and I teach Old English and it is hard for me to work up 15 per cent by the drop date,” Toswell said. “It would be almost impossible for me if I were doing a half-course. I’d have to work up some very creative methods of analysis and I don’t think they would be pedagogically good.”

Several student Senators supported the suggested policy change and its implications on course assessments, particularly shifting the practice of having assignments “back loaded” to the end of the course.

“Actually, this would be incredibly helpful for students because I think feedback is an incredibly important part of learning and even more so, the idea of not being back loaded (and) having your work load distributed throughout the entire semester,” said Social Science student Harry Orbach-Miller.

Emily Addison, Huron University College student representative, supports the proposed 15 per cent policy as it will ease some of the pressures placed on the end of the term.

“I think the 15 per cent threshold is actually quite fair. It’s not a huge portion of the course. Yes, of course, it would have an impact on the students’ overall grade,” she said, noting her current course load has a large number of assignments due before the end of the academic year. “As a student, that is very intimidating at the end of the semester.”

Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry student Senator Graydon Lucas encouraged Senate to show students they are serious about addressing the concerns about academic feedback.

“In regards to the exceptions, I have faith in the many brilliant minds at this university to find solutions that will address some of your concerns. Fifteen per cent is not a large percentage. It won’t have a big impact on your final mark, but it is meaningful to the student. Students have responsibilities, as well. Given the information, they will be able to act on that information,” he said.

Faculty of Law Professor Zoë Sinel challenged this view.

“If 15 per cent is meaningless, then why does it matter?” she said. “There needs to be more room for academic freedom and designing our courses, and having a black-letter rule like this without talking about it or without carving out the exceptions, seems to me to be a little presumptuous.”

Senate voted to defer the motion and SCAPA will review the wording to include considerations for exceptions, such as internships and special courses that don’t fit the mould. The student senators requested the revisions be brought back before Senate at the next meeting on April 8 to ensure a significant number of student senators be available to vote on it.

Also at Senate, Peter White, Executive Director, Government Relations & Strategic Partnerships, provided an update on London’s Rapid Transit proposal.

Although the community consultation meetings have wrapped up, the university continues to solicit feedback until March 24. Western’s Traffic/Rapid Transit Task Team has developed an inventory of equipment and research labs and facilities along the proposed routes, however they are accepting additional comments to transit@uwo.ca.

The Traffic/Rapid Transit Task Team will be presenting ideas and recommendations in late April, White said.

White also addressed questions raised by student Sen. Emily Addison regarding the timeline of communicating the concerns about University Drive Bridge and rerouting London Transit Commission (LTC) buses, as well as questions about student consultations in the decision-making process.

White explained the timeline of when LTC notified the university of its route changes did not allow for student consultations.

“We do appreciate having the student input as much as possible,” White said. “We would like to have as much time as possible, but in the matter of the safety of the bridge, and particularly when you have a professional engineering firm say they don’t think it is safe to have this vehicle on the bridge, we had no choice but to make a rapid change that we wouldn’t normally want to do in the process.”

The LTC has modified its bus detour routs for the 6 Richmond, 6A Richmond and 13 Wellington.

“We do have a construction company on site for the bridge construction,” White said. “We are anticipating, provided everything goes as planned, at this stage the repairs will be completed by the weekend of March 19, and we are hopeful to do the load testing of the bridge on March 19. Pending the success of that, we will go back to a regular transit schedule.”