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The plight of exams

By Rothery Sullivan

Rothery Sullivan unpacks the student body’s opinions on whether examinations should remain online or in-person.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the University of Glasgow has undertaken a significant shift towards online examinations, ranging from timed exams to 24-hour open-book exams. During 2020 and 2021, in-person exams were banned as people were not allowed to be in rooms full of people as per Covid-19 restrictions. Since restrictions have eased, a mixture of in-person and online exams have been introduced into curriculums. In response, questions of accessibility and the difficulty of online exams have arisen, as well as the question of whether certain subjects even merit in-person exams. The Glasgow Guardian spoke to various students across subject areas to gauge how young people feel about the matter.

Most people who had online exams found them to be less difficult than in-person exams and preferred their exams to be online because the format tests understanding of concepts rather than memory. They found that simply regurgitating information in a timed period did not best assist learning. As students have become accustomed to an online format over the past couple of years, geoscience student Cerys expressed a concern that it would be difficult to adjust to in-person assessments as they require a different type of revision and preparation. Additionally, they stated, “I believe I’d be consumed by the unknown experience and anxiety leading up to the exam, therefore would find it significantly more difficult to revise for it.” 

24-hour exams, which are offered to students across many humanities subjects, were described as the easiest and least stressful kind of exam to undertake. One student that had 24-hour exams noted, “the flexible time limit makes [the exam] far less stressful”. Another student, Logan, agreed that 24-hour exams decreased stress. He said, “Having additional time allows for real critical thinking and well thought out answers.” He also noted that being around others in an in-person exam created a “fear of being watched or being slower than other students”. Logan continued, “it is inevitable that we will compare how quickly we are getting answers down when we are being timed and this can lead to further stress”. Logan also observed that online exams might be more beneficial to some subject areas than others: “In an exam for a class like history, it feels wrong to not give people extra time. History exams should reflect not just your ability to learn and regurgitate information, but your ability to produce solid pieces of work that are rounded with skills in format, research, analysis etc, which cannot be genuinely shown in a two-hour exam.”

It goes without saying that exams are made to test student knowledge and prepare them for life outside of university. History student Olivia explained that she preferred 24-hour online exams because they mimic real-life job assignments; online exams prioritise meeting a deadline rather than finding an immediate solution. She also noted that online exams “allow us to focus on our writing style rather than how quickly we can recall information”. Olivia disclosed that in-person exams can often cause her to “rush and end up writing a mediocre response that reflects the whole of my work for the semester.” 

A few students noted that online exams made them feel less anxious because they could complete them in a comfortable, familiar environment. Students indicated that they preferred to be in a space where they could control their environment, such as at home in their usual study space. Indeed, productivity has been heavily linked to the quality of working environments. Moreover, being in a stressful atmosphere makes people more prone to errors and disengagement. Being in a safe, comfortable setting is critical in keeping stress levels low and performance levels high. However, the ‘ideal’ exam environment changes depending on the student. 

Not everyone The Glasgow Guardian spoke to agreed that online exams are preferable. One respondent, Sytske, said that online exams were more difficult for her. She stated, “I personally much prefer the controlled environment of an exam hall.” She noted that online exams made it difficult to “get in the right mindset” and found that they made it easier for distractions to intervene with the exam. Odhran, who studies history and Scottish literature, acknowledged that although 24-hour online exams lead to less anxiety, he would still find timed online exams anxiety-inducing. He explained that, in his experience, online exams are easier, yet he thinks moving back to in-person exams could be a positive change. Odhran explained, “there’s a lot of push from students to keep exams online, which is understandable since online open 24-hour hour exams are easier and less stressful. However, truthfully, I believe traditional in-person timed exams have a lot of benefits when it comes to academic rigour.” He continued, “open 24-hour exams have allowed me to be a lot more cursory in my revision and overall pay less attention during the course.” 

Duress, a law and politics student, agreed that although the preparation needed for an online timed exam was the same for an in-person exam, “the adrenaline forcing you to do such preparation is perhaps lacking.” He observed that the lack of adrenaline affected the exam itself, too, stating, “What was actually really horrible was the nervousness immediately before the exam: [with in person exams], seeing your equally anxious friends really calms you down … Whereas being alone in the flat (as I was), with no one to talk to, only exacerbated my nerves.” Duress concluded that although he enjoyed the option to review notes during online exams, he preferred in-person exams due to the lack of support that comes with online exams. 

It’s understandable that many students are happy with the move towards online exams given the consensus around how much less stressful preparation for them is. Many feel that the low-stress environment of online exams allows them to perform better and that the longer time limits and access to their notes allow for more critical thinking with their responses. However, the ease that comes with online exams does make the experience more difficult for others, especially in terms of distractions. In-person exams can release more adrenaline that can help students focus on the exam. Moreover, although it can cause stress, the lead-up to in-person exams prompts better revision and encourages better note-taking and attendance throughout the semester. Whether or not online exams are here to stay is yet to be seen, and whatever approach academic institutions take in coming years is sure to be closely scrutinised.


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