Are online exams better for student mental health?

Traditional exams under tightly invigilated conditions are highly stressful for students, but online alternatives bring their own issues, says Michael Priestley

Michael Priestley's avatar
Durham University
15 Jun 2021
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A stressed student prepares for an online exam. Assessment online brings a new set of problems for academics to be aware of

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It’s no secret that student mental health is a growing concern. Covid has compounded many of the social, academic and financial inequalities and challenges to mental health across the higher education sector in the UK and beyond. The result has been more students needing mental health support than before the pandemic and compared to other demographics.

In response, key stakeholder organisations are advocating a “whole-university approach” to student mental well-being that encompasses inclusive, mentally healthy structures, systems and cultures across all domains of the university experience. From this foundation, interest has grown in how teaching, learning and assessment at university can impact positively or negatively on student mental health.

A bi-directional relationship has been identified between mental well-being and academic performance, whereby moderate situational stress can enhance cognitive capacities, yet excessive and prolonged stress can be debilitating.

Given evidence that traditional closed-book and time-restricted examinations in an invigilated environment are most commonly reported to negatively impact on student well-being, the enforced shift to online open-book assessment during the pandemic can provide a unique opportunity for the sector to re-assess practices and pivot to conditions conducive to good student well-being and academic performance.

While the flexibility of online assessment, as well as the potential for a home environment, can certainly alleviate stress, boosting student well-being and performance through assessment design involves a balancing act of practical, pedagogical and policy proceedings. Here are three areas of potential tension that should be addressed in order to optimise online assessments from the student perspective:

Clarify expectations
Many students report feeling uncertain about how long they should spend completing online exams when a 24- or 48-hour window is allocated. They are often unclear over how and how much they should prepare in advance, especially for “seen” exam questions, and what standard is expected of them now they have access to their course materials.

Prior research with colleagues found that unfamiliar assessment types can contribute greater psychological distress than traditional exams because this uncertainty amplifies fears of failure and threat to academic self-concept. Not only this, but in the absence of clearly communicated institutional expectations, the availability of course resources can create unrealistic and excessive personal expectations.

Indeed, for some students, more time for the exam and accessible course notes reinforce an maladaptive belief that their institution expects them to work all hours and know everything possible, with anything else resulting in feelings of personal guilt, inadequacy and self-criticism. Many students felt they should spend significantly longer than the recommended time on exams. If this is repeated across all online assessments on multiple modules, then stress, overload and burnout become inevitable.

Going forward: universities should ensure that guidance and examples are clear and consistent, that preparation for open-book assessment is scaffolded in a formative learning environment, and that the different expectations and criteria for online exams (especially with a seen component) and coursework are clearly communicated to students.

Manage overload
Many students feel overloaded by the process and content of online learning and assessment. Research indicates that where the perceived demands of an evaluated task exceed one’s practical and mental resources, cognitive overload ensues, with detrimental impacts on both well-being and performance.

For many students, the extended timings of assessments and availability of resources have significantly increased the task demands; meanwhile, unsuitable workspaces and the wider emotional and physical disruption brought by Covid-19 have significantly reduced their resources.

Going forward: universities should ensure integrative academic skills are embedded in the curriculum, that the purpose, aims and opportunities of open-book assessment are clearly articulated, and that suitable private workspace is made available.  

Remove competition
Some students worry that online exams do not reliably represent their knowledge and skills relative to their peers. The perception that other students could spend 24 hours on an online exam has created anxiety about comparative performance standards and grades, compounded by the increasingly competitive graduate workplace.

Some students also appear hyper-aware of potential plagiarism, which, in allowing others to gain an unfair advantage, may devalue their own performance. Previous research has found that if students perceive the investment of time and effort to be inconsistent with the ultimate outcome and reward, this negatively impacts engagement and well-being in the long term.

Going forward: universities should ensure a range of assessment types to capture multiple skills and attributes, and clearly communicate that assessments are evaluated according to pre-specified criteria rather than assessed relative to peers.

The future
There is unlikely to ever be a one-size-fits-all approach to assessment that optimises well-being and performance for all students. Nevertheless, it is imperative that institutions learn from this opportunity to implement online open-book assessment by navigating these tensions going forward. While there is undoubted potential for online assessment to alleviate some of the stress associated with traditional exams, if we are to harness that potential, there is a clear need for wider cultural change.

Michael Priestley is a PhD student at Durham University School of Education and a student involvement coordinator for the Charlie Waller Trust mental health charity.


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