Online invigilation will be a tough examination

The querulous minority are unlikely to mend their ways even in their own bedrooms, predicts Helen Soteriou

May 13, 2020
Beloved Brat, poster, Bonita Granville, 1938.
Source: Getty

With many universities shifting their exams online as a result of the coronavirus, questions are being asked about how students can be given an equal chance to succeed given their varying levels of access to a conducive home environment.

This, I predict, is likely to be a very vexed issue given the volume of complaints students make even about the very equal circumstances in which they take regular, in-person exams.

Once upon a time, I’m sure that students’ exam-room behaviour was impeccable, but now money talks and, in some cases, the boundaries of respect and entitlement have moved. Nor is the malaise confined to those universities with “non-traditional” student bodies. As someone who invigilates at many UK universities – or used to – I can tell you that it is the same everywhere. Indeed, the more prestigious universities’ students tend to be the ones with the most ridiculous, aggressive demands.

Invigilation has the attraction of offering you an income top-up while working alongside a fantastic and, in many cases, very odd bunch of people. You never know what conversations you are going to have with the myriad actors, artists, screenwriters, DJs, poets and retired teachers and police officers. And since I’m not an academic, I clock off as soon as the exam is over; whatever happens afterwards is not my problem.

But while I readily concede that students have every right to complain if things go wrong or they have genuine issues, some of the excessively entitled behaviour I see is hard to forget.

To be clear, most students are lovely. However, there is a small percentage that are willing to complain about anything and everything in the hope of gaining an advantage. The exam is too early – or late. Putting their jacket on the floor, as required, will make it dirty. Why haven’t they been provided with the pencil they were obviously supposed to bring themselves?

I even had one student who complained that she was hungry during the exam. I was made to escort her to the canteen, but she then turned her nose up at all the food on offer! I have had abuse hurled at me by students because they don’t know the meanings of words such as “forename”, or they have accidentally stuck their answer booklet to the table (yes, really). I even know of cases in which the police had to be called out after a student punched an invigilator or threw things at them. I understand that students doing exams are stressed and full of hormones, but such behaviour is still way out of line.

Some students are also happy to complain about their counterparts. Their hat is distracting. They are tapping their pen/foot too loudly. Why have they been allowed to have a drink on their desk? They are snoring (OK, that one was probably fair enough).

And, of course, they also complain about us invigilators. We smell. We are rude. We make too much noise. We dress too provocatively. And then there are the lecturers who treated them unfairly in class, the toilets that don’t flush properly, the building that is too hot/cold/bright/dark and a thousand and one other petty bugbears – all of which we are required to register.

Invigilators also have our own counter-complaints, of course. But we tend to confine our frustration-venting to each other because we realise that if we complain too much, we too will get branded as troublemakers and not be asked back. This is a common fate; we were pretty dispensable even before the coronavirus wiped out this line of work in one fell swoop.

We are also aware that when we do complain about a student, there are rarely any consequences for bad behaviour. Universities are understandably concerned about their reputations – especially in the countries that provide them with their high-fee-paying international students – and are aware of the damage that one adverse social media posting can do. Indeed, some universities positively pander to their students. Some lecturers produce deliberately easy exam papers, or hover around for the whole of the exam, on hand to help any student who is struggling.

There is also a ceaseless rise in the number of students granted accommodations for mitigating circumstances. Of course accommodations should be made for genuine disabilities, and universities are understandably nervous about being accused of discrimination. But even when students are given as much support as possible for physical or mental health issues – such as extra time, their own room, a big-font script, coloured paper or a chair with back rest – not everyone appreciates it. Some still don’t bother to turn up to the exam.

As a receptionist once said to me, how are these querulous wannabe doctors and lawyers going to cope in the real world? They can’t tell the judge that they won’t deliver their closing argument unless the window blinds are open/shut or they are allowed to go for a stretch.

Of course, if students do this year’s exams in their own bedrooms, behind their own blinds and next to their own toilets, you might think there is less scope for such querulous behaviour. But don’t bet on it.

Helen Soteriou is a freelance writer and an invigilator at several UK universities.

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Reader's comments (6)

I agree - there are a minority of students who are just unjustifiably disagreeable and querulous. Statistically, we know that extreme low scores on the student satisfaction survey drives the average down. NSS simply has no correction for illegitimate and unjustified vindictive poor ratings. Never assume the truth of any rating and rigorously verify the legitimacy complaints - this is true accountability for everyone, students and university staff alike. There are people who simply immature and childish, regardless of chronological age.
I don't understand the purpose of this carping and demoralising attack on students by an invigilator who won't presumably be doing any invigilating this year. As a professor at one of the UK's top universities, I've also invigilated many university exams over the past 40 years and I understand that a very small minority of students can behave badly when they are stressed. But this year, many students, in particular, the finalists, are having to self-invigilate, as the author says, in their own bedrooms. They are justifiably anxious that something may go wrong - for example a laptop crashing, the internet going down (as it has been doing in several places), difficulties scanning and uploading their material in the requisite time. I should know - my son is one such student, with 70 % of his degree riding on what happens in his bedroom. I am also trying to help a whole year group of my final year university students to prepare for their online exams, all of them in a different format - indeed different exams from the ones they were preparing for in early March. Nearly all of them are back home, some working in shared rooms, crowded flats, with small younger sibling being rowdy and restless. Why does Ms Soteriou feel the need to attack students at this critical juncture? Surely students need to be shown sympathy and kindness, and should not be derided for being 'querulous'. Many of my students are suffering from acute anxiety and other mental health issues also shared by many young people faced with the uncertain prospects caused by Covid-19. Exams online are a worrying new hurdle to cross alone without the social support of friends, shared workspaces and all the reasons they attend university.
Obviously every online exam’s conditions are different. My daughter is also doing them, in a different country than her university. So I can sympathise with ChrissieG’s point about her son. However, she is not devoid of the social support of her friends. Shared Netflix evenings and live group chats on Zoom, MS Teams or equivalent facilities are part of the new normal. Even for retired lecturers like myself. I even go to church on Zoom or YouTube! So, yes, it’s different and not what they chose university for but our friends are still ‘with us’ in our socially-distanced studies and exam periods.
I enjoyed reading this humorous article. I had to smile because the author sketched the exact picture I remember about exam venues. Maybe we should embrace a little humor in these times when most of what we read is bad news? I am sure no harm was done to anybody.
I have a very simple and effective solution : kick them ***** !!! I mean cheating has become for these futurs " doctors and lawyers" A RIGHT !!!! I see it nowadays teaching and learning is simply way different than what it used to be ...The ( difference in ) results are here to show the reasons.....
Sub-optimal 'will-this-do' invigilation practices, either ignored, swept under the carpet, or pooh-poohed by the sector, are now seen for what they are: Flimsy Theatre. Institutional and qualification credibility is terminally corroded by weak, unauditable invigilation. The hard pivot to Remote Proctoring has opened a Pandora's Box - shining a harsh light on exam invigilation malpractice, and what actually goes on. Where the sector once held its nose at the technology (or faffed around getting grants to home-brew solutions), it is now mission-critical. The author talks truth and this makes stakeholders very uncomfortable. It's a pity it took a pandemic for stakeholders to realise how ingrained the invigilation problem has become.