Let’s talk about…IN-PERSON EXAMS

Are we risking health and wellbeing for in-person exams?

The first half of the academic year is beginning to wrap up for third-level students, and the final hurdle of semester one – exam weeks – is fast approaching. Unlike last year however, this year’s end-of-semester exams are set to take place in-person, despite the rising case numbers.

While some courses/colleges have elected to have part of the assessment take place online, the fact remains that most students are expected to sit at least a portion of their exams on campus. The past few weeks have seen Covid cases grow steadily, giving cause for new restrictions to come into effect – and yet, the gathering of hundreds of people for exam weeks is set to continue.

There seems to be a distinct sense of apprehension coming from the Government at the moment with regard to enacting strict measures, due in all likelihood to the public’s exhaustion over restrictions. There is no denying how disappointing the prospect of returning to more restrictive measures is for many, but in the case of third-level exams, the Covid-safe option is the one that students are asking for.

Hosting hundreds of people in examination centres across the country, at a time when case numbers are so worrying, flies in the face of reason. It seems quite clear that by moving ahead with in-person exams, students are being exposed to significant risk. However, the issue of community transmission isn’t even limited to what these numbers are telling us, not when the current lack of PCR availability is taken into account.

Beyond the increased numbers of people self-referring due to the recent Covid spike (causing available time slots for testing to be few and far between), many test centres have also experienced a shortage of tests. I know anecdotally that in Galway, availability in the two test centres in the city centre has been so scarce recently, that whenever I’ve heard of people having to get tested, they’ve had to go to the test centre at the airport – sometimes even waiting a day or two for a time slot there. Mind you, getting to the centre when you don’t have your own car (the reality for most students), usually sets you out over €40 for a taxi, which can be a bit of an ask if you’re on a student’s budget.

Not only does the sheer amount of people in such close quarters give cause for concern, but in-person exams will also result in an increase in the use of public transport as people travel to campus from all corners of the country. This is especially worrying given the recent calls for passenger capacity to be reduced for public safety. In addition, all of this is set to happen right before students return home for winter break, when hordes of people will be congregating the island over in celebration of the holiday season.

Meanwhile, outside of the impact that in-person exams will have on case numbers, one of the most pressing concerns regarding this issue is the impact on students’ mental health. The harmful effects that the pandemic and subsequent restrictions have had when it comes to mental wellbeing have been undeniable, and for students, the stress of the pandemic served to compound the anxiety that was already being felt around college. College mental health services, which were already stretched thin pre-pandemic, are now swamped, with countless students stuck on waiting lists while academic and Covid-related stresses pile up.

The consistent efforts that students put in to adjust to online and blended learning in the past year and a half have been significant, and the sudden return to in-person examination, even regardless of the public health implications, is a great source of anxiety for many students. Many colleges up until this point still maintained some degree of online learning, leaving students entirely unprepared in many respects for the upcoming in-person exams.

The traditional process of in-person assessment has always involved last minute cramming and study fatigue, with all the semester’s work culminating in one or two hours of trying to regurgitate everything you can, all while sat in the stressful environment of an exam centre. One of the few benefits to online learning was that online exams – or more specifically the open-book aspect – drew more heavily on the actual application of what’s been learned. Additionally, the comfort of being able to sit exams in your own home was an anxiety-easer for a lot of people.

In truth, the fact that in-person exams seem set to move forward is not only worrying for many students, but also slightly confusing. The many risks and disadvantages that hosting these winter exams in-person would present do not seem outweighed by any advantages, and it’s easy to wonder why they’re going forward this way at all.

Perhaps the student outcry over this issue will lead to changes in the coming days, and hopefully so, because it would seem that any negative repercussions from holding these exams on campus could so easily have been avoidable, especially given the success colleges had last year in assessing students online. In any case, regardless of whether they go online or not, best of luck to anyone sitting exams, and stay safe!