The Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Martin Williams, has today released information on Trinity Term examinations.

The changes are as follows:

  • All first-year exams, with the exception of medicine and law, have been cancelled.
  • The majority of second-year exams will be deferred, and some cancelled
  • Finals exams will be replaced by “alternative forms of assessment” including open-book versions of standard papers, longer pieces of work completed over several days, or a mix of the two.
  • They will be slightly longer (eg. three-hour papers will be four hours). 
  • They will be taken over a 24-hour period, to account for time zones differences.
  •  Students with concerns about access to technology or workspace will be supported.
  • They will implement a ‘safety net policy’, to reduce the risk of harming the outcomes of students’ performances. 

The University’s decisions were informed by discussions with departments, faculties, and an SU consultation of students. Information from departments will come no later than Friday 3 April.

Professor Williams stated:

“Following Oxford University’s difficult decision to move all examinations and assessments online in light of the coronavirus pandemic, arrangements have now been made for Trinity Term. Rearranging examinations at such short notice is extremely complex, but it was important to get it right, and feedback from staff and many students has played a vital role in helping us to navigate this balance. 

“While we will not be able to meet everyone’s specific needs, the solutions chosen are simple and uniform and provide flexibility for students differing learning needs and working environments, while still maintaining the University’s robust standards for excellence.  

A safety net policy will minimise the negative effect that future assessments can have on students’ overall outcome, so long as students pass all assessment elements. Further details will follow about this in the near future. 

We will also be offering support to account for students’ differing home circumstances, and for those who are directly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.”  

“Our ultimate aim is to allow as many students as possible to complete their degrees to their highest standard, graduate on time and pursue the next chapter of their lives and academic futures. 

“These are distressing times and feelings of anxiety are a completely natural response to this unprecedented situation. All decisions have been made with the academic and physical wellbeing of our university community in mind. Support is available for students who still feel unable to complete their studies to the best of their ability with these mechanisms, and we are taking steps to mitigate the impact of the ongoing pandemic as much as possible.” 

The SU consultation has taken place over recent weeks, and asked students to share their views on exam arrangements. Speaking to Cherwell, Ray Williams, the Vice-President for Access and Academic Affairs stated:

“Our Teaching and Assessment Student Consultation (TASC) allowed us to tap into the views of thousands of students and put their concerns to the University directly. The key thing that was obvious from the consultation was the need for flexibility and understanding to accommodate the diversity of Oxford’s courses and the varying needs of its students. Students highlighted, for example, the essential need of some kind of safety net for final year students, concerns about what a DDH degree would practically mean for students, the applicability of e-exams to specific courses, and much more. These concerns have been reflected in today’s announcement. It isn’t perfect but as an initial response it’s the step in the right direction that we’ve been fighting for. 

“Both through the TASC and through various open letters students have been determined to get their voice heard and hammer home the extent of our dissatisfaction. I was able to bolster my arguments by referencing the many open letters that were circulated in my conversations with the PVC Education and other officials.

“There is still much more work to be done to flesh out these policies and minimise disruption to students including students who need more assistance to complete their assessments or access new ways of learning during the pandemic. As the student body’s voice at the table, Sabbatical Officers will continue to work with the University and lobby on behalf of students at critical decision-making meetings to ensure that no student is left behind.”

The full text of the newsletter can be found below:

“I am writing to confirm the arrangements for Trinity term exams, following the end of the consultation process last week. This is quite a long message, as there is lots of information to share with you. Please do take the time to read it carefully. 

“Before I go into the details, I would like to thank you once again for your patience over the last few weeks. I fully understand that exam periods are stressful at any time, and that the coronavirus pandemic has added considerable extra uncertainty.  I am pleased to be now able to provide you with an outline of the arrangements for the coming term. Departments and Faculties will then provide more detailed information later this week.  

