Professors are doing their best to keep the university experience as normal as possible for students. While most other aspects of our lives are disappearing or in a state of uncertainty, continuing academics can act as an anchor, as remote classes can keep students intellectually engaged and in touch with the college community as we practice social distancing. However, the online university experience comes with its own challenges.
Students outside the Eastern Standard Time zone are staying up at odd hours to attend participation-heavy classes; even in non-participative courses, many prefer attending online lectures live to watching recordings. Those with difficult situations at home are trying to keep up with coursework in an uncomfortable environment. Many are facing financial uncertainties that are sure to prove mentally tumultuous as well. As fatalities multiply worldwide, we are all being bombarded with disproportionately negative news, all while trying to keep ourselves safe.
At a time when the world is in an unprecedented public health crisis and students are receiving an education through a less-than-ideal form of instruction, is it fair to ask us to demonstrate our abilities in a subject through a standard exam?
One solution that does a good job of navigating the balance between normality and adaptability of the exam process during COVID-19 is the 24-hour exam.
In fact, I have found this style of testing useful myself. One of my Politics professors gave our class a 24-hour period in which we could refer to notes, the textbook and recorded lectures (i.e. resources other than fellow students or other individuals) while answering an exam designed for the 75-minute in-class format — basically a regular exam over a longer time period.
I found this approach effective as it created a fairer exam experience. It enabled students in different time zones, such as myself, to take the exam at a normal hour; if I were to take my exams at the time they were scheduled, I could be taking tests until 5 in the morning.
Further, open-book exams reduce the possibility of unfair grading. Classes that are holding closed-book exams without putting in place ways to keep students accountable are putting those who maintain the honour code at a disadvantage. If some test takers go against the rules by referring to class material, it could negatively impact the grades of those who don’t. The 24-hour exam would eliminate the uncertainty around whether students are referencing notes.
However, these exams do have a downside. The question of academic honesty still remains with regard to contacting other students and individuals or using the internet while giving tests. These considerations would definitely need to be tackled, and the 24-hour format is certainly not the perfect solution. Still, it is a step in the right direction.
The London School of Economics used this exam policy for a class called “Reading Other Cultures: Anthropological Interpretation of Text and Film” as early as 2016. One student wrote that it helped students focus on analysis rather than memorization. More recently, in light of the coronavirus crisis, the University College London has adopted a similar 24-hour open-book format for a number of classes to deal with multiple time zones and to aid students who are making special arrangements for online classes.
These unprecedented times call for an adapted approach to education. There is no reason for us to be treating exams — one of the most stressful and consequential aspects of our education system — as we normally would, especially at a time when everything else around us is abnormal.
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Email Sanjana Bhambhani at [email protected]