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Alternatives to formal written exams – a student-led research project

25 November 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic meant a quick change from formal timed examinations on-campus to timed at-home assessments.

What are the hidden benefits of this sudden switch, and what should our university learn from these changes to exam systems?

Students Jodie Lewis, Anna Moller and Louise Stack led a Cardiff Learning and Teaching Academy (LT Academy) research project investigating the impacts of introducing take-home exams due to COVID-19. Using a combination of over 200 surveys, 10 focus groups, individual interviews and internal data analysis within the College of Humanities, the project worked with staff and students to explore the comparative impact of take-home exams on their workload, skills development, wellbeing, and stress. They also looked at the impact for students and staff with disabilities and caring responsibilities.

Key findings

The project’s research showed clearly that take-home exams were less stressful for both staff and students: 81% of students across the College of Humanities experienced less stress and anxiety with take-home exams. Administrative staff also reported a lighter workload than with formal sit-down and timed exams. 83% of Humanities students said that take-home exams better supported their skills development than formal sit-down exams.

The project also found that the change to take-home exams, with time periods between 24 hours to 5 days, was much more inclusive and accessible for students with a wide range of disabilities. 71% of students found it easier to compose answers electronically, and students with neurological and physical disabilities reported that take-home exams allowed them to work in accessible, supportive conditions, and to use focusing techniques and rest breaks that were not possible in formal exam conditions. The change also helped students who have paid work and/or caring responsibilities.

A significant majority of both staff (69%) and students (87%) across Humanities want a continuation of take-home exams. Staff and students agreed that the pandemic has given us a chance to rethink assessment strategies and tackle inequalities. Our respondents provided a wide range of ideas for building on the success of take-home exams, including other creative forms of assessment; developing consistency in take-home exam guidelines across the university; and expanding and communicating support available to students in exam season.

Written by Nicki Kindersley