24 hour review exams – Palatinate
By Emma King
When the university administration announced that this year’s exams would again be held online, the overwhelming reaction from the student body was of relief. After an unprecedented year of academic disruption, the return to intense weeks of review leading to three hours in a pressurized exam room was understandably unappealing. However, the reality of the 24-hour home exam was more mentally and physically exhausting, and more guilty of encouraging a toxic work ethic, than any of us could have predicted.
For the second year in a row, Durham, like universities around the world, had to find a way to replace traditional in-person exams with an online format. The theory behind the 24 hour exam was to mimic traditional exams as much as possible. While they were to be treated as open books, we were told to spend the allotted time (two or three hours) on each exam within 24 hours.
The open-book nature of these assessments has undoubtedly eased the pressure as exam season approaches. Learn-and-unsubscribe review has become unnecessary with unrestricted access to lecture notes, textbooks, and seminar readings for the duration of the exam itself. The validity of factual recall as a test of intelligence is constantly (and quite rightly) contested. Perhaps the home exams would provide a more accurate picture of students’ engagement and understanding in their subject matter, beyond the time constraints of traditional memory tests?
In reality, they have become a test of endurance and endurance. In an exam room, everyone has the same time to prove their academic ability. But this year, it became a contest to see who could handle the longest hours at their desk, stay awake the latest, and take the fewest breaks. These assessments unintentionally encouraged students to sacrifice their physical and mental well-being, as well as precious hours of sleep, to produce better responses. The reward for these sacrifices was a reward that many thought was worth accepting.
This result was of course unintentional. But the University should have foreseen it. Durham is one of the UK’s top universities attracting highly intelligent students with even higher expectations of themselves. They only gave us 24 hours to demonstrate a year of knowledge and understanding. Any student who limits themselves to the allotted two to three hours would be doing themselves a disservice, as their work will inevitably be contrasted with peers who spent three to four times as much time on the same exam. He was blind to believe that the time-pressed environment of an exam room could be mimicked at home. Even with sufficient preparation, it would have been impossible to artificially impose the strict time limits of an examination room on yourself.
The University’s message around expectations for the 24-hour exam was paradoxical. Departments said exam responses would be scored as if they had been written under the terms of the exam. But by the very nature of open book exams, the quality of written responses will automatically be much higher than what could reasonably be produced under the conditions of the exam. The University will have to retroactively adjust its grading criteria to take into account the many hours spent, which will compromise the expectations set out in its original examination instructions. Otherwise, they risk the same criticism of a lack of grade distribution as last year (when there was a 28.5% increase in first-class degree rankings between the 2019 and 2020 promotions).
There is also substantial evidence that some departments have adjusted the rubric and difficulty of exams to compensate for the seemingly “easier” online format. In STEM subjects, where a significant portion of the article would normally be short answer questions with simple factual recall, they were now dominated by complex questions. While it would have been futile to ask students to transfer information directly from their textbook to their transcript, these more complex and time-consuming questions inevitably took longer to answer than in normal time-limited exams.
In other subjects, students were tested on incredibly specialized portions of their lectures, far beyond the scope of articles from previous years. Other departments have asked to produce double the number of trials as in pre-pandemic formats (and yet, they were always told to do so in the same three hour period as before.)
After surviving each 24-hour assessment period, the sequelae of sustained stress levels were even more acute than those after regular check-ups. The definitive relief of physically handing over a document and exiting the exam room was replaced by a faint sense of anxiety at the time of submission, that more work could be done, another proofreading undertaken another hour of work on this one unresolved problem. Without this tangible point of relief (at least not until 9:30 a.m. the next morning), students struggled to switch off or even sleep, leaving many physically and mentally exhausted with little time to recover properly before the next exam. .
Perhaps the relatively relaxed review period leading up to exam season made up for the pressure of the 24-hour exams themselves. (Although the number of summative assignments many of us were producing until the eleventh hour of exam season might disprove this.) Either way, the University should have been clearer and much less naive. as to expectations for this year’s exams. .
What about next year? In all likelihood, it will be possible to have in-person exams again. But after two consecutive years of online assessment (and online teaching), the university should be wondering if it is right to go back so suddenly. Next year’s finalists will not have been used to taking university exams in traditional contexts where time is limited; the grade gap will surely suffer if we are forced to return to the examination rooms for the first time in three years.
The last two years of forced review of the end-of-year assessment can be used as a learning experience. The advantages of a format that prioritizes conceptual understanding over factual recall should be maintained. But a system that rewards compromising health and well-being (even for a very short and intense period) should be left firmly in the past.
Image: Verity Laycock