Online university: 24-hour exams in review

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When the University administration announced that this year’s exams would take place online once again, the overwhelming reaction from the student body was one of relief. After an unprecedented year of academic disruption, returning to intense weeks of revision leading up to three hours in a pressurised exam hall was understandably unappealing. However, the reality of the 24-hour take-home exam has been more mentally and physically exhausting, and more guilty of encouraging a toxic work ethic, than any of us could have predicted.

For the second year running, Durham, like universities worldwide, had to find a way to replace traditional in-person exams with an online format. The theory behind the 24-hour exam was to emulate traditional exams as closely as possible. Whilst they were to be treated as open-book, we were told to spend the allotted time (two or three hours) on each exam within the 24-hour period.

The open-book nature of these assessments undoubtedly eased the pressure in the run-up to exam season. Learn-and-churn revision became unnecessary with unlimited access to lecture notes, textbooks and seminar readings in the duration of the exam itself. The validity of factual recall as a test of intelligence is constantly (and very fairly) disputed. Perhaps take-home exams would provide a more accurate picture of students’ engagement with and understanding of their subject, beyond the time constraints of traditional memory tests?

Learn-and-churn revision became unnecessary with unlimited access to lecture notes, textbooks and seminar readings in the duration of the exam itself.

In reality, they became a test of sheer endurance and stamina. In an exam hall, everyone has the same time to prove their academic abilities. But this year, it became a contest as to who could sustain the longest hours at their desk, stay up the latest and take the fewest breaks. These assessments unintentionally encouraged students to sacrifice their physical and mental wellbeing, as well as precious hours of sleep, to produce higher quality answers. The reward of these sacrifices was one many thought worth taking.

This outcome was of course unintentional. But the University should have predicted it. Durham is one of the UK’s top universities attracting highly intelligent students with even higher expectations of themselves. They gave us just 24 hours to demonstrate a year’s worth of knowledge and understanding. Any student who restricted themselves to the allocated two to three hours would be doing themselves a disservice, since their work will inevitably be contrasted with peers who spent three to four times longer on the same exam. It was blind-sighted to believe the time-pressured environment of an exam hall could be emulated at home at all. Even with ample preparation, it would have been impossible to artificially self-impose the strict time limitations of an exam hall.

The messaging from the University around the expectations of the 24-hour exam was paradoxical. Departments stated that exam responses would be marked as if they had been written in exam conditions. But by the very nature of openbook exams, the quality of written responses will automatically be much higher than what could be reasonably produced under exam conditions. The University will have to adjust their marking criteria retroactively to account for the extensive hours spent, thereby undermining the expectations set out in their initial exam instructions. Otherwise, they risk the same criticism of a lack of grade spread as last year (when there was a 28.5% increase in first-class degree classifications between the 2019 and 2020 graduating classes.)

The messaging from the University around the expectations of the 24-hour exam was paradoxical.

There has also been substantial evidence that some departments adjusted the rubric and difficulty of exams to compensate for the apparently ‘easier’ online format. In STEM subjects, where a significant part of the paper would normally be short-answer questions of straight-forward factual recall, they were now dominated by complex problem questions. Whilst it would have been futile to ask students to transfer information straight from their textbook onto their transcript, these more complex, long-form questions inevitably took longer to complete than in normal time-constrained exams.

In other subjects, students were tested on incredibly niche parts of their lecture courses, far beyond the scope of past years’ papers. Other departments asked to produce double the number of essays as in the pre-pandemic formats (and yet they were still told to do so in the same three-hour time period as before.)

Having survived each 24-hour assessment period, the aftereffects of the sustained levels of stress were even more acute than those after regular exams. The definitive relief at physically handing a paper in and walking out the exam hall was replaced by a low-burn sense of anxiety at the point of submission, that more work could be done, another proof read undertaken another hour of work on that one unresolved problem. Without that tangible point of relief (at least not until 9:30am the next morning), students struggled to switch off or even sleep, leaving many physically and mentally depleted with little time to recover properly before the next exam.

Having survived each 24-hour assessment period, the aftereffects of the sustained levels of stress were even more acute than those after regular exams.

Perhaps the relatively relaxed revision period leading up to exam season offset the pressure of the 24-hour exams themselves. (Although the number of summative assignments many of us were churning out up until the eleventh hour of the exam season might refute this.) Either way, the University should have been clearer, and much less naïve, as to the expectations of this year’s exams.

So what about next year? In all likelihood, it will be possible to have in-person exams again. But after two consecutive years of online assessment (and online teaching), the university should consider whether it is fair to revert back so suddenly. Next year’s finalists will have had no experience of sitting university exams in traditional time-constrained settings; the grade spread will surely suffer then if we are forced back into exam halls for the first time in three years.

The last two years of enforced review of end-of-year assessment can be used as a learning experience. The benefits of a format which prioritises conceptual understanding over factual recall should be carried forward. But a system which rewards compromising health and wellbeing (even for a very short, intense period) should be left firmly in the past.

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