There has been much written on the debate between online and in-person exams; yet it is a debate unresolved if still misunderstood. We remain bound to the illusion that online exams are intellectually beneficial and less stressful for the student. This is not the case. They are instead ugly – full of all the contradictions of the university and the modern world. Not only ugly however, but deceptively so. The worst kind of ugliness – a deep-rooted, concealed ugliness that promises many things it ends up subverting. It is therefore important that new undergraduates have the advantage of some reflections on this strange process.
These reflections begin long before the exam has taken place. In comparison to in-person exams, online exams will make you revise even less, study less seriously, read less books, and drink more: a great affirmation of university. This of course was inevitable. Given students are allotted 24 hours, yet markers expect a ‘three-hour answer’ (the first and most blatant contradiction) – it would seem unreasonable to revise multiple topics in detail when you know that on the day, you are going to know the specific question and then have time to research, plan, and write your response.
Indeed, the underlying contradiction is that even if you were a competent, law-abiding, hardworking, well-revised student – and only spent the obligatory ‘three hours’ on the paper – you would not compete with someone who has not revised, but made use of the entire 24 hours. Not only then do online exams encourage students to cheat, it makes it almost compulsory. It becomes a hypocritical system: one that enforces rules, yet simultaneously encourages and reduces the regulation of breaking them. This is a key weakness, not only because it encourages us all to work less, but because it sets dangerous precedents for the general order of things.
But online exams are not only damaging to the principals of education – but damaging to the individual. Why? Firstly, because during traditional ‘in-person exams’ you are, in reality, more unconscious than conscious: bursting with natural adrenaline and regurgitating information from parts of your brain unknown. You have not time to stop and think and worry. They are stressful in the sense a roller-coaster is stressful – and as rewarding as one. 24-hour exams, on the contrary, are an exercise in a sort of slow, self-conscious schizophrenia.
You have firstly your intellectual worries: you do not know what the examiners expect, you have the whole internet to consult, people to plagiarise, friends to ask, enough time to uncover the intricacies of the question but not to resolve them. Such stuttering is only heightened by all the drugs consumed: hard or soft, although usually caffeine and sugar in large amounts. In a system that rewards endurance, such drugs are inevitable, but they distort things as much as staring at words for 24 hours distorts things. What is then produced are strange spasms of thought, words increasingly odd, illogical, and what you had once written at the start loses itself – things no longer make sense. Deprived of sleep, malnourished, full of affected adrenaline, and sad (there is time, of course, to reflect on life’s decisions and indecisions, who you have failed, time wasted, things done wrong), you become insensitive and artificial in your response.
There is, I believe, something natural about written exams – the fluidity of them, the important practise of engraining and applying information. And there is, indeed, a more developed naturalness in a summative; weeks to contemplate, articulate, create, refine. 24-hour exams are a strange middle path, where decision and revision are confused, and what is left is only a rushed summative, or an awkwardly extended exam: a broken essay, undone with confusing ideas. Pieces of thought that carry within their very fabric the chaos of their formation.
And yet, to make things worse, there is not even any solace in submission. Unlike the relief in completing an in-person exam, where the struggle was natural and there is a sense of justice in the outcome; submitting a 24-hour exam is different. Somewhere between confusion and regret, the day begins, people wake up, and you hold with you a sense of regret for reasons you do not know or cannot justify.
Ultimately, I do believe ‘online exams’ are bad; they reflect an irresponsibility if selfishness on the part of the university, as they largely profit from this system, and will do little to benefit us students in either the short or long term. I sat my GCSEs and A levels in an exam hall, and although there was revision, and stress, and worry, I look back with genuine pride and a feeling that I had actually learned something. I cannot say the same is true for any of my university exams.
Image: David Hawgood via Wikimedia Commons