Death of three-hour exam looms as pandemic reshapes assessment

Many UK institutions say they do not plan to return to pre-pandemic methods and will use next academic year to test new approaches

June 23, 2021
Workers carrying large clocks as Traditional three-hour university exams may soon be a thing of the past as leading UK institutions eye a switch to online and more “authentic” forms of assessment
Source: Getty

Traditional three-hour university exams may soon be a thing of the past as leading UK institutions eye a switch to online and more “authentic” forms of assessment post-pandemic.

The University of Cambridge said that over the next academic year it would “draw on the lessons learned” from the Covid-19 pandemic and respond “to the desire of many faculties and departments to move away from the traditional three-hour written examination format as the primary means of assessment for such programmes”.

The University of Warwick said online assessment would remain its main mode of judging student performance, especially since the move away from invigilated written exams “seemed to reveal real benefits for a range of student groups. It even appears in some areas to help close attainment gaps for some groups of students,” according to a spokesman.

THE Campus spotlight: What does good assessment look like online?

The University of St Andrews said exams would remain online in 2021-22 and that it would use the year as an opportunity to gauge the success of digital assessment across different disciplines.

Colm Harmon, vice-principal (students) at the University of Edinburgh, said that while the current environment was not the time to make long-term decisions, “it feels like change will come”.

“Students have reacted positively to the use of digital platforms for examinations. We are refining the use of such technology and seeing where improvements can be made,” he said.

Nearly all institutions contacted by Times Higher Education said that while they would not ban in-person assessments, there would be a big reduction in their use and a significant shift away from exams based around memory recall. The move towards online assessments is being accompanied by wider adoption of open-book tasks that span several days and a broader embrace of formative, rather than summative, assessment.

SOAS University of London said it would “retain most elements of assessment online” but would continue with some in-person tests. The University of Oxford said it had “embraced remote forms of assessment” and was “developing plans to build on this experience in the next academic year”. Middlesex University said it was planning “a major project to review assessment methods, tools and approaches, learning from the pandemic experience”.

Andrew Turner, associate pro vice-chancellor (teaching and learning) at Coventry University, said his institution had already begun to shift away from sit-down exams before 2020 but the pandemic had “accelerated the process”.

“There was a reticence from some academics, but the pandemic has certainly shone a light on the question of what exams are actually for,” he said.

In considering different forms of assessment, Dr Turner highlighted the need to be mindful of the risk of academic misconduct and the impact on student workloads. For example, at-home exams spread over one to three days could lead to additional stress for students who would previously have raced through an assessment in three hours.

Jon Scott, former pro vice-chancellor (student experience) at the University of Leicester and now a higher education consultant, said the shift should be welcomed.

“There has been a push to improve assessment for some time…The problem is that it required upfront investment, so people just returned to the default option,” he said.

“[The forced switch online] has a silver lining in that universities have reflected on how they’re doing assessments…moving away from that standard type of three essays in three hours type of exam, and hopefully towards more authentic assessment, which is more relevant for how students will be working in the future,” he said.

“It’s a real opportunity to take things forward that will be to the benefit of academic programmes and to students.”

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Reader's comments (6)

