Online exams: the new normal?


With Durham University announcing that the May/June 2021 exams are to be moved online, students are realising the long-term impact this pandemic will have on their academic lives. Last years’ online exams were accepted as inevitable by the student community, but 2021 exams becoming digital is symbolic of the ‘new normal’ that is becoming an integral part of our lives. Now that this decision has been made, what is crucial is how the University supports students through these ever-changing times. 

Some may take the stance that online exams can be beneficial in many ways, and that they are the only practical solution given the current climate. The 24 hour window within which to complete the exam is inclusive towards international students in various time zones, allowing the exams to be sat anywhere in the world. The fact that pupils can take these exams from the comfort of their homes is favourable in terms of decreasing stress levels. The freedom to create an environment where you are comfortable can provide some much needed control when sitting assessments that can feel entirely overwhelming. 

The integrity of online exams has to be questioned and can be more worrying when reaching the final years of your degree

Personally, last year I sat my exams back home in Hong Kong and was immensely grateful for the 48 hour window. I am sure that many students can relate that the stress of travelling and getting home meant that online exams were a blessing and definitely eased the pressure. This year it will be fascinating to see how the University has learnt from last years’ exams, and hopefully improve the process as whole. We already see key changes, such as the time period being decreased to 24 hours, which are aiming to add more legitimacy to these online exams. 

Moreover, some would argue that online exams are far more reflective of our increasingly modern and technological world. In fact, many universities across the world started implementing online exams prior to Covid-19. For example, Monash University in Melbourne, Australia started a small trial of online exams back in 2015, and by the end of 2017 8% of all their exams were online. This trend has also been seen in Europe, for example 3 universities in Norway (the Universities of Bergen, Oslo and Agder) have all adopted digital examinations. 

However, we have to also acknowledge the many flaws associated with online exams: can online exams ever genuinely replicate traditional ones? It has been suggested that online exam results correlate poorly with an actual understanding of the content. Additionally, online exams cannot truly protect against cheating, as they usually involve a shift towards open book exams. The integrity of online exams has to be questioned and can be more worrying when you are reaching the final years of your degree. One might feel disheartened by the fact that even if they honestly sit the exams, others will cheat and ultimately get better marks as a result. 

Finding motivation for these upcoming exams will be extremely challenging for students this year

This decision made by the University also presumes that every student has a stable home environment and the necessary technological resources to sit these assessments, begging one to ask if the format of these assessments favours pupils of a particular socioeconomic background. Many students will not have an accessible wifi connection or computer: how are they expected to sit a series of online exams? Whilst the University can grant certain exemptions and provide resources, these students are still inherently at a disadvantage. Generally speaking, sitting exams remotely can create a major disconnect, resulting in students not wanting to ask for support or help. The University needs to be hyperaware of this, making the support they offer widely easily accessible for every student.  

Overall, whilst online exams appear to be the University’s only choice, the mental, physical and emotional fatigue of online learning cannot be denied and finding motivation for these upcoming exams will be extremely challenging for students this year. At the end of the day, all we can do is sit down with a cup of tea and try to sit these exams to be best of our ability.

Image: Sergey Zolkin via Unsplash.

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