Commentary, Opinion

Early alert systems: The gap between conception and effects

As with any university, McGill has many students who want to do well and make a positive impression on those around them, especially their professors. The impression most students do not want to make is the kind that causes concern rather than admiration, and one that could culminate in a referral to health and support services. For students at the University of Calgary, this is a new reality. More interestingly, what students might not know is that it is at McGill, too.

The University of Calgary released a press statement earlier this month on its website, detailing the institution of its new Thrive Priority Support. This new early alert system is set up so that when a student seems to be encountering difficulties, academic or otherwise, a professor may report it to the appropriate student support services—like the Student Success Centre and the Students’ Union Wellness Centre—who will contact the student and ask if the student would like to meet. McGill has had a similar system in place for some time. After an alert is sent by a professor, a case manager reviews relevant information about the student on a case-by-case basis and decides how to proceed, such as by emailing the student information about support services. While these services have definite benefits in the academic realm, they fall flat elsewhere, such as by singling out students with mental illness.

Early warning systems are well-intentioned and based on a philosophy of providing students with maximum support. Universities that institute these early alert networks demonstrate their commitment to their student body’s well-being. To this end, the system is most applicable in an academic context. Professors who look at a series of grades for a student and notice a sharp decline can use an alert system to report that, and, after contact with support services, the student can take advantage of appropriate academic resources such as tutors or other educational resources. As well, a professor could notify the early alert system if a student is chronically absent from class or appears isolated. This too could help struggling students who have not themselves found ways to right the ship. No note is made on the student’s transcript, and only those who need to know about it out of necessity will.

When difficulties in the classroom stem from personal struggles, […] there is no guarantee that an email from student support services will not just frighten a student and cause them to withdraw further.

When difficulties in the classroom stem from personal struggles, however, there is no guarantee that an email from student support services will not just frighten a student and cause them to withdraw further. The sudden appearance of an email insinuating that the student is an outlier certainly could have negative effects.

For all the good the system certainly does, it has less convincing aspects. Imagine a student who, for one reason or another, is feeling depressed and isolated. An email from student services, no matter how warm the tone, could be jarring and counterproductive by further discouraging the student from seeking aid. It may send a message that the student’s feelings of inadequacy permeate the surface and are visible. Reports from 2014 and 2017 by the Progressive Policy Think Tank and Equality Challenge Unit found that among students in England, some did not want to disclose their struggles for fear that fellow students or university faculty and staff would think less of them. In fact, an email of this sort may well be more a provocation than a godsend to a vulnerable student.

Additionally, while presented as unlikely by the system’s supporters, it is possible that a student could receive an email inviting them to counseling when nothing is wrong. This in turn may send the message to the student that their normal behaviour is off-putting enough to warrant such action. In this way, the early alert system arguably has the potential to do more harm than good.

The systems in place at the University of Calgary and McGill are most effective in approaching academic struggles and should be used primarily to address such concerns. From this, broader issues in the background of a student’s life may well be addressed, but any attempt to explicitly tackle mental well-being outside the classroom through an unexpected email carries too many risks. If professors shoot for the concrete academic issues right in front of them, then they will likely get the student to address not only these, but other challenges too.


Elijah Wenzel is a U2 Philosophy student at McGill.

@mcgilltribop | [email protected]

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