This summer’s exams are going to be tricky.
For students, exams are always tricky. That’s kind of the point. High stakes assessment that plays a significant part in the calculation of degree classification is supposed to test the knowledge and application that has built up over the course of a module or year. Students want to be sure they are performing at their very best, and where this best is impossible to achieve due to circumstances beyond their control providers have traditionally offered mitigations.
It’s right there in the regulations or the module handbook. Usually spelled out very carefully to stop lead swinging, under certain circumstances students might get anything from more time on a final paper to a calculated grade based on previous work.
The Covid-19 pandemic has the potential to trigger a lot of these mitigations. Clearly, nobody is likely to be working to their full potential – and this includes staff as well as students. Assessments that for generations have involved a final paper under exam conditions will now, falteringly, move online. Entire rubrics will be very quickly rethought. Practical exams and degree shows are right out.
If ever there was a year for mitigation on an almost industrial scale, this is it. Students with disabilities, and international students, are at a clear disadvantage from hastily thrown together online and open book assessments. If you’re struggling to study on your phone because you don’t have broadband or a laptop wherever you are – writing a 1,500 word essay is probably for the birds.
Students’ unions are now leading the campaign for “no detriment” – the establishment of a broader safety net that recognises the unique and trying circumstances, and attempts to offer students the degree they would have got had normal service been maintained. Petitions and pleas are springing up all over the place, making requests along these lines:
A no detriment policy acts as a “safety net” to ensure students obtain at least their average grade so far in the year, or with a better grade depending on results in summer exams or assignments, so long as they secure at least 40 per cent.”
We’ve seen stuff like this at Exeter, Southampton, Plymouth, Cambridge, Salford, Nottingham Trent – everywhere. In some cases, universities have announced the principle and promised the detail in coming days. Others are waiting to get all the detail ducks in a row before announcing. Most are trying to get their announcement out before Easter holidays hit. Some have already admitted they won’t make that moral deadline.
But if this all sounds cut and dried, there is a drawback. Regulators and professional bodies have been upping the ante on academic standards – last years’ panic over grade inflation (remember all institutions are putting information on their websites about how degree classifications are decided thanks to UKSCQA?) is just one facet of a wider worry that students just aren’t learning as much, or as well as they used to.
But the pressure is on. Not only are highly connected, virally aware students noting every other university’s announcement in real time, ministers and regulators have raised their expectations.
Michelle Donelan has said:
I am very aware that many of you will be worried about what this means for final exams.
It is important that providers support you and enable you to leave with qualifications that have real value and that reflect your hard work and allow you to progress. I can assure you that we are working closely with the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) to ensure this happens.”
The Office for Students cautions:
Our expectation is that providers should make all reasonable efforts to enable students to complete their studies, for achievement to be reliably assessed, for qualifications to be awarded securely, and to enable a fair and robust admissions process for 2020-21 entrants.
Providers will already be making these arrangements and we expect only to take regulatory action where we consider that reasonable efforts have not been made or where standards have been compromised.”
The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) has already published some guidance – more is to come, alongside a series of engagements to gather best practices from institutions.
There’s also a meeting between the QAA and Professional and Statutory Regulatory Bodies (PSRBs) on Friday. Always the most complex component of the regulatory system, any number of bodies have an input into a surprisingly wide number of courses – so much so that we have no official way of knowing the extent.
PSRBs often lay down quite detailed curricula and assessment protocols. If they say you have to sit a three-hour exam in order to qualify as a professional that’s what universities have to do. If they say one of your final modules needs to be “professional practice” and will be assessed by observation then that’s what needs to happen.
Except it very obviously can’t this year, and PSRBs need to make that call sooner rather than later. In an alarming demonstration of one of the central problems in the Higher Education and Research Act, liaison with these bodies on a national level happens within a very small team at the QAA, and is funded by membership rather than statutory subscriptions. It’s probably one of the more essential HE jobs that needs to be done, and done well, right now – but officially, it is an optional extra.
In the moment
All this is coming to a head. Providers are breaking up for Easter – a much needed gap to plan the next term – but anxious students want and are increasingly demanding certainty about their final year exams. The NUS position is that something along these lines is needed:
Final year students can choose to complete and graduate with a grade given based on their prior attainment. Some final-year students may not feel that a grade based on their current performance will be an adequate reflection of their ability. If they want to graduate or complete their courses this academic year and want the opportunity to take an exam or submit a dissertation, they should be given this through a redesigned, open-book exam format or a flexible submission deadline. This should take place at home.
We know that these exams will not reflect previous formats but should be used to assess learners on topics they have learnt about. Students who wish to, should have the option to extend their time in education to complete their degrees. This could mean deferring this term to take place in the Autumn. This should be at their own discretion and made possible through self-certification. It should absolutely be at no cost to the student, and further discussions should begin on the financial support available for students to do this.”
Some providers have signed up to these principles, but it is the detail that students need. Writing an assessment plan is difficult at the best of times, writing it under pressure with module leaders who may be off sick, self-isolating or still trying to deliver lectures on Zoom with their kids in tow takes it to a whole new level.
There’s plenty more complexity for many providers to think through too. It’s actually harder than it might look on some programmes to just calculate what a student has achieved “so far” – and in many cases is going to have to involve emergency-converting summative into formative and vice-versa. Providers are rightly wrestling with what is an acceptable minimum number of assessments (or weighted credit value of assessment) necessary to form a credible minimum grade.
And any “big announcement” on assessment for next term will need to be accompanied by the other detail on how assessment is being converted to online. Put simply, converting an exam is easy in comparison to grading a creative student’s final degree exhibit.
Many of the sorts of proposals required at course level – let alone decisions – will need to be made – and approved with something approaching a level of scrutiny – under these conditions. It will be difficult, but it is essential. What would help – sharpish – would be some clear signals from the regulators and assurance bodies on the safety net that they’ll offer to providers offering a safety net.