Rexall Centre could be York’s future exam venue

In December, for the first time, almost 12,500 lucky York students wrote exams in the Rexall Centre.

Lucky because there were no bomb threats, false fire alarms or other disruptions. Lucky because the room was well-lit, carpeted, quiet and warm. Lucky because the very biggest classes – as many as 1,350 students – could take an exam together in one space where their professors and course directors were instantly available to all to answer questions.

Holding 20 exams in the Rexall Centre was a pilot project designed to minimize the kinds of disruptions that plague every university during exam time and that cost so much – financially and emotionally.

The pilot was so successful that York will continue to schedule end-of-term exams at the Rexall Centre throughout 2011, says Joanne Duklas, associate vice-president enrolment management and University registrar. “The goal is to secure the space and funding so we can begin to use it for mid-terms in February and March of 2012,” she says.

During the 12-day exam period from Dec. 12 to 23, an average of 6,800 students wrote 77 exams each day. Except for the 20 held in the Rexall Centre, exams were scheduled as usual in a variety of venues – the Tait McKenzie Student Fieldhouse, Curtis Lecture Halls, Ross Building, Vari Hall, Stedman Lecture Halls and the Computer Science & Engineering Building, to name a few.

Because many of these buildings are interconnected, phony fire alarms or bomb threats in one building often require evacuation from others.

And because the biggest venue – the Tait McKenzie Student Fieldhouse – accommodates about 700, the really big, multi-sectioned classes can’t write in the same place.

So for profs who teach courses with hundreds of students, holding exams in the Rexall Centre was a dream.

“I can put everybody in the same room,” says Don Hastie, whose 700 first-year chemistry students wrote their December exam together for the first time. Usually the class is split up into sections that write in different venues. Assembled in the same room, students hear any corrections and announcements at the same time. “It’s fairer on students,” says Hastie. He liked the space, the lighting, the heating and the security. “We felt comfortable and the chance of disruption was small.” His only complaint? Too bad the Rexall Centre isn’t located in Central Square, he said, closer to the campus core and buses.

Kinesiology & Health Science Professor David Hood was just as enthusiastic about the Rexall Centre. The 630 students in his fourth-level exercise physiology course wrote their exam together. “It was bright, warm and quiet, and could fit my students one to a table. It was beautiful for them,” he said. “It was a bit of a long walk, but it doesn’t matter.” Holding exams in a giant room with only two doors and separate from other buildings made it easier to monitor, to secure and minimize disruptions. “And it was nice to have a few extra hands from the Registrar’s Office” to help, said Hood. “It turned out well.”

Altogether 12,442 students wrote 20 exams over nine days at the Rexall Centre, reports Sherry Lewkowicz, associate registrar academic scheduling. Students didn’t have to wait outside in the cold, and the public announcement system was “fabulous”. “Whoever wrote in there was so happy to not have disruptions.”

Elsewhere on campus, there were disruptions. Between Dec. 12 and 23, there were three false fire alarms and six bomb threats, four on Dec. 20 alone. But none at the Rexall Centre. That single fact could persuade the University to book the centre for future exams and mid-terms.

Extra security measures for exam periods cost the University approximately $250,000, including the cost of renting the Rexall Centre as a more secure exam location. York pays a fee for every false alarm and anonymous bomb threat. In 2009, York paid more than $93,000 in charges for responses to false alarms. (See Ylife, Dec. 21, 2010)

“It was not intended as a cost-saving measure but as a way to reduce exam disruption,” says Gary Brewer, vice-president finance & administration. And, he noted, following the Dec. 13 fire in the Central Utilities Building that forced the closure of the University and  rescheduling of about 100 exams, “having the Rexall Centre available as an exam site was a huge advantage in ensuring that we could get all the exams rescheduled.”

The more easily monitored and secure Rexall Centre also spares faculty the need to reschedule tests or prepare multiple versions, says Rob Tiffin, vice-president students. And students needn’t worry about having to study again for rescheduled exams.

The Registrar’s Office (RO) began planning the pilot project last April following the release of the Mid-Term/Exam Disruption Task Force Report to Senate. One of its major recommendations was to test the feasibility of an official examination centre, modeled after the University of Toronto’s. Duklas rallied Lewkowicz, assistant registrar Kathy-Jo Pinder and the academic scheduling staff and set to work immediately.

They booked the Rexall Centre for December to assist professors during exams over nine days from 8am to 10pm. The RO arranged for York’s GoSafe buses to extend service to take students finishing exams late to the York Common to catch public transit. The Rexall Centre staff put up signs to ensure students knew where to go, cleaned washrooms and garbage between exams. “I spoke to every prof who went in,” says Lewkowicz. “Every one of them said, this is unbelievable.”

“It was a huge success for the Registrar’s Office,” says Lewkowicz.

The pilot project will extend into 2012 to give time to develop protocols and integrate feedback from faculty and students, says Duklas. “We want to be help the community, stop these disruptions and ensure the academic integrity of the testing experience.”

The Rexall Centre could be one of the solutions to reducing disruption of exams and mid-terms.

The University is also pursuing task force recommendations to entrench guidelines and procedures within the Senate Policy on Academic Honesty for penalizing students involved in disruptions.

Now, what about the disruptions that plague all those classroom tests during the school year? That’s the next big challenge, suggests Duklas.