This week, the university moved all courses online in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, suspending face-to-face instruction for the remainder of the spring semester. This upsetting news has left students stressed and confused about how professors will adapt in-person instruction courses to online delivery methods. Yet, discussion of upcoming midterms has been largely absent from the revision of this semester’s plans.
While many have midterms that would be coming up in the next couple of weeks had we all returned after spring break, both professors and students are unsure if these dates still hold, and what a typically closed-notes, standardized exam will look like as they are administered online.
Though test scores are the easiest and most straightforward way for professors to gauge student comprehension — especially now that learning is highly individualized — it is not realistic to expect all students have the time and emotional capacity to handle a full course load at the moment. It would also be practically impossible to allow for fair testing conditions for all students and would disadvantage students with less essential course materials at their disposal, such as reliable Internet, textbooks and course notes.
What has also always been true of exams, whether they are scrapped this semester or not, is that they render course content meaningless, lest it shows up on the midterm or final. All of us are guilty of snapping to attention when a professor confirms the material they’re about to lecture on will show up on the test, while passively listening to material we’re certain we don’t need to memorize. Even if I find class material deeply interesting, it feels wasteful to put effort into learning about a topic that will not help me succeed in the context of the course, given that an exam grade will impact my course grade which will impact my GPA which will impact … you get the point.
Exams make lecture and discussion time mere test prep and, with that, students aren’t learning for the sake of exploring a class of interest or delving further into their major — they’re learning to pass. Even while watching a professor’s recorded lecture, the moment they clarified an upcoming proof would not be present on an exam, I found it more difficult to pay attention to the proceeding information.
Strong emphasis on exam grades in terms of overall course grades also disadvantages students who happen to perform poorly on standardized exams, or even students who happen to perform poorly on just one of the course’s few exams. Especially if students are doing well on assignments that make up a far lesser percentage of the course grade, a low grade on one exam feels arbitrary in the context of success in other aspects of the course.
Again, given how stressful and uncertain these past couple of weeks have been and the anticipated toll this will take on course grades, it feels especially unfair to expect midterms to accurately evaluate student learning. Not only will midterm formats have to change to fit into new online course curriculums, but the usual emphasis on academic integrity enforced by in-person proctoring will be nearly impossible to maintain.
While some students may still take midterm exams without cheating, others will be tempted to do so simply by having immediate access to notes and the Internet. I have yet to hear from any professors about potential midterm formats, further contributing to stress over testing, as there is currently little ability to prepare for new exam methods.
For the remainder of the semester, university departments and professors should work to find alternative methods for evaluating student learning, or at the very least, decrease the importance of exams when it comes to final course grades.
Anne Isman ([email protected]) is a freshman studying economics.