Keyboards Out: Online Exams During the Pandemic

If someone would have told me at the end of 2019 that I would be taking my university exams online in the next semesters, I would have laughed at them. Now, I would possibly ask which kind of crystal ball they have since that is exactly what happened: for the past few weeks, like thousands of other students at Russian universities, I have been sitting in front of my laptop at my desk at home, taking exams.


I had two kinds of exams. First, oral exams & tests on Zoom and so-called take-home exams. With these take-home exams, during a certain period of time (24 hours), I could download my exam in the .doc format from the university´s DLC portal. After 90 minutes, I had to upload it again using the same portal.

Since there was no video surveillance, this setting obviously sounds cheat-friendly. However, since the exam was written as an open book exam, I was allowed to use notes, presentations, or the internet as a source. Moreover, every exam was checked for plagiarism so that it was also not possible to take the exam together with a friend or copy from the internet or a presentation. So, it is by no means a brave new student world. Moreover, existing disadvantages can be exacerbated when writing an online exam, since it is simply not possible to transfer an offline exam into a digital one and keep the same level of quality. The purpose of an exam is to query knowledge under time pressure and the same conditions for all students in order to enable a comparison of the students. However, this does not work in an online exam.

At first glance it might seem that in an open book exam, there is no query of knowledge since it seems that you do not have to know anything by heart and instead simply have to know where the information can be found in the notes or presentations. However, that was not true at all for my exam, since the focus of the exam was not on the mere reproduction of knowledge, but on the transfer of this knowledge. So simply looking at your notes did not help at all if you did not understand the described concepts. Furthermore, the time pressure of an exam still exists. That means that it is not possible to look through your notes for an eternity.

So, while time pressure and query of knowledge exist in an online exam, albeit in a slightly different form, it is out of question that not all students write the exam under the same conditions. During a conventional face-to-face exam, all students take their exam together in the same room, so they are exposed to the same environmental influences (e.g., the noise level). While this sounds like a banality, it is not. Since time pressure is an integral part of an exam — as mentioned above — every moment of disruption costs valuable seconds.

In my case, I am privileged, as I live with my parents at the moment. During my exams, my parents tried to be as quiet as possible. But what about my fellow students who are not as lucky? For example, is it possible to concentrate on an exam when living in a shared room in the dormitory or in an apartment on a noisy street? Next to this, a good grade in an online exam depends heavily on your technical equipment. If your internet is reliable and fast, that can give you many valuable minutes of working time. A fellow student spent ten minutes on opening the exam file since her internet worked so slowly. In a ninety- minute exam, having ten minutes more to think is a huge advantage since the more time you have to think about the questions, the more likely you are to get an excellent grade. Finally, with a lot of international students still stuck in their home countries, the time difference can also have a big impact. For my open book exam in philosophy, it was not an issue, since within the 24-hour time window everyone could choose the time that suited him or her best. But for the English language exam, or my faculty certification, which were scheduled at a fixed time, it formed a disadvantage for some students. For example, a fellow student who is currently in the US had to write his English exam at 2 am due to the time difference.

The success of an exam therefore not only depends on your own capabilities, but also largely on external circumstances that you are unable to influence. A quiet workspace, fast internet, or the time difference are only some examples on a long list of possible external circumstances — without considering differences in the abilities to cheat.

What becomes clear is that an online exam presumes comparability between students while it is incapable to guarantee all participants the same conditions. This may be justifiable in the exceptional situation of a global pandemic in the absence of alternatives, but a fundamental error needs to be recognized: the offline format cannot simply be transferred into the online format.