‘How can I be expected to improve my grades in these conditions?’: A review of course registration approaches across Canadian universities

As the clock strikes 9:30 a.m., another group of 200 students scramble to click the Register All button on the Student Service Centre.

Andrew Wong, a fourth-year science student, is one of them. He clenches his fingers, holds his breath and listens to stale silence until the page finally refreshes and shows row after row of green confirmation messages.

The section was added successfully.

Wong breathes a sigh of relief and claps his hands in victory.

Some version of this scene will repeat for the next three days as 150 to 200 students register for courses every ten minutes. In the following weeks, first-year students will register, followed by third-years, and finally second-years.

Despite the stress course registration brings each year, the process has dramatically improved in the past 20 years.

Until 1987, students had to physically line up and run around campus with a paper punch card. In the years thereafter, students were able to register by telephone. Students could not register online until 2001.

Today, returning undergraduate students are first grouped by year level, then assigned a registration time based on their previous winter session GPA. Though this approach has been in place for two decades, it stands in contrast to the process at other major Canadian universities.

At the University of Toronto, McGill University and UniversitéLaval, registration times are generally assigned based on the number of credits completed among students in the same year level.

UBC, SFU and UVic all assign registration times within each year level based on GPA.

Annie Yim, deputy registrar at UBC Enrolment Services, told The Ubyssey UBC has considered other approaches but selected an approach that is ultimately focused on principles like “recognizing students’ academic performance, supporting students to gain access to the courses they need to graduate, prioritizing equity-deserving groups ... [and] system parameters.”

A system that rewards and penalizes

Wong supports UBC’s approach because it recognizes strong academic performance.

Wong’s previous sessional average was in the high 80s. However, he noted it was not high enough to receive a Trek Scholarship, which is awarded to the top five per cent of domestic student and international students in each year, faculty, and school.

“I view it like a reward system because it motivates me to study harder,” said Wong.

Wong drew a parallel between the course registration system and UBC’s admission process, which is based on high school grades and extracurriculars. He said he sees both systems as meritocratic.

However, the assignment of registration times is not always an exercise of simply ranking students by their grades.

According to Yim, equity-deserving groups like Indigenous students and students registered with the Centre for Accessibility are given earlier registration times. Other groups given priority include varsity athletes, in order to accommodate their practice schedules.

Wong said it is fair to prioritize certain groups that need accommodations.

“For me, taking a course at 10 a.m. or 11 a.m. does not make a difference,” said Wong. “I know it does for some people and I’m okay with them getting the first pick.”

When asked about being able to register for desired courses, Wong pointed to other constraints that may play a larger role. Even with a first-day 9:30 a.m. registration time, his first worklist was not possible.

“The demand for courses to get into the computer science [major], for example, is a lot higher than the number of spots,” he said.

“It’s not perfect but it’s more fair than randomly assigning times,” Wong said.

Thomas Cooper, a third-year arts student, doesn’t see the current system as equitable.

Cooper’s grades have suffered due to a diagnosed mental illness, a long commute from Burnaby and a busy work schedule to finance his tuition. Cooper received a registration time on the final day of registration and watched four versions of his worklist fill to capacity.

From his experience, he said poor performance in a student’s first year penalizes them for the remainder of their degree.

“First year was exceptionally challenging for me,” said Cooper. In his first year, he had a sessional average in the mid 60s and in his second year, a sessional average in the low 70s.

“A poorly timed breakup and the mental health breakdowns afterward really hurt my first semester final exams,” he said.

“This approach doesn’t set students up for success. With a horrible registration time, I could only register for sections at 8:30 a.m. or 5 p.m.,” said Cooper. “On some days, I was leaving the house at 6 [a.m.] … and coming home at 7 [p.m.]. Other days, I was forced to choose between going to lecture or showing up to work.”

“How can I be expected to improve my grades in these conditions?” said Cooper.

Yim said that while other approaches may be viewed as fairer, there will always be full classes that leave some students stuck with a less-than-ideal schedule.

“Each approach will garner different perspectives of potential advantages and disadvantages, with no single approach being ‘perfect,’” said Yim.

Comparing different approaches across Canada

There is a lack of consensus on whether alternative approaches to registration are better. Among the U15 schools — an association of Canada’s most research-intensive universities — every school initially groups students based on their year level, but the similarities end there.

Four schools have a random lottery, three assign based on GPA, three use the number of credits, two use a first-come, first-serve model and three use another approach entirely.

For example, at the University of Waterloo, students create a ranked “wish list” of courses they want to take and an automated system generates a conflict-free course schedule. Afterward, students are assigned staggered times to add and drop courses, with students closer to graduation receiving priority.

Ultimately, any changes to existing functions or how registration times are assigned at UBC will likely come through Workday Student, part of a $342 million software upgrade that is scheduled to go live for students in June 2024. Changes include automated enforcement of course requirements, the ability to grant restriction overrides in advance and improved waitlist capabilities.

When discussing course registration in 2017, then Registrar Kate Ross told The Ubyssey that “Our hope is to have a system in the future … [where] there would be a different method in terms of how we handle this to ensure that students have a level playing field.” U