Pens vs Pixels: The Exam Debate

The discourse surrounding online and in-person exams persists to be of paramount significance for students, as universities linger on the threshold between both the online format and the ‘traditional’ format – once the only method of examination. For some students, the looming return of the in-person, ‘traditional’ exam has caused relief, for others outrage. However, the online exam remains for some, and is symptomatic of greater shifts towards the digitalisation of learning first caused at large by the pandemic.

So why re-introduce the ‘traditional’ way of taking exams? Both formats, inevitably, have pros and cons, but some are more significant than others – creating a greater effect on the student body and the individuals taking an exam. Through these factors, questions of how ‘fair’ each format is has come to the fore. In fact, the University of Glasgow’s recent decision to change an online exam to an in-person exam under the argument of what is more ‘fair’ for students indicates the pertinent question of what is actually fair or unfair. Their decision, this debate around ‘fairness’, is indicative of a larger epidemic in academia – the festering influence of AI, seen to corrupt online examinations and render it unfair. But, is it fair to revert back to ‘traditional’ exam format when students, in their university careers so far, have only experienced online exams?

Instead, perhaps, of focusing only on these details which detract from the attention to the experience of actually taking an exam, amidst arguments of which format is more representative of how ‘working life’ will be and the skills being put to the test, the conflict between online and in-person exams should be solved by viewing the ‘fairness’ both in terms of AI’s effects AND the  student experience. It must be viewed less as a tick-boxing exercise, what’s being assessed and the skills being put into practice, and more as an experience – how the exam is actually taken and the implications of this.

For, at the moment, students are kept in this liminal space; the threshold between ‘traditional’ practices and the digital future, whose integrity is threatened by the use of AI. A survey taken by the Palatinate in 2021 reflected this liminality as the results showed that 51% preferred online exams. Whilst conducted 3 years ago, the arduous decision between online and in-person exam formats due to the split student body can be viewed, and the discourse around what is ‘fair’ is plagued by this fracture. The Palatinate also released an article in November which pertains once more to delineating between examination formats, and expresses the belief that ‘we remain bound to the illusion that online exams are intellectually beneficial and less stressful for the student’ when in reality they are ‘ugly’. This explicit stance on the debate surrounding the return to ‘traditional’ formats, shows just how split the student body is. Online examinations and in-person examinations both have their challenges, evoke their own strong arguments, and this ‘ugly’ view of online exams could also be applied, imposed onto, the view that university in-person exams should be left a thing of the past.

For example, in my own experience, I have only been exposed to the online format of university examination. My 24 hour exams were far from smooth sailing, and whilst this time frame may be comforting to some, it left me at times in a perpetual cycle of erasure and restoration – rereading, rewording, restructuring every answer under the comforting guise of the 24 hour time limit. However, this being said, I do not miss in-person exams despite their more tangible reality – away from the ‘illusion’ of online exams. 

It is clear that both formats require different skill sets and both put the body under different levels, and types, of pressure. There is no better option for the entirety of the student body. But the fear that students will suddenly be displaced into the unknown, have to perform and achieve in an unfamiliar setting, contributes to the sense of uncertainty over how exams will change moving forward, and what will be constituted as ‘fair’ in years to come.

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