Exams in the Time of Covid

Not an online examination

With two weeks of teaching to go before the Christmas break in Maynooth we now have a settled plan for our January examinations in the Department of Theoretical Physics. We have decided that all our examinations will be done online, as we have done for all cycles of examinations since May 2020.

It seems that most other third-level education institutions – certainly the “traditional” universities have their examinations in December. At NUI Galway, for example, the examination session starts tomorrow (Monday 6th December) and their examinations will be on campus, despite the objections of the Students’ Union. This is also the case at Trinity College and University College Dublin, though University College Cork is doing most of its December exams online.

Our original plan at Maynooth was to have examinations on campus in January and some students were unhappy at the decision to revert to online examinations. The representations I heard from students in the Department of Theoretical Physics all gave the same reason: that online examinations are more difficult than on-campus examinations. I think this is the opposite of what students in other disciplines might think, but our online assessments focus to a greater extent on problem-solving tasks than the on-campus examinations, which means they are more difficult to do by rote learning and regurgitation.

An open-book exam is obviously easier if it simply requires students to look things up in their notes, textbooks or the web. Such an assessment would not only be easier, but also in my view absolutely pointless. Indeed, any exam, whether online or not, that requires students to use their brains only as memory devices is basically worthless. So our approach is to concentrate on the application of principles learned rather than bookwork.

Anyway, back to the on-campus versus on-line issue. I think campus exam venues, if arranged sufficiently carefully, need not be in themselves be places of high risk for Covid-19 risk, but large numbers of students will have to travel to and from them at the same time, largely on public transport, and there will also be a significant amount of milling around before and after. Large lectures (in the case of Maynooth this means over 250) are being delivered online at all Irish universities and exam halls will frequently have to hold greater numbers than that. It therefore seems to me rather inconsistent to insist on having large exams in person.

Finally, I’ll just note that all my colleagues (lecturers and tutors) are reporting a drop-off in student attendance at lectures and tutorials.  Last Friday the campus was extremely quiet, and I had only about half the expected class in my Vector Calculus lecture. This happens a bit in a “normal” year towards the end of term but is more marked this time round. I’m not surprised at it. With around 5000 new Covid cases per day I think many students are anxious not about lectures but about travelling on public transport and having to wait about on campus outside in the cold. I have been recording all my lectures this term and I don’t mind if students choose to view them remotely. Although we’re still officially teaching on campus, in practice many students are doing their learning online.


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