I have to admit that I have not envied my students sitting online exams that tend to be more time-constrained than the traditional 3-hour format. During an "old-fashioned" exam, the knowledge needed for a question often comes into one's mind whilst answering another one. Also, it is easier to visualise the paper as a whole and go forwards and backwards improving answers. I am speaking from a STEM discipline where it is important to assess the extent to which essential matters have been grasped. There seems to be a misconception as to the function of education in a lot of what is written. All assessments are to some degree "artificial" but are designed to test students against a body of knowledge and methods contained within a module. Universities do not generally engage in training so the aims have to be to see how well a student can pick up information and solve problems. The content of all degree programmes is small compared to what is acquired throughout life and so many of the modern arguments about "authentic" assessment seem pointless. This is particularly true when I am part of a minority of staff in my current department who have ever worked outside academia. I hope that some 3-hour exams return - the only bad thing is that it will mean the return of in-person invigilation!
Earlier this month here: "Students 'twice as likely to cheat' in online exams" Whatever the type of exam, I think we should stop with the "exams are stressful" broken record. Yes, exams are stressful. They've always been and always will be. University is hard, studying is hard, life is hard. Unless a student has reasonable mitigating circumnstances or a disability, sitting and concentrating for 3 hours is hardly impossible to overcome. At this rate we'll end up with graduates with the attention span of a goldfish who can barely commit to the simplest of tasks, provided they are given detailed instructions on how to complete it.
Three-hour exams retain an important role. Dismissively describing them as "memory tests" is simply incorrect. What such examinations show is that students have mastered a topic and understood it sufficiently to sit in an examination room and answer questions requiring them to use that knowledge creatively.
Most of the trendy nonsense that emanated in this debates comes from Schools of Education within universities. I have acted as an Academic Conduct Officer for 8 years and saw cheating of many kinds explode over that period. Essay mills are now a permanent fixture and a cursory glance at these company's accounts shows that they have grown exponentially. The only way to be sure that a student is actually the bona fides author of a piece of work is to examine them in-person, in an exam situation. Like most universities (if not all) we saw a hideous amount of online exams being gamed. WhatsApp groups being formed with the sole intention of cheating the exam. Some students will always try and cheat but once you move away from an exam situation the level of plagiarism, collusion and Coursework buying explodes. I am so sick of reading articles like this one with some 'expert' or other saying 'we must be mindful of academic integrity BUT...' and then telling us why we have to ignore this plague of cheating to create 'authentic' assessments. Suggesting that exams etc are inauthentic. Who are these people? What idiotic world do they live in?
In some countries, coursework at universities does not exist because coursework is considered for high-schools, while universities have written and/or oral exams.
The termination of three hour exams are valid. The 2nd comment argues that there is no point in eradicating three hour exam for the sake of making things easy, "life is meant to be hard" it says, and it follows with it rhetoric "we'll have have post graduates with an attention span of a goldfish". THIS is not true. Yes, granted that it's meant to be tough, but the productivity of this kind of education needs to be challenged. Just because it's tough and hard, doesn't mean it's doing students any good. That is a shallow and unsophisticated observation. I'm not anti-exam like anti-vaxx, because i see the utility of testing, whatever it may be, we probably agree on it easily. But that doesn't mean that this kind of testing carries some unnecessary burden for student, because it obviously does, why else would we have this argument if it was perfect. Yes, granted again it's possible to make students concentrate for three hours, but i would disagree that its 'hardly impossible'. But that aside. What makes you think that that has any value to it. For someone like me who has a tough time concentrating it's possible to me to become disciplined like you're suggesting, which will be very very hard, and will take a lot of time, why would i waste this much of my time and effort on something that i will do once. Like really. You know how much effort that is, lets not be making light of this, it's much easier said then done, it's no throw away line that what you said. The effort required for that is immense and the reward is not, it has many downsides, three hour exam tests a limited sample of my capabilities. A very very limited one. That was the whole Taylor Gatto argument. And i'm not even going to attempt the last 'goldfish' bit. I hate rhetoric. it's so shallow and ambiguous, you can never make your argument as powerfully as you possible could if you resort to rhetoric. It's deception. The 4th comment. Argues that cheating will become a pandemic. Well maybe you should construct an education system where students themselves condemn cheating, because they may feel it is unauthentic. Well obviously if you're not going to teach them valuable lessons about what is important of course they're going to cheat. Because what is important to this kind of education is not learning, it's marks. Students cheat because learning is not valued but marks. A three hour exam? i don't what the hell you're testing there, but it isn't learning. And you can say whatever you want. That your education values this and this and blah blah blah.....i know what it values, it's in how the theory is put to practice, not in the theory of it. And since as a student i am directly influenced by the practice of it so i know what i'm saying. There is a subconscious drive in educators, which isn't meant to make students think for themselves. It's something else, which i can't fully grasp my head around. I mean take these comments for example. They are full of superficial eloquence. Students in English are taught to make their arguments, not to discover the truth,(because that would mean challenging your own opinions, which we are not taught to do) but to persuade the other person with as many techniques at hand, irrespective of the value of truth. The driving factor (also subconscious) for this methodology in English is 'it's subjective'. It's a postmodern perceptive, that's what it is. Let's question the validity of such a perspective!