Students need maximum flexibility for assessments from home

A solution that works for some might not work for others. Each student’s circumstances must be considered, argues Simon Hunt

March 27, 2020
Stressed student

The outbreak of the new coronavirus in the UK has wreaked havoc on our education system, with schools closing and university students told to go home. GCSE and A-level exams have already been cancelled, so it would not be unreasonable to assume that universities intend to follow suit. But many universities – including Oxford, where I study – are stubbornly insisting that they will be proceeding with summer exams, albeit in a new and unexpected format.

A timed, open-book online examination has been mooted as a potential solution. No details of the format of the exams have yet been released. Any chance of sitting the three-hour written exam in the format we’d been preparing for over the past three years is now over, but we don’t know quite what it’s being replaced with.

This poses problems. There are the usual issues with home study, of which the university will be well aware: some students won’t have enough space, or peace and quiet, to revise for exams, and others will have to support their families when they’re back at home.

Add to this the problem that all libraries, including those run by universities, are now closed (try doing an open-book exam when you don’t have any books). And the fact that, given the high number of international students at UK universities, a 2pm exam UK time means a 10pm exam on Hong Kong time, and a 1am exam in Sydney.

Notwithstanding these problems, most of which are common to sitting online exams at home in normal circumstances, there is the very specific problem related to the coronavirus pandemic itself: suffering.

If, as many in the media are suggesting, we are headed for a crisis on the same scale that Italy has seen, then many thousands of people are going to die (20,000 deaths is the UK government’s best case scenario), tens of thousands are going to be hospitalised and many more are likely to get ill.

A significant number of students, or their family members, will be among these figures. Try revising for an exam when you’re ill with the virus, looking after a sick loved one or praying for their recovery while they’re in hospital.

The point is that wherever students are in the UK, or the wider world, there will be a huge disparity in the circumstances facing them in the two to three months leading up to their summer exams.

Some will be able to revise in comfortable surroundings, with ample learning materials and in good health; others will be in cramped conditions, with nowhere to study and no books to study with, and they may be sick or have sick family members to tend to. And yet at present, all of them are going to be asked to sit the same exams in the same format.

Exams are supposed to be a measure of both a student’s talent and their hard work in a particular field. But what will online exams assess in these circumstances? They will end up being a reflection of the hardship facing students in the final months of their courses rather than an accurate measure of their abilities. And as such, I think the case for pressing on with them is pretty weak. The university could offer adjustments to exam results for students in difficult circumstances, but the vast range of circumstances will make this very difficult to quantify.

Many alternatives to online exams have been proposed. Some have suggested deferring the exams until quarantine measures are relaxed; some have suggested using predicted grades; and others have proposed moving to a coursework-oriented assessment.

Each of these options has its merits and demerits: deferring exams may be good for those who will struggle to study over the next few weeks, but inconvenient for those expecting to start graduate jobs later in the year; predicted grades are good for those with favourable predictions, less good for those who wanted a chance to prove themselves in exams. Each of these options will work well for some, but not for everyone.

The students’ union at Oxford is this week consulting students on the potential ways in which assessment can take place, including these alternatives.

As the consultation closes, the university faces a choice. I very much hope that, rather than pick the most popular response, the university respects the diversity of wishes by different students, which can only reflect the diversity of their circumstances.

In these dire times, institutions must give students the maximum flexibility to choose a path that works for them individually, rather than shoehorn everyone into one category that might be all right for some, but near impossible for others.

Simon Hunt is a third-year undergraduate student at the University of Oxford.

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Reader's comments (5)

Yes, indeed. Are HEIs fully cognisant of the different home environments of their undergraduates? Class remains a considerable issue here compounded by the current pandemic.
Universities can make their alternative online exams flexible yet maintain academic standards that will help students in the long run by sensible strategy, innovation, and thinking things all the way through. It's all about being able to adapt to the situation by having the right people in the right spaces with the right skills. It just depends which university you're at really.
Hi Chris - I've no doubt universities can make changes to their assessment methods. My point is that, with tens of thousands dying and a great many more in hospital - including students and their families - no adaptation to assessment method will be able to overcome this.
Again, a good carp without any suggestions for how things might be done, in this student's eyes, more 'fairly', All have had access to tuition: lectures, seminars, tutorials, labs, throughout the year. Libraries may be physically shut now, but reading around the subject is something that should have been done all year round and most have access to e-books (and e-book publishers are relaxing their restrictions due to the coronavirus scare so that students can read them more easily). 'Takeaway' examinations where students have a limited period of time to write responses to questions have the advantage of being, by default, open book. Students who rely on a good memory to get grades may be a bit disadvantaged, yes, but those who understand the subject matter and know how to make use of it will still get the chance to shine. At this level, feats of memory shouldn't be important anyway. I run the final year project for Computer Science students at my university. Instead of demonstrating their work face-to-face with their assessors, they will have to present via videoconference. As our distance learners follow a different schedule, they have been presenting this week: and they have done brilliantly. They were allowed to choose the conferencing software - we had a mix of MS Teams, Zoom, and Skype (other systems are available!) presentations with few technical difficulties. Lessons learned will be applied to the full-time students later on, they present their work at the beginning of May - chiefly, to allow extra time to sort out technical hitches, and perhaps to record presentations either in advance or as they are made 'live'. I am pleasantly surprised how well it worked, and acknowledge the hard work of both students and assessors that made it all happen.
Thanks very much for your comments - I thought I might respond to some of them: -"a good carp without any suggestions for how things might be done, in this student's eyes, more 'fairly'" My article discusses several alternatives to the standard assessment methods. My point is precisely that none on its own will be fair for all students in this crisis - the only fair option is to offer a choice from several options. -"Libraries may be physically shut now, but reading around the subject is something that should have been done all year round" - it almost sounds as if you're saying students should have anticipated a global pandemic and should have studied in advance accordingly. Many students - including myself - were planning to use their last 3 months to study and no doubt our grades will be affected if we can't study for a full 3 months before and during our exams. -"most have access to e-books" - the majority of the books on my course are not available as e-books - they only have print editions. -"Students who rely on a good memory to get grades may be a bit disadvantaged" - I would have thought students with the best memories would be the most advantaged, as they will remember their courses. Those with short memories now have the biggest challenge as they have limited access to study materials. -"Those who understand the subject matter and know how to make use of it will still get the chance to shine." - your argument presupposes that students will be fit and healthy in the run up to their exams. But in this pandemic, there are tens of thousands dead and hundreds of thousands hospitalised, including many students and their immediate family members. To plan assessments on the assumption that students are fit and healthy in the midst of a global pandemic seems at best naive, at worst negligent.