Reflections on Remote Exams

With exam season creeping around the corner once again, I was reminded of the situation we were in this time last year. When the national lockdown was implemented in March, I had to pack my bags and return home abruptly a week before the Easter break was due to start. Rather naively, at that point in time I expected the situation to blow over soon enough and that we’d be back at the end of April to sit our exams. Obviously, I was horrifically wrong but thankfully the college had better foresight. Within a week or so we were emailed to say that all of our exams would be conducted remotely, on an online platform, and were to be open book. I was initially sceptical, however, was reassured when Imperial’s success in conducting the world’s first open-book, online medical finals exams was lauded in the national news.

Nonetheless, the turbulence of the situation still made me anxious. Of course, this was only heightened by the increasing distress surrounding the pandemic. I had been mentally prepared for in person, closed book exams on campus in the Summer. After all, this had been the format of every other exam I had sat in my life. Therefore, the concept of remote exams brought with it an element of the unknown. Do I need to revise if they’re open book? What if my internet crashes? What if I can’t access the exam altogether? These questions, alongside many others, afflicted me for some time.

The Faculty informed us that, despite being open book, our exams would test understanding and hence encouraged us to revise as normal which I decided seemed sensible. In retrospect this was excellent advice. Not only did they not test recall, but the exams were also very time pressured. Therefore, if you relied purely on being able to look up answers to questions, I suspect you would struggle to make it through the paper.

Wi-Fi issues were always going to be within the realms of possibility, however, I thankfully emerged unscathed. During the times when I would be sitting my exams, I had asked my family to avoid using the internet and they dutifully obliged. We also unplugged the landline phones and kept all mobiles on silent to minimise distractions. I was extremely lucky that this was all possible as, whenever I was taking exams, my Dad was at work so only my Mum and older sister were at home. I appreciate that, with more people in the house, minimising distractions would have been more difficult.

Accessing the exam, while not an issue for me, did pose a challenge on one occasion. Part way through my first summative paper the exam had to be suspended as not everyone had been able to access it. As I had managed to start the exam, and my phone and notifications were all off, I did not discover this until I had finished the 2-hour paper. The technical difficulties which occurred were due to a problem with the exam server so were out of Faculty’s control. Despite significant resistance from some students, Faculty decided it would be fairest to reschedule the exam for a later date and have us all sit it again. While I was initially somewhat frustrated that I would need to sit the paper again, and that the exam period would be extended, all in all I respected the decision. Undoubtedly it was a difficult one to make and slight hiccups were to be expected.

Overall, I think Imperial coped with the transition from traditional to remote exams remarkably well. The fiasco regarding GCSEs and A-Levels in 2020 only reinforced the need for standardised assessment and the College managed to produce these online papers such that our exams did not need to be postponed. With exams being conducted remotely this year too, there is definitively much less of an element of the unknown. Hopefully my Wi-Fi will withstand another exam season!

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