By Nel Roden, Second Year English
With the disruptions of the pandemic now seemingly a thing of the past, universities across the country are undergoing a gradual reintroduction to in-person exams. While it marks a firm return to a pre-COVID education experience, how is the University of Bristol conducting its return to combined assessments? Epigram spoke to students and lecturers regarding the benefits and drawbacks of in-person exams.
Writing for Times Higher Education, university invigilator Helen Soteriou argued that online exams were a ‘grave mistake’ and that the ‘playing field is very unequal’ when students are able to complete their assessments at home. In contrast, Andrew Quentin—researcher for Assessments & Qualifications Insight—alternatively suggested that open-book exams, which are now largely conducted remotely, ‘could encourage more creative and critical thinking’.
i am so not looking forward to this in person uni exam i haven’t been in an exam hall since MY GCSES????!— Ruby🍓 (@ruboredfern) January 19, 2023
However, a systematic review by the National Library of Medicine (NIH) found that ‘there does not appear to be sufficient evidence for exclusively using CBE [closed-book examinations] or OBE [open-book examinations]’. The researchers concluded that ‘a combined approach could become a more significant part of testing protocols’, suggesting that in order for institutions to gain a comprehensive idea of students’ abilities, they should be utilising both open-book and in-person assessments.
While research suggests a combination of exam formats is the most effective assessment method, the pressure felt by students when returning to what is now an unfamiliar in-person exam format should not be overlooked.
A poll conducted by Epigram found that 37 per cent of responding students returned to in-person exams this year, with an overwhelming 88 per cent expressing a preference for remote, open-book assessments.
'The large scale collusion and googling of answers [meant that] honest students were being disadvantaged'
For many first year’s at Bristol, the January exam period will have been their first encounter with in-person exams since their GCSEs. Epigram spoke to a first year Biology student, whose in-lab practical exam and accompanying written paper was his first formal assessment since 2019.
The student was apprehensive, explaining that, ‘it was unlike anything I’d done before. I was extremely nervous going into it’. He stated that there was a general feeling of being ‘rusty and out of practice having not felt the pressure of an in-person environment in a while.’
Despite his unease, he favours in-person assessments when it comes to practical examinations. Given that the type of assessment varies by subject, he stated that there is an understanding amongst the academic community that varied forms of assessment are an integral part of a post-pandemic higher education.
Speaking to Epigram, Professor Innes Cuthill, Professor of Behavioural Ecology at the School of Biological Sciences, said that the department’s decision to return to in-person exams was ‘to avoid the large-scale collusion and googling of answers which happened when the assessments were run online in 2020-21 and 2021-22’. Discussing this drawback of online exams, he explained that ‘honest students were being disadvantaged.’
'[T]here is an understanding amongst the academic community that varied forms of assessment are an integral part of a post-pandemic higher education'
For STEM subjects, assessing the retention of quantifiable information is key in tracking students’ progression. However, Professor Cuthill noted that within the Biology department the only in-person timed assessments of this nature are completed in first year, where the marks do not contribute to the final degree classification. ‘Timed assessments that make up the rest of the marks in years two and three are now all done remotely’, which he believes enables the assessment to better judge the students’ ‘understanding and original thought’.
Professor Cuthill stated that the department’s reasons for conducting its timed assessments remotely included the convenience of having type-written exam scripts for examiners, and issues regarding reserving space in exam-halls.
ngl i’m so glad i graduated uni before in person exams were bought back like there is no way i could’ve stepped into an exam hall and managed to do an exam within 2 - 3 hours and feel confident i actually did decent— 𝐦𝐨𝐥𝐬 ❤️🩹 (@hotmessmolsx) January 12, 2023
Examinations in the Schools of Arts and Humanities are still largely conducted remotely as open-book timed assessments, although departments such as English primarily assess through coursework to better test ‘original thought’.
Epigram spoke to a second-year English student, who felt that coursework assessments are 'best suited for the degree, as the answers are not really something you can just Google.'
She continued, ‘I’m aware that the department have used in-person exams in the past, but I think COVID caused a necessary reshuffle that’s stuck’, emphasising how the provisions made during the pandemic catalysed the departments’ reappraisal of their examination format.
While the University of Bristol continues to conduct in-person assessments across a range of degree subjects, the continuation of remote assessments following the pandemic points to their favourable nature.
Featured Image: Unsplash / Elisa Ventur
Have you returned to in-person examinations?