Online exams prove traditional formats to be arbitrary

Sitting exams is hard enough as it is. We may as well make them more comfortable for students.

It is no secret that online learning has proven to have both advantages and disadvantages. Having the classroom ripped away from students has left many  hunched over their laptops at home for what seems to be hours on end. When everything was changing by the minute back in March, students felt rather left in the dark about the current and future state of their respective educations, whether it be primary school or university attendees. It comes as no shock to hear that students are struggling with online learning, seeing as it has never been done at this widespread of a level before. Teachers and lecturers are forced to abandon practices that they have used for years and come to terms with this “new normal”. 

“Now that exams are soon to be taken at home, it is proving how arbitrary sitting in a large exam hall and taking a timed assessment can be.”

With the breaks in the day that would come naturally with in-person classes no longer applicable, students are sitting down at their desks or kitchen tables for extended periods of time without relief. It’s no wonder that Trinity has seen spikes in students availing of counselling and support services. It is not easy for anyone—especially academically. Universities around the globe are handling the situation differently, some moving entirely online and vacating campuses, others utilising a pass/fail option. Trinity however has expected students to perform to the same standards as in the past, but has acknowledged the obstacles that its students are facing. In a recent email to the Trinity community, Provost Prendergast wrote: “We know this is a difficult time for every single person reading this email.” Trinity has – in some ways – tried to make accommodations, with the decision being made to move Michaelmas online exams to after Christmas. Now that exams are soon to be taken at home, it is proving how arbitrary sitting in a large exam hall and taking a timed assessment can be.

Exams are stressful enough as it is, with much of your final marks riding on a single test. There are so many outside factors that can influence exams that have nothing to do with how well students understand the material ranging from sickness, to running late due to a missed bus, to forgetting a calculator; added anxiety does not help exam performance. Now that a new precedent is being set with sitting exams online, it allows for the avoidance of such stressors that can have a direct impact on an individual’s marks.

“If you do best with a cup of tea while you sit your exams, you have the option to do that. If you concentrate better with music playing, you can stick on some headphones.”

With the newfound ability to make exams more comfortable, it will help to ease testing anxiety for Trinity students. If you do best with a cup of tea while you sit your exams, you have the option to do that. If you concentrate better with music playing, you can stick on some headphones. Or, if you find you are able to get the best quality of work done in a coffee shop, that option is (hopefully) available as well. At this point in a student’s academic career they are most likely pretty familiar with what study habits help them achieve the results they want. Allowing for exams to be taken in the comfort of one’s home will no doubt eliminate some of the stressors that taking exams in a formal hall would. 

Many exams that Trinity is invigilating will be made available to students for a specific amount of time, often more than is needed and would be offered in a traditional setting. This is so that international students are able to take exams in their respective time zones, rather than having to sit them at three in the morning. Increased time to sit an exam will help put students at ease and allow them to fully process the material being asked. It is probable that most students have had to take a test or quiz and been rushed for time or written a paper and left the classroom thinking to themselves “with another hour I could have written more”. 

More time being allotted for students to take exams that carry so much weight on their final marks for the semester will allow them to take the time to fully answer questions to the best of their knowledge, without being rushed and panicked. When sitting an exam while being crunched for time, it’s not uncommon to feel your heart racing and yourself start to perspire in response to the stress. Ultimately what is the most important is making sure students can get the best marks possible, not having to deal with heightened stress. 

Exams are still being supervised as College sees fit, and papers will be run through anti-plagiarism software. Since as much cheating will be eliminated as possible, the allocation for more time to sit exams should not greatly increase the amount of cheating taking place. So, rather than having to write for hours in an uncomfortable and stale exam hall with an administrator looking over your shoulder, it will be much easier to focus on the actual exam material from the comfort and safety of your own desk.

“With the elimination of increased anxiety caused by external variables, online testing means students are able to focus on the exam material itself.”

Upon outlining the reasons that formal timed exams taken at a neutral location compound stress on students, it is apparent how arbitrary this form of testing is. With the elimination of increased anxiety caused by external variables, online testing means students are able to focus on the exam material itself. Perhaps having the ability to sit exams online will be a positive development for students and set a precedent for the future.

Shannon McGreevy

Shannon McGreevy is the Sports Editor of Trinity News, and a Senior Fresh student of Biological and Biomedical Sciences.