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Return to Online Exams

In the autumn of 2022, after two years of uncertainty and frequent changes to our everyday lives, education seems to have finally returned to a state of relative normality. No more masks. No more capacity restrictions. No more online lectures. No more spending hours behind your computer screen talking to little squares, or watching a lecture through Panopto. Being cautious of Covid is no longer at the forefront of our minds. And finally, no more online learning! For the first time since the pandemic began, St Andrews’ various lecture theatres are being put to use again. Of course, Covid still exists, but it does not evoke the same fear and dread as before.

This return to the classic way of teaching undoubtedly has positive implications: increased interaction with peers and professors, more structure to our days, and more daily movement. But, naturally, the return to fully in-person classes also means the dreaded return of in-person exams…

In some ways, this seems like a perfectly normal thing to bring back to schools and universities. However, this view fundamentally ignores the circumstances of the past two years. Given that the pandemic forced professors to change their teaching methods and, consequently, students to adapt to new ways of learning, it feels strange to reinstate a classic examination style without taking into account the disruption that has characterised higher education over the past two years.

The bottom line is: after two years of ‘makeshift’ school where teaching and studying levels went down, students no longer feel prepared to take two-hour sitdown exams. We are no longer trained to sit down in front of a piece of paper and be hyper-focused for two hours.

I am studying for a degree in Chinese Studies and International Relations so I understand how important in-person exams are for languages. When taking tests in our own time or at home, we have access to an infinite amount of online dictionaries (and the infamous Google Translate).

Thankfully for me, when I started at St Andrews, tutorials were all in-person, but this obviously hasn’t been the case for everyone, especially for those in Honours years. A fourth year, Joe, who takes Russian, mentioned that they felt that they would be “a much more fluent Russian speaker by now had my course been in-person all the way through”.

Nevertheless, when I found out in early September that I was going to be having an in-person final examination worth 50% of my grade, to say I was stressed would be an understatement. My exam for the past two semesters has been online, and I’ve had six hours to complete it. I’ve gotten used to being in the comfort of my own room without feeling rushed, not to mention that it was open-note. Furthermore, my last two years of high school consisted strictly of take-home papers, online tests and quizzes and video projects.

So after two years of make-shift school, going back to a sit-down exam makes my stomach churn. Not only do I feel extremely unprepared, but I am also no longer used to being tested under this format and coping with the stress that comes with it. We’ve become too reliant on resources online and on paper that going back seems impossible. I understand that this is the most efficient way to test my knowledge and understanding of the material I’ve learned over the course of the semester, but I think schools and educators should be more understanding of how unprepared students feel.

My apprehension seems to be echoed by the majority of St Andrews students. When I spoke to other St Andrews students about how they thought Covid affected their abilities to take exams, some students expressed that the “loss of practice would make the experience worse” and that they felt that their attention spans have decreased. And who can blame them, considering they had to spend eight hours a day glued to mind-numbing Teams calls…

Carla, a third year student, mentioned that the lack of exams recently has made them feel “less confident” because they “don’t remember how to study properly”. This is a logical consequence of the lack of exam preparation we have been afforded over the past months. We have not had regular tests and quizzes, so the goal of our learning has not been exam-centric. In response to the survey, many students also commented that “online learning gives people more flexibility regarding timings” and allows them “to do the exams in a comfortable environment of their choosing”.

This reinforces the idea that setting is an important factor in exam performance and impact on exam-based anxiety. Sitting in a large exam room full of other people writing at their individual desks with a loud clock ticking is pretty distressing, and it provokes a very specific kind of adrenaline. Having said that, seeing others focused on their work can sometimes be an incentive to keep going, whereas being alone in your bedroom is a recipe for constant distraction.

Pre-exam panic is also not a feeling we’re used to dealing with anymore, and, as Jack, in fourth year, noted, it “affects our performance more than our actual knowledge on the subject matter”.

Furthermore, moving from take-home assessments to in-person exams is a pretty big jump: they are two very different styles of assessment designed to test completely different skill sets. Susan, another third-year student, mentioned that they’ve gotten used to more “application based questions rather than regurgitating facts”. Similarly, fourth-year Patrick said that “studying for online exams was much more about understanding content than memorising it”. Returning to this method of evaluation so abruptly will be challenging to many students, and it might negatively impact their results.

While we all have some experience of in-person examinations from high school, as a fourth-year student, Kyle, commented, the learning style was completely different from university. At university, rather than being “spoon-fed” the material, “what you read and what you learn is entirely up to you, and there’s no one to hold your hand along the way”. When it comes to those exams, “in most cases there is no predicting what essay questions might come up”. It’s a completely different ballgame.

After returning to in-person examination in certain subjects such as finance and economics, the LSE Beaver reported that Accounting saw a decline of 11.1 marks from the 2017 to 2019 exam period compared to the 2021/22 academic year, with the average mark going from 69.9 to 58.8. Grades for Statistics and Economics, for example, decreased by 3.95 and 1.55 respectively. Other departments, such as Finance, witnessed a drop of as much as 5 marks.

Finally, the most frequent comment students made when asked about the return to in-person examinations was that they wished the university would provide help with the transition. Although many accept that the return of in-person exams is inevitable, they simultaneously believe that the transition could be carried out more gradually. However, some students maintained that it isn’t fair, with one student, Ines, pointing out that “it hasn’t been done in so long” and that some “have never had to sit an exam at university before at Honours level”.

Springing in-person exams onto students at Honours level who have gone most of their uni years with online testing seems unfair to many. “First and second year are about gaining the necessary skills to succeed at Honours level”, a fourth year student, Lucy, mentioned, “You can write a poor essay or flunk an exam without affecting your overall degree and learn from that experience so that, going into Honours, you’re more prepared”.

The classes of 2023 and 2024 completely missed out on that experience, and are given little to no guidance on this transition back into in person exams. It feels rather unfair for their most important years to suddenly return to normal.

While I understand the importance of sit-down examinations and their true ability to test one’s knowledge of the material they’ve learned over the semester and how well they’ve studied, it may not be realistic to ever fully return to them in all subjects. Covid has changed our world, for better or for worse, and some things may not be able to fully return to the way they were before.

Photo: Wikimedia Commo

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