When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Newfoundland and Labrador schools in March, some high school students were left wondering if they would be prepared for university studies in the fall.
At Memorial, high level talks on that very question began almost immediately between senior leadership and faculties.
“People were worried about the transition,” said Dr. Danny Dyer, a professor with the Department of Mathematics and Statistics in the Faculty of Science.
“One of the major concerns from different departments was not how students would be prepared in their areas, but whether they would have enough math.”
Assessment, admissions and bridging
To address concerns, Tom Nault, Memorial’s registrar, put together a committee with representatives from the faculties of Science and Engineering and Applied Science on the St. John’s campus, and from the School of Science and the Environment at Grenfell Campus.
Sub-committees then dove into such questions such as how to handle assessment, admissions and bridging requirements.
Tara Stuckless, academic advisor for the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, chaired one of the committees. Fellow departmental representatives brought in to contribute to the planning and implementation process included Dr. J.C. Loredo-Osti, Dr. Ronald Haynes and Dr. Tarun Sheel and John Craighead. Grenfell representatives included Dr. Robert Bailey, Dr. Nguyen Lam and Jennifer Strangemore.
“Everything had an extra layer of complication because of COVID-19.”
Together they created a no-cost, non-credit, four-week intensive program, as well as three 10-week for-credit courses to bring students up to speed on algebra, trigonometry and calculus.
“We originally talked about doing something that was entirely non-credit, but worried that people don’t always take those courses as seriously,” said Dr. Dyer. “However, we still wanted to offer one for students who couldn’t commit the time to doing a for-credit course, or who just couldn’t afford it.”
Kickstart your degree
They ended up with three sections of the non-credit class, with approximately 160 students taught by Dr. Sheel, as well as Dr. Ivan Booth and Dr. Misha Kotchetov, faculty members in Mathematics and Statistics.
The for-credit courses ultimately became part of Memorial’s Kickstart Your Degree program, which offered new students an early opportunity to take first-year courses over the summer to give them experience in online or remote learning classes.
Dr. Dyer, Dr. Sheel and Chris Callahan taught the three classes, with an enrolment of approximately 230 students.
The Office of the Provost and Vice-President (Academic) funded the programs, which allowed the instructors to hire a large number of teaching assistants and invest in technology to ensure all teaching assistants had a functioning iPad to help them conduct online marking and tutorials.
“The whole point of the bridging program, broadly, was to try and make people feel better in a terrible time.”
The teaching assistants included Abdalaziz Hamdan, Ogheneovo Eduiyovwiri, Abu Naser Sarker, Farhan Rashid, Ahmad Alkasasbeh, Fatemeh Ghorbanivashki, Mozhgan Farahani, Oleg Ogandzhanyants, Gwang-Seop Shin, Miraero Shin, Muntaha Mushfiquee, Sharmin Akhter, Miranda Boutilier, Jayasooriya Arachchilage Apsara Jayasooriya, Kwadwo Owusu-Boakye, Razan Abu-Labdeh, Seyed Jalaleddin Moniri, Sharmila Dhevi Gunasekaran Gnanam, Shivam Arora, Tareq Uz Zaman and Yongho (Daniel) Lim.
Prioritizing those who need help
Ms. Stuckless credits staff from Mathematics and Statistics, including Dawn Harvey, Jennifer Benson, Melissa Strong and Russ Flynn, for making sure everyone was paid, new hardware got into the right hands and that the technology was supported – none of which was made easy by the current climate.
“For example, just getting the iPads to grad students was a big problem,” she said.
“Dawn and Melissa had to get permission to go to the university and get the equipment, which they ended up distributing from the trunk of Dawn’s car in the parking lot. If students didn’t have transportation our staff delivered it. But everything had an extra layer of complication because of COVID-19.”
In choosing the graduate students who would become the teaching assistants, Ms. Stuckless wanted to target international students who needed the extra help.
“When I sent out the initial email to students, I said if they were not worried about funding to let me know, because we wanted to prioritize those for whom it was a bigger issue,” she said.
“I think that’s what helped us get approval for the funding to do this – it was in line with other goals the university had. Ultimately, I was able to give everyone who was interested a position, even if they said they didn’t really need it.”
William MacLellan was also brought in to provide several days of professional development to the teaching assistants, based on his years of experience teaching with the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District’s Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation.
Ms. Stuckless says there was a “huge” amount of professional development for everyone involved, not just the graduate students.
“It was a big learning curve, but I feel it better prepared us to go into the fall semester,” she said.
“We’ve gone through how to develop good tests within the Brightspace format, how to effectively communicate with students using remote tools and what are reasonable expectations for what students are going to be able to do and what they know.”
Dr. Dyer says it was also nice for Mathematics and Statistics to be able to do something to help the province cope with COVID-19.
“The whole point of the bridging program, broadly, was to try and make people feel better in a terrible time,” he said. “These students might have been fine in September, but they were unsure. This was a way for us to be able to say ‘Don’t worry. We’re going to get you where you need to be.’”