By Tobias Chalcraft
COVID-19 has impacted our lives in many ways and exams are clearly of no exception.
While you might think alternative coursework, or even a classic essay, may be wise in these circumstances, most departments at the University of Plymouth decided to push ahead with exams in an online format.
Rather than receiving a 2-hour exam in Nancy Astor or Plymouth Pavilions, these new exams involve a paper becoming unlocked on our Digital Learning Environment (DLE) at a fixed time. You then have 48 hours to type up responses on a word document and upload the completed work onto the same site before the deadline passes.
This has understandably been interpreted as a less intense alternative to usual exams.
Casually researching appropriate academic literature on the internet replaces trying to access information that has been etched into your brain over the last few weeks. The heart-stopping declaration that “YOU HAVE 5 MINUTES REMAINING” is replaced by the beats of your favourite playlist. The only strain on your hands in these exams comes from picking up your sixth cup of tea.
We interviewed a handful of students from University of Plymouth to get a better insight into how they interpreted completing their exams during these unprecedented times. We started by asking if they preferred this format and responses generally showed a preference for this year’s arrangement, as opposed to preceding physical exams.
Hannah, a University of Plymouth student, said, “I think it allows for students to fully show their understanding and depth of a topic as they are able to identify and use literature which is relevant to the subject”.
Another student added , “I found it easier to collect my thoughts and think more rationally and the [extended] time limit was an even bigger bonus than the usual two hours”.
On the other hand, some students felt “pretty indifferent”, or even said they preferred the traditional way of completing exams. One commented, “it was fairer in the sense that it allowed a better evaluation of students’ preparation”.
Although lockdown measures put in place to tackle COVID-19 have increased loneliness, there seems to have been a positive effect on students’ anxiety. One student said that online exams have “been so good for anxiety. I barely go outside as it is and having to go in an exam hall is b******s”.
Furthermore, there seems to be a divided opinion on how stressful these digital exams were, in contrast to the traditional format. One student said that she preferred the online experience because “cramming loads of information into my mind and trying to remember it isn’t really a good test of knowledge”. Meanwhile another undergraduate, Taku, said this year’s practice was “definitely a benefit as I felt more confident and sure of myself”.
Other students like Giulia, on the other hand, believe that these tests have been more demanding because “if you are ‘competitive’ student, you will not be able to simply work for half a day. [This year’s exams were] 48 hours of stress and constant perfecting, so I think that it was harder on my mental wellbeing than the normal 2-hour exams”.
When asked whether these online exams will be of benefit or nuisance to their grades, it was clear that most interviewees were unsure. Hannah said, “I really don’t know! You would think it would be easier to get a higher grade as you have access to books and the internet but as a consequence of this, the marking criteria will be a lot harder!”
Meanwhile, some students remain optimistic. Levi found having more time to find relevant sources to be “very beneficial” and thus hopes this will translate into a desirable outcome.
Aside from lacking clarity and varying impacts on mental health, remote exams have also removed closure for students. One third-year student summarised this: “These exams seemed so anticlimactic. I missed having the satisfaction of hearing the invigilator telling me to stop writing and knowing I was done. This being the final year of my course added to that dissatisfaction. Submitting an exam on the DLE and then going back to play video games didn’t feel nearly as rewarding as finishing a physical exam”.
Adding to this, final year students are mourning their final nights out of university life: “while Zoom gives you the chance to celebrate with a couple of beers, it is a poor substitute for that last messy night out to put you off alcohol for life”.
Likewise, Giulia added that “being able to enjoy a drink with all my peers to celebrate together and the feeling of having accomplished something are the things I missed the most”.
COVID-19’s dramatic theft of students’ last few months of university can be seen in this final contribution from a final year student: “I have missed everything. The sounds, sights, smells. As jarring as they could be, they will not be there for me again. I’ll treasure university as an experience, but it’s passed now.”