Exams: Are They Just Par for the Course?

Remember the dread that crept up as final-exam period loomed ever closer on your student calendar? Remember the midnight cram sessions as you tried to memorize all the content you possibly could, but finally, you had to make the decision: Do I study an extra hour right now, or do I get an extra hour of sleep before this test tomorrow? What about the sweaty palms as you sat down in the exam hall and asked yourself if the extra caffeine you ingested that morning to keep you more alert was causing you to suddenly feel way, way too hot? Remember finding a question during the exam that you knew you knew the answer to but finding that your mind had gone completely blank? Then watching the clock and writing feverishly till — BEEP — you were out of time and had to hand it in as is? Remember thinking: “Well, that’s over,” then essentially repeating this for your next exam, on and on until your semester ended, and you could finally celebrate that exams were done? Back then, final exams and the anxiety they triggered all seemed to be par for the course. A necessary evil you just got through and (hopefully) got over.

Op-ed post by Jaime Caldwell, coordinator, Marketing and Communications, BCcampus

But are exams really necessary? Are there better, less anxiety-inducing ways to assess learning? As we head toward the fall semester and all the uncertainty surrounding what it will look like, anxiety for some, perhaps most, students is going to be high from the start. No one really knows what the fall will look like yet, but what we do know is we are already entering this next phase with residual emotional and mental baggage left over from the events of the previous year and a half. Alyson Quin, the founder of the Trauma-Informed Practice Institute, is quoted in this post on trauma-informed teaching as saying, “COVID-19 has provided trauma… we may feel fear, despair, sadness, confusion, lost, helplessness, inadequacy, shame, guilt, hurt and anger… which can be locked into our bodies for decades.”

On top of dealing with trauma, institutions, instructors, and students also need to be extra flexible as they adapt to the new campus environment and try to navigate protocols and measures that could change very quickly while still ensuring students learn the material required of them.

The pandemic forced instructors to look at assessments differently but with very little time to prepare. The sudden pivot from face-to-face instruction to online delivery required new ways of administering exams. Online exam proctoring, a mode of assessment that became much more prevalent during the pandemic, carried with it racial bias, financial, and privacy issues for students. These are outlined in a previous BCcampus blog post: Exams: Who are we leaving out?. In this article, the authors also discussed how traditional time-based exams can disadvantage students with disabilities, and that exams often assess memory and the ability to regurgitate information without students actually having learned the material on a deeper level. Add to this that having an exam period means student performance becomes more a matter of stamina than a reflection of what they have actually learned and can then apply later in real-life situations.

A Better Way

Not all instructors chose the online proctored exam in the pivot to online last year. Our Ditch the Final Exam! Why? How? blog post/video series highlighted five faculty champions from the University of the Fraser Valley who successfully ditched their final exams for alternative assessments. Their key takeaways and individual reasons for switching things up are explained in the blog posts, but I have summarized them below for ease. You can use each tip as inspiration if you choose to rethink your final assessments this fall:

Stefania Pizzirani launched a pre-class survey to determine needs and assessment preferences, gave students choice to give them autonomy, and broke down high-stakes exams into smaller quizzes to decrease student anxiety.

RoseAnne Timbrell wove exam questions into weekly discussion questions, requiring students to respond with theory and reflection in a certain time frame; allowed more time for students to respond to exam questions, resulting in deeper and higher quality answers; and showed compassion and flexibility for students’ online learning activities, which could inadvertently reduce online fatigue and marking tasks for faculty too.

Michael Corman made sure assignments reflected the diversity of course content, created a fun assignment for students that made grading more fun, too, and added a performative component to an assessment that allowed students to take up content in nuanced, complex, and complicated ways.

Amea Wilbur was aware of the impact of exams and proctoring on students’ mental health; she provided alternative formats of assessment that acknowledge and reflect different ways of learning, made sure assignments and learning outcomes were aligned, and considered how the assignments might relate to students’ current or future workplaces.

Keziah Wallis asked, “What do I want my students to get out of this course?” when designing assessments, designed open-ended assignments that led to creative and surprising results and learning, and suggested designing a solid rubric ahead of time to prevent wasting time on assessment.

Another success story we’ve shared recently is BCcampus Research Fellow Meghan Costello’s experience using a non-traditional assessment for her online first-year physics courses. Requiring her students to explain answers to questions via video had positive effects on student engagement and concept mastery. She gave a flexible timeline to these students (an eight- to 12-hour window rather than the regular written part of a midterm that is due within one hour) to help offset issues such as poor internet connection, some students having a job or another class to attend directly after the midterm, etc. This flexible timeline was especially helpful to those students who needed a little more time to mull things over before demonstrating their learning.


This year, the stress of exam period will be compounded in multiple ways by the stress of living with an ongoing worldwide pandemic. Stress can impede the ability to process information, make choices, and stay focused, says BCcampus advisor Helen Prins. Anything that instructors can do to help make students feel safer, more supported, and focused enough to learn during this time will help better set them up for success. When it comes to extra stress and anxiety for students, if we know it can be mitigated with thoughtful course planning and a compassionate approach to teaching, we no longer need to consider them par for the course.

Reconsidering your approach to assessment? Take the FLO Bootcamp Alternative Assessment Challenge!

We recently wrapped up a FLO MicroCourse on authentic and alternative assessments. Check out these synchronous session video recordings:

Looking to register for a FLO course this Fall? Consider these upcoming FLO sessions.

The featured image for this post (viewable in the BCcampus News section at the bottom of our homepage) is by Jeswin Thomas from Pexels