Responding to student feedback 

“Rearranging examinations at such short notice is extremely complex and it is important that we get it right. I am particularly grateful to the Oxford SU sabbatical officers who have engaged so constructively in discussions, to the many students who took part in the Oxford SU consultation, and to all of you who have taken the time to write to me. I am confident that we have addressed many of the concerns that were raised – for example, providing flexibility to account for differing needs, and feeding student feedback into our chosen modes of delivery. That is not to say that we will be able to meet everyone’s specific requests. For example, some students have expressed a desire for all assessments to be cancelled, while others have indicated that they would like them all to continue. Clearly, we cannot suit everyone’s preferences in this situation. However, I would like to reassure you that your feedback has been instrumental in shaping our way forward.  

About our approach  

“Ultimately, we firmly believe that assessment should continue, albeit in an adapted form. The approach that we have developed is underpinned by the following principles: 

  • Support for students
    We are taking steps to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on academic performance as much as we can, and to take account of your individual circumstances, and particularly your mental and physical health needs.   
  • Providing a workable solution
    We have also worked towards a solution that is as simple and uniform as it can be – to reduce complexity, minimise disruption, and provide an equitable approach for all candidates. There may be some local variations, where there is a clear need.  
  • Focus on completion
    We are also working to ensure as many students as possible can complete their degrees and graduate on time. This will not only mean that you are able to move on to the next stages of your lives and careers, but also allows the University to prepare to offer the best possible education to our new and continuing students in the next academic year 

Outline of arrangements  

“With the above in mind, the approach that has been agreed by the University’s Silver Crisis Response Group, chaired by the Vice-Chancellor, is as follows:  

First-year undergraduates 

“The majority of assessments for first-year undergraduates will be cancelled, and students will be deemed to have passed. Instead of formal exams, you will be supported to consolidate your first-year learning in other ways, including informal assessments to give you feedback on your progress to date.

“The only exceptions are Law and Medicine, where assessments are required for professional qualification reasons.  Details for these subjects will follow in the near future.  

“Where the first-year assessment includes coursework elements (such as completion of laboratory classes), these will normally be assessed on the basis of completion to the end of Hilary Term. Your department or faculty will confirm the details. 

Second and third-year (non-finalist) undergraduates, and first-year MPhil: 

“Most exams will be deferred into the next academic year, though a small number will be cancelled outright.  The exceptions are those third-year undergraduate exams which need to go ahead because they are taken by a mix of continuing and leaving students. Your department or faculty will confirm shortly. Further details about postponed assessments, and how the next academic year will be adjusted to accommodate them, will be decided as soon as possible. 

Second and third-year (non-finalist) undergraduates, and first-year MPhil: 

“Most exams will be deferred into the next academic year, though a small number will be cancelled outright. The exceptions are those third-year undergraduate exams which need to go ahead because they are taken by a mix of continuing and leaving students. Your department or faculty will confirm shortly. Further details about postponed assessments, and how the next academic year will be adjusted to accommodate them, will be decided as soon as possible. 

Final-year undergraduates and taught postgraduates: 

“Exams will be replaced with alternative forms of assessment in Trinity term 2020. These will take the form of either open-book versions of the standard papers, longer pieces of work completed over several days, or a mix of the two (except Fine Art, and Music performance papers, for which separate arrangements will be put in place).  

“Further details are as follows: 

  • Open-book exams will be required in many cases. Departments and Faculties have carefully considered the merits of this type of exam, as well as longer pieces of assessed work for their subject matter, taking student opinion into account.  
  • Open-book exams will be of slightly longer duration (e.g. a three-hour paper will be extended to four hours, with comparable timings for other paper lengths). Further adjustments will be made for those with approved alternative exam arrangements such as extra writing time.  Exams will be taken within a 24-hour window to account for different time zones.   
  • We will make an effort to reduce the number of assessments. And, in a few instances where a large fraction of the award has already been assessed, the remaining exams will be cancelled. 
  • We plan to implement a safety net policy, which will aim to minimise the risk that Trinity term assessments harm students’ outcomes, compared to their performance in earlier formal assessments. Because of Oxford’s very diverse assessment landscape, the details of this are still being finalised and will be communicated as soon as possible. 
  • We will put in measures as a priority to support students who are concerned about access to necessary workspaces, technology and resources.  Your college will contact you about this soon. 
  • Steps will be taken to address plagiarism and collusion, including the implementation of an ‘honour code’ and the use of specialist software.   
  • While the exam timetable will need adjustment, most assessments will take place at similar times to a normal year. However, most exams in Weeks 0 and 1 will be rearranged to help staff and students prepare.  

