Authored by Vankshita Mishra
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted innumerable issues around the world – showing the fragility of seemingly solid structures in our educational systems. As students, the closure of universities, and the consequent transformation of exams into online, open-book assessments has been a very unusual situation. The sudden upheaval left many who do not have conducive work environments at home, or easy access (if at all) to a personal computer and reliable WiFi in an extremely precarious and stressful position.
The no-detriment policy at Durham has been comforting for those with coursework and/or good marks in previous years, but not so much for those who had been gearing up to improve on their results this year and have modules that are heavily exam based. Undergraduate science degrees are usually very exam-heavy (apart from some labs), leaving the onus onto the month of May. This crisis has prompted us to re-examine how we view the assessment of scientific knowledge and how our degrees are structured.
20 credit modules that result in a single test at the end of the year do not favour those who are unable to perform well in a few hours – those who cannot remember a specific derivation or are severely physically and/or mentally affected by the stressful and restrictive exam conditions. How do you expect to show months of preparation and hard work in merely 3 hours? The standardisation of test results and some level of recall in pressured circumstances is important, and there are concessions in place for those with disabilities, or a chance to resit them at a later date. But this still places exams as paramount. It puts immense stress onto an individual to perform on only a single day or lose months waiting for another try if they cannot. Modules should have various modes of assessment that are continuously and regularly given throughout the year. Exams should not be abolished but they ought to be supplemented with summatives throughout the year (such as the progress tests we have) or even oral exams (resembling a viva) where a student can display their grasp on a subject.
The linear structure of the degree (learn for 8 months then show it off in one exam) also means that an environment is cultivated whereby the holistic character of education can often lose its way. It goes from being the pursuit of higher knowledge and greater thinking skills, which is a process that lasts forever, to being the goal of ticking the right boxes to get a good examination mark at the end of the year. Einstein published a paper circa 1915 titled ‘The Nightmare’, outlining such issues surrounding exams and the harmful consequences of them. He asserted that true knowledge ‘should not be that they can ace an exam or simulation; it should be that they've thoroughly digested the lesson and can apply it in their roles’. He also felt that in the examination system ‘one too often finds a lapse into shallow drilling of the students for the exam’. I do not wish to say that all creative drive towards knowledge is stifled – I have had inspirational tutors and professors to whom I am most grateful, and I have been motivated to pursue certain aspects of the subject. However, the students who do shine are often those who pushed themselves independently of the system.
Such reforms to the examination system would require the university to make some serious changes. Staff are already overworked and underpaid, some on precarious contracts, or with decreasing pensions and definitely do not receive the financial support from the university to both do their own work and teach us in a healthy, productive way. The mammoth task of overhauling the examination system is not one they are equipped for. This linear, goal-based atmosphere in higher education is a manifestation of the drive to increasingly marketise universities. Universities are designed as a business: taking in many more students (especially internationals) and no extra staff to lead to a profit. Durham University showed this once again by revealing plans to take 25% of teaching online without any consultation of the staff or student committees. Although they backtracked on this decision back after some pressure, it is clear that education in its truest sense is not valued. ‘Getting a degree' means very little if synergy between students and teachers is not there – I do not mean the lack of physical presence, but the combined say in how our education should be designed. The UCU general secretary Dr Jo Grady’s statement on the matter highlights just this ‘changes to our higher education system should be led by staff from the ground up, whether they are necessitated by Covid-19 or not’ .
 The Berlin Years: Writing, Volume 6, 1914-1917, pp 449, https://einsteinpapers.press.princeton.edu/vol6-trans/461.
 Jack Parker, UCU criticises Durham’s “destructive” online-only degree proposal, https://www.palatinate.org.uk/ucu-criticises-durhams-destructive-online-only-degree-proposal/, (accessed 27 Jun 2020).
 UCU, Durham University must halt plans to slash teaching by 25%, says UCU, https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/10757/Durham-University-must-halt-plans-to-slash-teaching-by-25-says-UCU#:~:text=Durham%20University%20must%20halt%20plans,teaching%20by%2025%25%2C%20says%20UCU&text=It%20also%20warned%20other%20institutions,to%20swiftly%20implement%20radical%20change, (accessed 27 Jun 2020).