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Have exams changed forever?

Entering an exam room full of evenly spaced single desks can be a daunting experience. On the way in, the chatter among classmates can calm your nerves: ‘did you study enough?’, ‘what was that quote in chapter 4?’ Or, if you’re not prepared, these little comments can make the stress even worse.

Institutions were forced to turn to digital options for exams in during the COVID-19 pandemic. If you had to sit an exam remotely during that time, you’ll know how different that experience can be.

But even in a post-lockdown world, some of these changes are here to stay. For the most part, this is a good thing for students, says Professor Helen Partridge, Deakin’s Pro Vice Chancellor of Teaching and Learning. Here’s why.

COVID threw a curveball that forced universities to question exams entirely

When COVID-19 hit and students weren’t allowed on campus to do ‘the old-fashioned supervised exam paper based in the large lecture theatres’, it was actually a blessing in disguise, Prof. Partridge believes.

It fast-tracked the switch to digital exams, which had been talked about but never acted on in a significant way.

‘In my mind that was a good thing, because it really forced us as a university to really question our sacred cow,’ Prof. Partridge explains. ‘Most universities were heading in the digital direction pre-COVID, however the pandemic forced this change to happen quite quickly.’

Not only have exams moved to digital platforms for the most part in recent years, universities are also ‘completely shifting’ their approach to end-of-year assessments away from rote learning and towards more real world alternatives, Prof. Partridge says.

‘The language has even changed – we aren’t calling it the exam period anymore,’ she reveals. ‘Exams are pretty old-school. Instead, what we are trying to do besides exams is end-of-unit assessments like assignments – something that is more likely to reflect what our students will be doing out in the workplace.’

Prof. Partridge says the number of traditional supervised exams have dropped dramatically at Deakin University since the start of the pandemic in 2020.

‘In 2019 in trimester one we had 354 traditional supervised exams, whereas in trimester one 2022 we had 52.’

But this doesn’t mean everyone across all study areas can bypass traditional exams. Prof. Partridge adds: ‘There’s a number of accrediting bodies that still require exams, so we still have supervised exams but we’re doing them online and this is for the benefit of the students.’

Getting used to the new format of digital assessments

Based on Prof. Partridge’s findings, it has taken the students a bit of time to get used to the new format of digital exams.

‘There’s always pros and cons; the students I have spoken with said it took them a while to get used to the fact that they’re typing and not handwriting.’

However, over time students have found it is a lot easier to be assessed remotely. It fits in with their everyday schedules, especially for those who work while studying.

‘They found it a lot easier to fit the exams into their lives as opposed to having to take a whole day off work. They’d look at it as it’s a two-hour exam they can do it whenever it fits in,’ Prof. Partridge explains. ‘I think the positives in the long run will outweigh the negatives.’

While some people may not have access to the right technology to complete specific examinations, Professor Partridge says Deakin will always provide alternatives and no student will be disadvantaged by the embrace to the digital approach.

‘If any student for whatever reason has poor internet connectivity or has a situation that prevents them from being able to use a computer in a safe way at home, we’ll always provide alternatives. We don’t want to disadvantage any of our students by embracing a digital approach.’

Reflecting the real world for now and into the future

As universities continue to evolve their assessments to reflect the way we live and work, embracing new technology will be key. We utilise technology more than ever and Prof. Partridge believes there’s no reason why this can’t be the same when it comes to education and exams.

‘We are living and doing things more through technology than ever before, and that’s not just study, that’s work, that’s entertainment. It reflects the world we live in a lot more.’

Prof. Partridge is excited about the potential that new technology can bring in the future.

‘For example, wouldn’t it be great if a student could watch mini-videos and give commentary on that,’ she suggests.

‘There’s lots of examples where I feel you could be using the technology in more powerful ways to help students demonstrate they understand concepts.’

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Prof. Helen Partridge
Prof. Helen Partridge

Pro Vice-Chancellor, Teaching and Learning,

Deakin Learning Futures,

Deakin University

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