Another year, another cohort of finalists. And the third year that has been affected by the pandemic. University life feels like we might be resuming some sense of normality, with in-person lectures, classes and tutorials and the long-awaited return to the clubs. But despite this, current finalists have still had two years of disrupted learning.
This is why I panicked when the History Faculty announced that our finals would be in-person and closed book at the end of this year.
History announced this a week before term began, unlike the English and Law faculties who informed their students that exams would be online and open book. The independence of the Oxford faculties leads to the potential for these kinds of discrepancies. Modern languages have announced that their literature exams will be online and language exams in-person.
English is to have online exams for all but one of their papers, stating that “a fair mode of assessment needs to be in tune with the educational experience that you have had, including the opportunities that you have had to practice being assessed”. Having Prelims cancelled and online collections throughout the degree were the main drivers behind this decision. Is this not exactly the same situation for History students as well?
I last took an in-person exam at the start of Hilary in my first year, back in January 2020. Since then, my Prelims were cancelled and every other collection I have taken has been online, as well as having restricted library access throughout two terms spent working online at home. The lack of preparation that we are going to have had for in-person finals is a scary prospect. Normally we would have three years to hone the skills required for our finals, and now we are expected to acquire these techniques in only one year.
In their email announcement to the History finalists, the faculty stated that “We have taken into account the exceptional circumstances created by the pandemic up to now and will continue to do so as the situation evolves” and acknowledged all the problems we have faced over the last two years- and yet have made no allowances for these “exceptional circumstances”.
Over the last week or so I have been coming round to the idea of in-person exams. Remembering the stress of thinking I had submitted my coursework exam at the end of Trinity term last year, only to find out that Inspera had not worked properly, is one of the reasons. In-person exams will of course mitigate any of these potential technical problems. And sitting an exam in your room clearly does not have the same adrenaline effect as the real deal in Exam Schools. Sat in my room the other day writing my online collection, it was much harder to focus.
My main concern now is, if exams are going to be in-person, how are they going to support us? The faculty has promised that we will have adequate time and means of preparing for our finals that are now in a different format to the one we have prepared for entire two years we have spent at Oxford. Is this task going to fall on individual tutors at each college? If so, not only is this extra work for them, but students may receive different levels of support and exam practice depending on their college.
In the faculty’s initial announcement email, they advised that “college organised collections will be a very useful resource for practising in-person examinations and Exams Schools always run valuable practice sessions in Trinity Term.” If this is the extent of the support they will be offering, it is not enough. Even my collection at the start of this term was still online, and from now I will only have the chance to do one more in-person collection in one paper. Will I ever get the chance to practise my other papers in-person or will the first time be in finals? Practice sessions in Trinity are of course welcome, but we will need preparation before this point. Otherwise we are going into finals without any experience beforehand. If they are going to be able to justify having in-person exams, they need to ensure they follow this up with sufficient help to prepare students.
The only reassurance that the History faculty are currently offering is the option of applying for ‘mitigating circumstances’, if you “feel that the pandemic conditions will have an effect on your examination performance”. This is a hollow consolation. As a Cherwell investigation discovered, the University received 3,675 mitigating circumstances applications for the 2020/2021 academic year. Many applicants were left disappointed at their application rejection, including a finalist involved in a traffic accident. This gives me and many others little hope. We have all been affected by the pandemic, and therefore this needs to be taken into account more than merely presenting us with the option to apply for ‘mitigating circumstances’.
Faculties who have still not informed students about the format of their finals should do so to allow maximum preparation time for students. And those who have already chosen to hold their exams in-person, such as History, need to let students know of a comprehensive plan of action in supporting them through their final year.
Image Credit : Maxime Gtn / CC BY-SA 4.0