Elspeth Macintosh explains why this year’s exams will be the toughest yet.
Exams are arguably one of the most stressful components of any student’s time at university. But with classes being suspended early and a national lockdown underway, this stress is amplified and could cause significant damage to the physical and mental wellbeing of students. It is fair to say that these are certainly not the circumstances that most of us would hope to be assessed under.
Exams under lockdown are problematic for a few reasons. Students who rely on accessing study spaces outside of their homes, or even just feel they can concentrate better when they are somewhere else, will be impaired by this arrangement to study under lockdown. Normal resources such as library books will not be available, which may limit the productivity of students who find it difficult to focus on screens for long stretches of time. Normal stress-alleviating activities like regular face-to-face social interaction, visiting the gym, or a long list of other activities simply aren’t possible. These different factors may not seem much, but completely reshaping our study routines around the lockdown will be a hard task for many of us at university.
Conducting “business as usual” with exams via computer and rolling out assessments during a state of international emergency is unwise for the physical and mental health of students. The lockdown prevents us from accessing many of our normal exercise routines, with parks crowded, full of people trying to get in a run or just be outside. During this time, we rely on our capabilities to perform home exercises and workouts. Movement is a vital part of a healthy study pattern, and with students confined indoors for all but one hour per day, it’s fair to say that the physical impact of exam stress will be felt more acutely than usual. And mentally, Covid-19 is a daunting challenge for all of us, with and without mental health problems. During this time the pressure of illness, death, fear and self-isolation is enough to handle, aside from performing up to academic standard too.
Another consideration to be made amidst this is that the nature of the at-home exams will vary depending on the course and the individual, and this could be argued to disadvantage certain groups. The University carries out a wide range of examinations, and some may be more suited to home assessment than others. Exams will continue for students in junior and senior honours, students in 3rd, 4th and 5th year of an integrated Masters degree, general/designated degrees, and postgraduates doing a taught degree. This is a wide range of affected individuals, within different disciplines, and variation in the effectiveness of this exam rollout is inevitable. Those with superior IT and home study set-up are also given an unfair advantage. This quickly can be linked to difficulties for students under financial strain and how this will affect their revision.
As a result of the combination of these factors, the overall performance of students will be under much strain. On the bright side, the conditions of Glasgow’s upcoming exam diet have changed significantly with the announcement on 31 March of the "no detriment" policy. This has been a major relief for many of us as we prepare to revise. It means that performance in these spring exams will only be counted towards our degrees if it improves upon our performances in previous assessments.
Despite this news, there is still uncertainty surrounding how exams will work for many students. For example, the no detriment policy does not remove pressure from the situation for students who are aiming to improve their performance through these assessments. As well as this, there seems to be less clarity around arrangements for assessments such as dissertations, essays, and projects that were due during the first days and weeks of the university and UK response to coronavirus.
I’m sure none of this is news for most people reading this. It is a major concern for us alongside the coronavirus, as our revision period goes ahead. Unfortunately, these exams function as a double-edged sword. The study will be demanding, but for many students, it will also be unavoidable depending on their current academic context. Staff and students alike at Glasgow are working hard throughout this lockdown, and only time will tell how these exams will affect us all.