EdBoard: changing exam formats can help students' learning

Changing the exam format can help students better manage virtual learning. (credit: Stacey Cho/Art Editor ) Changing the exam format can help students better manage virtual learning. (credit: Stacey Cho/Art Editor )
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As we approach one year since the beginning of quarantine and our online education model, it’s important to reflect on what has been the most helpful for students through this very stressful period of time.

Since March, it has been a consistent struggle for students to maintain their mental health through the pandemic. In one National Institutes of Health survey from last September, 71 percent of students surveyed indicated an increase in their anxiety and stress levels. While the vaccine is already here, it’s still months before most students will receive it, and a return to normalcy this fall is still not guaranteed.

But one of the most important dimensions of the pandemic’s effect on students has been the online education model. It is difficult to maintain motivation for Zoom classes, and it is even more difficult to maintain motivation given all that is going on in the world. Educators have done the best they can to accommodate their students. However, there are some elements of our education system that have not translated well into the online model and have exacerbated student stress. In this case, we refer to online exams.

Prior to the pandemic, the exam format was already a major stressor. A time-sensitive set of questions that requires students to know concepts off the top of their head is a lot of pressure for students. However, in the pandemic, not only is this pressure significantly worse, but the methods for actually enforcing the conditions conducive to an exam requirement are much harder to implement. For example, some educators rely on students keeping their cameras on or even having students maintain eye contact with their computer cameras as much as possible. This is a very silly solution, and it is also incredibly distracting for students. In addition, if students have a second monitor, they can use that to bypass the instructor’s camera requirements. This creates another disparity between students, where those who can afford a good dual monitor setup have the advantage.

In our experience, we have found that classes that removed the pressure element from exams tend to be the most helpful. The ways they did this were by giving a longer frame of time for students to complete the exam and making the exams open-note. While those exams were also more conceptually challenging, they were also much fairer, and removing the pressure element was more helpful for learning the concepts. For many of us, we felt that we had actually learned and understood the concept even more after taking the exam.

For an online education model, this exam format is more sustainable. First, it removes the pressure element that has made online learning stressful for a lot of students. Second, and more importantly, it helps students learn better. Time-sensitive exams often cause a lot of stress and don’t really test a student’s conceptual understanding of material very well. There’s a reason many students often find it hard to remember the information they learned, and it’s because they learn solely for the test but forget the information after. To add to this, one challenge in this pandemic for many students has been trying to stay motivated for their courses. If students actually feel like they’re learning with this format, it will give them a reason to care about their courses.

Admittedly, there are a lot of trade-offs to this. There are students who find that the challenge and pressure of a course are actually more helpful for maintaining motivation in the class. Many people who have come to a university like Carnegie Mellon often come with that mindset. In addition, there will have to be some accountability for students to make sure they don’t slack off just because exams are open notes and have a longer time bound. But having said that, there is only so much students can actually manage with a pressure-based system until it becomes overwhelming. Under the current extenuating circumstances, this problem is exponentially worse.

Educators should not be blamed for this problem either. Though there are many professors who are assigning more work than normal or are unaccommodating, the problems with our education system extend far beyond any one group of professors or students, and this pandemic has exposed that. It’s a collective issue related to our mindset. We are so caught up in academic integrity and rigor that we have forgotten the ultimate goal of education: our love of learning. One of the most satisfying feelings is the feeling of having learned something new. That sense of wonder is missing in our approach to education. Everything is so focused on what requirements to fulfill, and then many of those requirements are considered to be “weed out” classes so that only the “best of the best” stay in a major or department. Sure, this helps the school’s ranking, but it's a disservice to the ultimate goal of education and it undermines the passion that many educators put into their work.

The discussion of what should happen with our education system is a longer and broader topic that deserves its own book. But it is also a nebulous concept and it’s hard to define what solutions will best solve this problem. For now, there are some stopgap measures that can at least alleviate some of the issues that we are seeing with our education model, especially during the pandemic. Changing the format of exams is one of them. It’s not a permanent solution, and perhaps after this pandemic, it may not even be the right one. But after nearly a year of this pandemic and with months more to go, something has to be done to alleviate student stress, and this is perhaps one of the easiest solutions we can implement.