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Devil's Advocate: Should Exams Stay Online?

YES: Amelia Perry (66%)

Cast your minds back, if you will, to the early summer of 2018. I’m not sure what you were up to, but I was practically sprinting out of an exam hall having just finished my final GCSE (Maths, in case you were wondering.) No more exams until the dreaded A-Levels two years later? Absolute dream. I could settle into a long summer of your classic post-GCSE activities, also known as Boardmasters, getting weirdly into the World Cup (very out of character) and enjoying the last good season of Love Island. I digress. In any case, that would be the last ‘proper’ exam I’d actually ever sit.

Granted, I never was a particularly good exam taker. Well, that’s an understatement, actually, I was terrible at them, but you get the general idea. So, combining that knowledge with the fact that I’ve been considerably out of practice for the last four years, I’m sure you’ll understand that the thought of in-person exams returning doesn’t exactly fill me with joy. If you, for some bizarre reason, are still under the impression that the traditional exam format is a good idea, let me show you exactly why you are so wrong.

Let’s start off with the location itself, shall we? My first issue was that, at my institution at least, come exam season the sports hall was no more and was transformed into the hellscape of my nightmares. Quite where they kept those 300-odd desks during the rest of the academic year, I couldn’t tell you, nevertheless, they materialised without fail signalling that some form of nervous breakdown was inevitably impending. The big problem with holding exams in a sports hall, however, is the sheer amount of distraction available. Believe me, when faced with the prospect of actually sitting a physics paper or closely examining a basketball hoop that’s fixed to the ceiling for the best part of two hours, it’s gonna be the basketball hoop every time.

Secondly, stressed people do everything very loudly for little to no reason. Pages have never been turned so vigorously, pens clicked so aggressively, or sighs expelled with quite so much fervour as in an exam hall. For those of us deemed fortunate enough to type in exams, aggressive typers quickly become the bane of your existence. “But typing is such an advantage” I hear you say. You try sitting in a room with thirty people apparently trying to break the Guinness World Record for most keyboards simultaneously broken by sheer force and velocity of typing, and then get back to me. If exam halls were an environment actually conducive to concentration, we’d be having a totally different conversation.

Then, of course, there’s exam anxiety. I don’t mean getting nervous, that’s not only entirely natural but also aids performance. I’m also not talking about those students who lived for making a big song and dance out of the whole thing, frantically flipping through seemingly millions of brightly coloured flashcards in the seconds before the doors opened in a wierd and vain attempt to let you know how just much this mattered to them - and just how nervous they were. Being anxious because you’ve done no preparation does not count either. I’m talking about the genuinely paralyzing levels of anxiety caused by even the thought of being in an exam. Nerves are one thing, having a complete and total mind blank rendering your paper unmarkable is another. Especially when exams are purely reliant on your ability to recall tonnes of material at the drop of a hat.

This brings me to my main gripe with traditional exams. Those of you who are ardently in favour of your average in-person exam might want to sit down. Exams don’t really prove anything to anyone. They’re simply a memory game, which firstly isn’t the point of education (I refuse to believe people who honestly think it is) and secondly, can be a massive disadvantage. Unfortunate mind-blanks aside, if your brain simply isn’t wired to regurgitate facts and figures on demand (mine certainly isn’t), a pre-COVID in-person exam scenario is never going to be a fair measure of your ability. Yet, for some reason, exam results are still how your general level of intelligence or attainment are measured all the way through school and university. Trying to condense an entire semester or year’s worth of teaching into a two or three-hour exam has never made sense to me. At that point, it’s not testing your strengths, it merely becomes a competition as to who can memorise the most, despite the fact exams are supposedly a measure of the former. An online exam, however, open book by nature, allows you to really hone in on the quality of your work, putting your best foot forward to be assessed.

It goes without saying I’d like everything to get back to the way it was, pre-COVID, but there’s no denying the pandemic hasn’t taught as many valuable lessons. Exams can be sat online completely effectively in a way that actually lets people perform well. So let’s keep it that way, for everyone’s sake.

NO: Alex Beckett (34%)

What is at stake in the debate between traditional and online exams is quite important. The nature of our educational system, yes, but also the respect and value that is attached to it. In the modern day of grade hyperinflation and educational ‘democratisation’ – the act of rewarding incapable students in order to boost their confidence falsely, to pay the wages of an excessive number of academics, and to pamper institutional statistics – anything we can do to salvage a modicum of respect and value is practically essential.

Unlike those of ‘the COVID years’, who were granted a free pass when it came to their GCSEs and A-Levels, however much they may tell you otherwise, I sat mine as many of us did. I know what the dreaded paper exam is like. In the summer of 2017, I had to sit over 20 of them, and 2 years later I believe I sat about 10 more. I also had the privilege to sit three paper exams in my first semester in St Andrews. Hence, I’ve sat them at every level relevant to the conversation. And I know what they entail: the stress, the bureaucracy of filling in candidate numbers and finnicky details, the rush of the last minute’s scribbling.

I’m going to go through each of these three factors. These three factors form the basis of my argument for traditional paper examinations. Firstly, let’s consider the stress. This is the primary argument of the exam critics. When all other arguments fail, they can easily come back to the flip and flop of “Paper exams stress me out,” said with the passion and surety of someone who actually believes this argument to hold water. It doesn’t. A good exam is not meant to be stressless and simple. Think about a car MOT. If the car wasn’t put under some form of stress and duress, we would have no idea whether it was really road fit. If the test consisted purely of opening the doors and buckling the seatbelts, then how can you be confident that the brakes will work and the wheels shan’t skid when you need them most?

The second factor concerns detail, bureaucracy and invigilation. This combination boils down to an anti-cheating measure. I know it’s not very fashionable to suggest that in 2022 people shouldn’t cheat and that perhaps we ought to force people to follow certain rules, but there we are. Maybe this is now counterculture. I don’t think it’s a particularly unreasonable principle, after all. I don’t like the possibility of people cheating, which is in its purest form a sort of horrible and manipulative lie targeted at one’s teachers, classmates, and at oneself. Online exams often do not provide sufficient safeguards against cheating, basically devaluing the grade of everyone who sits it. Sitting and excelling in traditional paper examinations, frankly, stands for much, much more: it is guaranteed that it was really you who sat the paper, it is guaranteed that you did it in a fair and equal environment, and it’s guaranteed that you didn’t cheat whilst sitting it.

The rush of the last minute is the basis of my final and most vitalising argument: traditional paper exams force us to do and to be our best. When we don’t know what is to be on the paper, and are left only with days beforehand to revise months of content, we devise strategies and plans. We dedicated ourselves to learning and, more specifically, to retaining the content. We think about how we may have to mould it to the questions that await us. Ultimately, it is at this point that we begin to truly learn the content of the module that we’ve been studying. In the exam, when pressured to do so under the time constraints, students will have to think innovatively about the theories and information that they’ve gathered up until now; in an ideal exam scenario, they may picture, imagine, and comprehend it in an entirely new way, which allows them to provide a unique and idiosyncratic response. And when the invigilator announces “You have one minute left,” you can be sure that the ink flooding from the student’s pen is not drying in vain, for it is this ink that shall earn them their grade, their recognition, and the fruits of their labour.

To conclude, traditional paper exams are better for students and for the system. When sat in good faith, they encourage students to push themselves individually, and on a collective level, they ensure that the results attained are attained fairly, and valued fairly also. We desperately need to restore confidence in the education system post-COVID, and to reintroduce proper paper examinations would be an important step in the right direction.

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