“It will not be possible to postpone  exams  for final-year undergraduates and taught postgraduates  until Michaelmas 2020. The only exception is for exams which are required to be sat in an invigilated setting by external accreditation bodies. 

Alternative options for finalists


“If you are unable to complete the alternative forms of assessment due to illness or personal circumstances, you will have two options available to you:  

  1. Opt to graduate with a “Declared to Deserve Honours” status. 
    This is a special class of degree (with an equivalent for PGT students), which we are introducing this year as a response to the pandemic. While the formal award will be unclassified, it will be accompanied by an enhanced reference indicating the class of degree the student was expected to achieve. We are working with employers and other universities to make clear that this is a recognition of the extraordinary circumstances which make completion of assessments impossible for some candidates. Students will be able to apply for this outcome by completing an application form at least two days before their first exam. No special supporting paperwork will be required.
     
  2. Return to Oxford to sit written exams in Trinity term 2021. 
    This option would require college support on the basis of your particular circumstances, as in a normal year.  If granted permission, you would only be able to return to take examinations.
     

Projects and dissertations  

Projects and dissertations will largely proceed as planned for both undergraduates and taught postgraduates. However, deadlines will be extended to account for the disruption that the pandemic has caused, and factors such as missed lab work, cancelled fieldwork, and reduced archive access will be fully taken into account by the examiners. 

Teaching and learning (for all students) 

As per previous announcements, all teaching and learning will be carried out remotely, and we are doing everything we can to ensure we maintain Oxford’s excellent standards of education, albeit in digital form. All students will be expected to complete the academic year, regardless of the format of delivery.  

Detailed arrangements and further information  

Your departments will write to you by no later than Friday 3 April to confirm the specific arrangements for your course, and will be working through all the details with you thereafter.  

There are particular difficulties around assessment of Fine Art and Music that mean the faculties concerned may not be able to give you complete certainty over your assessment by the end of this week. Students in those subjects will be kept informed of developments by their faculties. 

We have now published a large number of FAQs in the examinations and assessments section of the student coronavirus advice page on the Oxford Students website, as well as an introduction to open book-exams. We will be publishing much more guidance and support over the coming days and weeks, so please continue to check the website, and read the Student News to stay updated.  

If you have any urgent questions about your assessments after reading all the information we have already provided, you should contact your department or faculty in the first instance. However, I would encourage you to wait to receive more detailed information about your specific course first, wherever possible.  

Support for you 

Academic and professional staff across the University will be doing everything we can to support you in the weeks and months ahead. and the usual welfare support will still be available to you (albeit in a remote form).  

We are fully aware of concerns over the possible impact of working in a home that is not conducive to academic study. Colleges will be contacting students in the near future to gain a better understanding of students’ circumstances, and we will take steps to support you.  

We know that it is likely that some students will fall ill over the coming period, and some students will be trying to study whilst dealing with difficult family circumstances. We will work hard to support you and deal with these circumstances and others flexibly and sensitively.   

We also understand that all students have been impacted by the effects of the coronavirus, some very severely. This will of course be fully taken into account in assessment and classification. Our examiners are very experienced in making adjustments of this sort, and will do so sympathetically and with great care. 

I wish you every success with your studies at this extraordinary time.

Further information is expected to follow from faculties and colleges in the next week.

Image Credit: Ellie Wilkins