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Universities and public split over continued online testing a year after lockdown restrictions

Despite Covid restrictions being eased as far back as July of last year, online examinations continue to be taken in place of physical exams at universities. For many life has returned to normal, but not for students.

The matter has sparked controversy in recent months as Durham University and Queen Mary University of London, among many UK universities, decided to continue with 24-hour online exams. The 24-hour window means that students can start their work at any point of the day and take 3 to 4 hours to answer questions. In other cases, students have the entire day to complete tests.

Vice-principal of the University of Edinburgh, Colm Harman, expressed the continuation was positive. He suggests that the digital experience is beneficial for students as digital platforms for studies have proved efficient in lockdown, stimulating positive responses from younger people who have already participated in online learning and examinations. Harman also pointed out the “ambivalence” toward traditional written exams and opined that, even if physical exams are successful, they might be wrongfully construed as ‘normal’ by students.

The question of normality regarding examination comes about with changes made to how GCSEs and A-levels have been taken in recent years. “Some students have not experienced a conventional exam, including during their time at secondary school, so we must be careful not to simply move back to ‘old style’ examinations without recognising the fear that some students may have of that,” Harman said.

Many students too hope universities will enforce online testing permanently, with one individual from Queen Mary claiming: “I would not have been able to do my Law exam in three hours.” Crumbling under the stress of exams already, it is clear that at institutes like QM students appear more content with taking a full day to complete questions.

Other universities have determined that their students will continue to take online exams. For instance, the University of Cambridge is taking a hybrid approach. More than 1/3 of the 3,000 summer exams on Cambridge’s timetable will be online. For Queen’s University Belfast, 85% of tests on the final semester timetable will be online.

But these decisions, made by Russell Group institutions particularly, have been met with some backlash. It is felt that their students are disadvantaged because of a lack of closed-book exams and virtual ones failing to test their memory and a commitment to studies. In a letter to the Sunday Telegraph, Mary Marshall expressed disappointment over the ‘ridiculous’ form of testing: “What kind of test is it when students have access to the internet, notes and perhaps even help from others?”

Many believe that Universities are ‘using Covid as an excuse’ to not return to examinations students were familiar with before the pandemic. With differences of opinion, it is difficult to determine what the future of testing in higher education looks like.

Students across the country wonder whether universities will ever return to their former traditional methods of examination, or even teaching. Whilst a non-Covid dominated life resumes elsewhere, universities such as Queen Mary and LSE continue to record lectures instead of delivering physical ones for humanities subjects especially.

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