Covid-19 has brought change in so many ways, with a universal impact being felt in the sphere of education. Although the vast majority of us agree that in-person teaching is preferable to digital learning, the question of in-person vs online exams is more divisive. There are undoubtedly pros and cons to each method, but I personally would prefer to go back to in person or – if we do stay with online exams – at least see a shift in how they’re conducted.
However, I will start by acknowledging the advantages of an online exam. Due to Covid, the last in-person exams I sat before coming to Oxford were GCSEs, so I was pretty happy to hear that my prelims were going to be online. There is something very comforting about having your books out in front of you when you sit your exams, as it takes away the possibility of a total mind blank which would otherwise leave you with nothing to say. Moreover, whilst sitting prelims, I found it particularly nice to be able to sit in my own room rather than head to Exam Schools, as I could set up my desk however I liked, and sit down and get ready for my exam in my own time. An added bonus was not having to wear subfusc, although my college parents still got me carnations!
All that being said, there were some downsides too, and for me these outweighed the advantages of the online environment. Firstly, the term “open-book” is somewhat misleading. Whilst it is true that I could refer to my notes and use essay plans I had made, the length of my exams was kept at 3 hours. This meant I actually had very little time to riffle through my notes or take full advantage of having them there. There were definitely ways to get around this, essay plans and mind maps made information a lot easier to find, but ultimately the cons of increased time pressure outweighed the pros of having less to remember. Moreover, there is something to be said for the benefit of adrenaline during an exam, and in-person exams provide this in a way that online ones do not. In a three hour exam, feeling a bit stressed and motivated by seeing those around you writing can be a really helpful incentive to keep going. When you’re in your room alone, it is a lot easier to get distracted, lose your train of thought, or even just slow down.
A lot of what I’ve said is personal preference, but my main reason for preferring in-person exams is because of the impact of online exams on a cohort as a whole. Prelims in particular are known for exacerbating the divide between those privately and state educated. The exact reason for this is uncertain, but there are a number of contributing factors. Perhaps this early on in a degree, students from a private school background are more used to teaching in smaller groups, which allows them to feel more confident. Or maybe the additional coaching they received to get their offers has enabled them to adjust to teaching at Oxford faster. I believe that a switch to online exams would further accentuate this attainment gap. Whilst this is not necessarily going to divide grades along a private-state line, it would undoubtedly advantage students from a more privileged socio-economic background. Those who have grown up with access to a laptop or desktop would feel much more confident typing out an exam in comparison to those who perhaps only started regularly using one when they got to Oxford. Some students may have been at schools that taught skills such as touch-typing, which would be hugely beneficial in a timed online exam, whereas others who are not as used to typing may be slowed down by it.
Thus, for all the above reasons, I believe that in-person exams are the way to go, as they are fairer on the cohort and also beneficial to students individually. And if there was a move to online exams, I think it could be possible to make them fairer if some changes were made. For example, if they were not in the timed conditions in-person exams are – so perhaps made to be 24 hours rather than three, or if submitting a handwritten script was an available option in all subjects, not just those that require drawing. It might feel like an advantage having online exams, but I ultimately think that in person exams are the most beneficial to students on a large scale.