Andrew Jotischky kicks off week 2 of our Pandemic Pedagogy follow-up with a blog post about the challenges of assessment – particularly exams – during the pandemic. Andrew is Professor of Medieval History at Royal Holloway University of London, having previously taught for twenty years at Lancaster University. He teaches courses on various aspects of medieval religious life and thought, on crusading and on medieval food, at undergraduate and MA level. His most recent publications include, co-authored with Bernard Hamilton, Latin and Greek Monasticism in the Crusader States (2020).
About seven or eight years ago, as Head of Department at my previous university, I was involved in discussions with colleagues about the possibility of setting up a distance learning MA course. It didn’t happen in the end, for various reasons, but I remember the moment of shock at the realisation at just how much preparation time was needed to put on a single 30 credit course. I’ve thought about that many times over the past few pandemic months, when many of us involved in teaching History at university have been either designing courses for distance learning delivery, or converting existing courses for partial or wholly online delivery, in the space of a few weeks rather than months – and with sketchy training at best. It’s true, of course, that the technology has changed rapidly over the past few years, and that it’s possible to deliver online in ways that would have been unimaginable even in 2015. Even so, in the months since the March 2020 lockdown, we have all learned, at great speed, how to do things at that we hadn’t previously considered part of our jobs.
As I write, there is no prospect of anything like a return to ‘normal’ teaching this academic year. It’s worth asking ourselves what the legacy of pandemic teaching will be. From the multitude of things we’ve learned to do in the past nine months, what might we choose to retain as good practice in a post-pandemic world? What follows is an entirely personal view of one new practice that has changed the way I have thought about teaching and assessment: the online ‘home exam’. This was adopted hurriedly by many universities, including my own and the one where I am an external examiner, once it became apparent in April 2020 that traditional unseen ‘in-person’ exams would no be possible. Instead of a two or three hour period of sweating – or freezing – in a room often far from suitable for the purpose, students have 24 hours to write and submit their answers online, with a word limit instead of a time limit. Since there can be no attempt to police the way they sit the paper, it is effectively an open-book exam. The system is far from perfect, of course. The traditional exam venue at least has the merit of equalizing the experience, whereas the online ‘home exam’ can expose inequalities between students who experience digital poverty or lack of appropriate space at home and those with plentiful access to books, fast broadband and privacy to work. If ways can be found for allowance to be given for these problems, however, there are real merits in the ‘home exam.’ My experience both as an internal and external examiner was that the overall quality of answers was significantly superior to the traditional exam answer written in a hurry – we’re all familiar with the ‘knowledge dump’ syndrome, the student suffering from nerves, the ‘off day’, and all the reasons why the in-person exam so often fails to reflect students’ true abilities. The ‘home exam’ allows time for reflection, for coherent, structured and well-informed answers. It also gives initiative to students, who have to make choices about how much time to spend on the different tasks involved in the exam, how much thinking and preparation time to allow themselves, how much to read or look up. It is more likely to produce a set of answers that tells us, as teachers, what our students’ real abilities are, rather than how much they can remember on a given day, or how fast they can write. And, of course, their answers rely less on our palaeographical skills. For these reasons, I hope that universities continue to find a place for the ‘home exam’ format even after it is no longer mandated by the need for social distancing.
If you would like to contribute a short blog post or podcast/video that addresses how the pandemic has changed or affected history teaching and learning in Higher Education then please email Dr Sarah Holland: (firstname.lastname@example.org), History UK’s Education Officer.