Opinion: Cambridge departments have handled online exams poorly

In a challenging year, many students felt the departments and faculties should have done more to support student wellbeing and academic progress

A year like no other 

2020/21 has been an odd year to be a University student. We started Michaelmas with debates over the quality of remote teaching and pleas for a safety net. With neither of these productively addressed by the university, contempt for the Cambridge departments and faculties only grew as we approached exam season. 

Camfess has been rife with complaints and people expressing their misery at exam lengths, question mistakes, lack of preparation resources, and even the marking of scripts. Frankly this leaves me with one conclusion, despite having over a year to plan for this eventuality, Cambridge departments and faculties have handled online exams extremely poorly. 

Unequal Standings

When the University announced their ‘mitigation package’ back in May, it at least looked promising. Despite no safety net in place for third years, after a year of interrupted teaching, at least first and second years would get automatic progression. 

The one issue that stood out was a lack of standardised regulations between subjects, and this proved to be a serious issue as Cambridge departments began to announce their plans. 

English, Law, and MML students were some of those granted a 24 hour window, Theology had roughly 14 days to submit 4 exams, meanwhile subjects such as Economics, Engineering, and NatSci had only 2 or 3 hours. 

HSPS made the decision to, as well as slightly extended exam windows, discount the lowest scoring paper from the final grade. Thus giving these students a sort of safety net, and I would imagine a confidence boost.

Not only was there a disparity between tripos, but in some cases, within. First and second-year PBS students had only three hours to sit their exam papers, the same as had they been in person, whereas final years had a 24-hour exam window.

When there is already so much debate about ‘the difficulty’ of Cambridge subjects – see the classic science vs humanities argument – it seems unnecessary and unfair for there to be such a difference between faculty exam policies. 

Not only does it feed into the idea that some subjects are ‘easier’ than others (which they’re not – all Cambridge degrees are tough and hard work!), but also suggests that some faculties have more of an understanding or concern for student well-being during these tough times. 

Unrealistic Expectations

Online learning left many students feeling burnt out by the time the exam window came around (Image: Camfess)

Looking specifically into the experience of students with short exam windows, The Tab spoke to a second-year PBS student. They explained how “the three-hour window was an unrealistic time scale for students who are sitting exams in their rooms.” 

Touching on the fact that the exam window was the same as in-person exams they continued: “it was unfair that we were expected to perform the same in these online exams as we would be in a non-pandemic year,” and said that “sitting exams overlooking a busy street is going to be more distracting than a silent exam hall.” 

Furthermore, second-year Engineering students were saddled with 8 consecutive days of two-hour exams, which a Selwyn student told us left them feeling “burnt out,” and “exhausted,” by the end of the exam period. The quick turnaround between papers made it “really difficult to feel as though you’re doing your best.”

The struggle for perfectionism

Many students struggled with the balance between focus and perfectionism during 24 hour windows (Image: Camfess)

The exam period for those with longer time windows wasn’t much better, with second-year History of Art students having back to back 24-hour exams, four days in a row. A second-year student explained that she “barely slept” during those 96 hours, as the long window gave rise to a need for perfectionism, already rife amongst Cambridge students.

A Land Economy student at Christ’s explained that 24-hour windows were really difficult, “because although the standard wasn’t supposed to be higher, students ended up staying up all night to perfect their essays.”

This is despite the fact that many departments advised that the longer windows for exams were just windows and not the time that students should take to complete the paper. However, as there was nothing to enforce this, many students did face the struggle of having the chance to perfect their essays in lieu of looking after themselves and getting proper rest during the exam period.

Impossible papers

Not only have Cambridge departments come under fire for their organisation of exams, but the exam papers themselves.

One Economics student took to Camfess to express their anger at the department for an “outrageously difficult” paper, jokily explaining that “when they were kind enough to make exams open book, I was worried that the questions would actually be doable.”

Meanwhile, the Physics department was under fire for a typo in the Part IB Physics B paper, which many students weren’t aware was a mistake until partway into the exam, meaning time had been wasted trying to answer the incorrect question. An issue that was unfairly rectified with only half of the students being granted extra time.

The results

Finally, some departments were equally criticised for the way they have released results or marked papers.

The English department faced a lot of anger from graduating students as failure to mark certain papers meant that many graduands weren’t able to graduate with their college in July.

One final year Engling told the Tab “it was disappointing to not have received our marks on time to graduate with my college.” They continued “whilst there have been arrangements made to graduate in September, it won’t be the same without the majority of my friends, or after being away from Cambridge for the summer.”

Not releasing results in time for people to graduate leaves international students in a tricky position (Image: Camfess)

Secondly, the Engineering department was criticised for the way they had graded its students, opting to not class or rank second-year students.

Whilst speculatively a move made as a result of a tumultuous exam period, many Engineering students were unhappy with the decision to not provide classes (Image: Camfess)

A second-year Engineering student told The Tab that the decision not to provide classes or ranks was “unhelpful” as it “didn’t give much of an indication of performance in comparison to our peers, and in terms of applying to internships or courses, the only ‘grade’ we can provide is saying that we got ‘below average’ which sounds much worse than saying you got a 2:1.”

Whilst we have to acknowledge that the Cambridge faculties were also facing an unprecedented and stressful year, student testimonies suggest that they did not do enough to support the wellbeing and academic progress of their students.

With many students left feeling burnt-out by their long online exam windows, or stressed that distractions and personal circumstances had not been taken into account for short windows, it seemed that the Cambridge faculties struggled to consider the best interests of their students.

With online exams to be continued in some faculties next year, I only hope that the Cambridge departments have learnt from their mistakes, and will endeavour to improve the logistics of the exam period next year with centralised guidelines and consideration for the students having to sit exams in a format they never anticipated when applying to University.

The Cambridge University Press Office has been contacted for comment 

Feature Image: Author & Camfess