Analysis: The uncertainty of exam season leaves many students concerned

With the Covid-19 situation in flux, many students are still not certain whether their exams will be in-person or online

The last month has brought about a surge of Covid-19 cases in what many are referring to as the “fourth wave” of the pandemic. With this has come significant uncertainty about what the next few months will look like in Ireland. Whether or not the country will be placed into another lockdown is amongst the questions being asked by the public. Students in particular have experienced significant uncertainty in the last few weeks, pertaining to their lectures and exams and whether or not they will continue in-person. 

With several schools within Trinity recently reportedly moving in-person classes back online in light of the rising number of cases and hospitalisations, many students have voiced their concerns about sitting in-person exams. Trinity College Students Union (TCDSU) also recently called on College to provide students with some clarity. Prior to this, College had sent an email to students urging them to take precautions to remain healthy in the weeks leading up to exams, stating that it would “be a pity to miss assessments and defer to the summer”.

On Friday November 26, confirmation regarding deferrals of in-person assessments was provided in an email to all students from College. The emailed explained that, in contrast to last year, no automatic right to deferral would be offered to students in semester one exams. Only a limited set of reasons for deferral will be accepted, including if a student tests positive for Covid-19 or if they are living in a household where there is a confirmed positive case. Deferrals will also be granted for “other medical reasons”. The period for sitting deferred semester one exams is to take place February 7 to February 19, with contingency dates from February 21 to February 26. The email also stated that if a student is unable to sit their exams in this deferral period, the next available deferral date would be in Autumn of 2022.

Deferred exams will be scheduled for “ late afternoons, evenings or weekends” within the deferral period and “consideration will be given to other factors such as existing teaching or lecture requirements, to minimise the impact on students and staff whenever possible”.

Students availing of these deferrals must “provide a copy/screen shot of the text message confirming the positive PCR Covid result from the HSE ensuring that the date is displayed”. “If it’s the case that there were no available slots for a PCR test within these three days, students must submit proof with a screenshot.” Students who are living in a residence with a confirmed positive case “must restrict [their] movements until [they] have 3 negative antigen test results within 5 days”. Students looking to defer from the February reassessment, or who fail during that period, may resit the exams in the autumn. Failed examinations from December or January will also be retaken in the autumn reassessment session.

TCDSU Education Officer Bev Genockey, in her statement calling on College for clarity regarding exams, pointed out that the deferral of these exams to autumn is unsuitable for many. This is particularly relevant for those graduating this year as well as those looking to apply for exchange programmes in the coming year.

Genockey also highlighted that many students find themselves in a position in which they are unable to attend in-person exams due to the high risk posed by the rising number of Covid cases. She called on College to reinstate the same mitigation measures that were in place during the exam season last year, and pushed for “more non-traditional forms of assessment such as take-home and open-book exams”. College has so far refused to reinstate the mitigation measures from last year. 

Despite this lobbying from TCDSU, Vice Provost Orla Shiels recently announced the plan to continue with a hybrid model of in-person and online exams. The email detailed that of the 25,959 exam sittings this assessment period, 17,443 are online and 12,696 are to be in-person. The email also stated that in person exams in the RDS Simmonscourt would be operating at 60% capacity, with a maximum of 1,600 students per session. Also mentioned in the email however, was that College was working on “contingency plans” in case “the public health guidelines change”. There seems to be a level of uncertainty remaining among College leadership regarding the possibility of sitting exams in person in December and January, depending on the government restrictions over the next few weeks.

Concerns of students regarding sitting exams in-person have dominated recent conversation. On Sunday November 21, an open letter and petition was launched by Students4Change’s Chair László Molnárfi and Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) President Gisèle Scanlon, declaring their opposition to any in-person exams. At time of writing, the petition has reached 5000 signatures. Many students have voiced their support for the petition on Twitter using the hashtag #NoInPersonExams.

As well as the worry among students regarding the risks posed to their health by sitting exams in person, there also exists a large desire for some certainty about the way in which they will definitely be assessed. For many students, the possibility of having their in-person exams put online last minute is very concerning. 

Speaking to Trinity News, Senior Sophister Neuroscience student Annie Lord commented: “I was meant to have an exam next week in person, but was told two days ago in an email that it was going to be moved online”.

She said that she “[doesn’t] really understand why”, noting that “there were only 20 of us sitting that exam, but exams are still continuing in the RDS with 1,600 students”.

She also voiced her concerns regarding the possibility of her other scheduled in-person exams being moved online, saying: “my concern is that they’ll turn around two days before the exam and say it’s online. The study I would have to do for an online version of this exam would be very different to an in person one.” She said that “it’s worrying, especially when this is going towards our final grade”.

Last minute decisions from both College and government regarding assessment, while they are obviously a product of the precarious Covid-19 situation in Ireland, are leaving many students particularly stressed this exam season. Students still await a response from government to the petition for all exams to be moved online. It remains to be seen whether the exams scheduled to take place in person will run smoothly, or depending on the Covid-19 situation, whether they will proceed in person at all.

Bonnie Gill

Bonnie Gill is current News Analysis Editor for Trinity News and previously served as the College Correspondent. She is a Senior Sophister Film Studies and English Literature student.