Debate: are online exams disadvantaging students?

With online examinations returning for a third year, Palatinate asked two contributors to give their opinion on the University’s decision to not return to in-person exams.

For: Online exams: a matter of accessibility, not accuracy


Like many, I breathed an exhaustive sigh of relief when the exams team graced us with the this week that examinations for the 2021-22 period would once again be sat online, rather than in-person. 

Now in my second year at Durham and two-years post gap-year, I haven’t had the pleasure of stewing in an exam hall since I took my A Levels in 2019 — and I’m not sure my exam, or rather memorisation, technique would be up to the task. 

The British examination system has for years been plagued by discussions of fairness and inaccuracy of assessment. Employing a system which relies heavily on memorisation has alienated and disproportionately disadvantaged those with a range of cognitive conditions, myself included. My disability was acquired during my aforementioned gap-year, and thus I’ve never had to sit a ‘traditional’ exam with my newfound chronic fatigue and subsequent cognitive issues.

At a degree-level, understanding should dominate the foreground

The very British solution of allowing ten minutes extra time per hour, as generous as it is, fails to address the real issue at hand — allowing those who are disadvantaged in this way around twenty extra minutes will not magically allow them to conjure up the correct answer. It may, however, exacerbate the mental stress students are put under in exam conditions and, therefore, compound the worsening of any chronic illnesses. The blessing of a 24-hour examination window, and the adaptation of assessment methods to focus even more on testing one’s understanding of your chosen degree-subject, allows students like myself to have an even playing field. 

Regardless of improving accessibility, assessment at degree-level should, in my view, never be based on who can memorise dates and places the best. At a degree-level, understanding should dominate the foreground. If evaluations are truly being based on comprehension, then what is the need for such pressurised settings? Furthermore, many modules offered by a range of faculties across the University are assessed purely on summative coursework. These modules represent the same number of credits towards a degree as a module based solely on final examination; so if there is any suggestion that online exams are an inadequate form of assessment, clearly the University has been lacking in this regard for longer than the era of Covid-19.

If online exams are to become the future for University-level assessment, then adjusting to the needs of individual departments and the wants of students will be integral

Crucially, for those subjects that believe in-person examination is pertinent, exemptions can be made. This is not a dramatic ‘point of no return’ and a symbolic shift towards the digital age, merely an alternative medium to allow for the pressures of the ongoing pandemic. This week the maths department made the decision to apply for an exemption to online assessment, citing instances of cheating in last year’s examination period. This decision also takes into consideration results of a survey of maths students, who reportedly heavily prefer in-person exams, contrary to other faculties. If online exams are to become the future for University-level assessment, then adjusting to the needs of individual departments and the wants of students will be integral in continuing to provide a fulfilling and measurable University education. 

Exams are meant to be a fair and equal opportunity to evaluate a student’s understanding of their chosen field. Taking this into account, the shift towards online-examination should not be a point of contention on whether the University is fulfilling its requirements as an educational institution. Ensuring that assessment is as fair as possible for those with underlying conditions, allowing them to create a sense of control over their environment during an ever-fluctuating pandemic, is crucial. 

Students in their second and third years, who have not sat an in-person University exam, which requires vastly different revision and exam preparation, are all at a disadvantage to years gone by. The pandemic has caused enough hinderance to students, why exacerbate it?

Against: We should be careful about inadequate assessment


Like Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort, students and exams have been archenemies since time immemorial. As such, the vast majority of students cheerfully welcomed the University’s announcement that exams were to take an online format for the third year in a row. It is easy to understand why the University took this decision. Due to the pandemic, most first and second years did not sit exams at the end of year 13, and finalists have never had the experience of sitting in-person undergraduate exams. While I do not believe in-person exams should go ahead, the online-exam format is an ineffective and unsuitable alternative means of assessment. 

This is not an opinion widely shared by the student body. According to a recent survey, the majority of students reported reduced stress under the online format. The open-book format reduces the need for intensive memorisation and the open 24- hour time frame means that a year’s worth of work no longer rests on a few short, rushed hours. However, these qualities arguably cause more problems than they solve.

Online exams occupy a dubious space between coursework and in-person examination which fails to accurately assess a student’s ability, as the very nature of online exams makes it extremely difficult to know what the examiner is looking for. The open book format naturally means that the quality of assessment will be higher, but departmental leaders assert that they expect the same quality as a closed-book exam. There is an implicit incompatibility here, making expectations difficult to ascertain. This is compounded by the 24-hour time frame, which is unfortunately unavoidable, as a set time frame would undermine the fairness of assessment.

The question over how much time peers are spending on the same exam, and thus what the standard of answer will be, further reiterates feelings of uncertainty

In-person exams can be timed as the environment is controlled, meaning if there is any external disruption (for instance, a fire-alarm), this would affect everyone and could be appropriately accounted for. The same cannot be done for online exams. The question over how much time peers are spending on the same exam, and thus what the standard of answer will be, further reiterates feelings of uncertainty.

This uncertainty applies not only in the preparation and execution of online exams, but also in the outcome. Formative assignments are set in order to practise for future assessments and learn through criticism. However, online exams are often so different in their format that they require distinctly different skills, bringing into question the reason for setting formative assessments at all. Since factual recall is no longer a characteristic of assessment, a far more logical means of assigning a grade would be a structure of 100% coursework-based assessment. Online exams largely purport to test the same skills as summative assessments, addressing a depth of understanding rather than memory recollection. Thus removing the unnecessary 24-hour window would allow these skills to be applied and demonstrated with more nuance, prudence and refinement.

A solely coursework-based means of assessment would deprive students of an invaluable set of educational skills

While summative assessments are the best alternative to online exams in the mid-pandemic context, I do not believe this mode of assessment should be indefinite. The processes of factual revision, focussed attention, time-management and adaptability that are characteristic of in-person exams are invaluable educational benefits that coursework simply cannot replicate. Additionally, summative assessments focus on a narrower field of study, whereas preparation for examination requires a broader approach to ensure all topics are covered. Yes, exam season is overly pressurised and is developing an increasingly toxic competitiveness but a solely coursework-based means of assessment would deprive students of an invaluable set of educational skills. We are paying approximately £30,000 for this degree, and many pay more. Both timed and untimed assessment must be taken together to ensure we emerge at the other side with an education that reflects the price tag.

Truthfully, in-person exams have been falling out of Vogue for the past few years. The pandemic has arguably just accelerated a process already in motion, and has consequently caused a heavy re-evaluation of our processes of academic assessment. We currently stand at a crossroads: every year a future without exams becomes increasingly realistic.


In-article illustrations:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.