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Traditional three-hour university exams may soon be a thing of the past as leading British institutions eye a switch to online and more “authentic” forms of assessment post-pandemic.

The University of Cambridge said that over the next academic year it would “draw on the lessons learned” from the COVID-19 pandemic and respond “to the desire of many faculties and departments to move away from the traditional three-hour written examination format as the primary means of assessment for such programs.”

The University of Warwick said online assessment would remain its main mode of judging student performance, especially since the move away from supervised written exams “seemed to reveal real benefits for a range of student groups. It even appears in some areas to help close attainment gaps for some groups of students,” according to a spokesman.

The University of St. Andrews said exams would remain online in 2021-22 and that it would use the year as an opportunity to gauge the success of digital assessment across different disciplines.

Colm Harmon, vice principal (students) at the University of Edinburgh, said that while the current environment was not the time to make long-term decisions, “it feels like change will come.”

“Students have reacted positively to the use of digital platforms for examinations. We are refining the use of such technology and seeing where improvements can be made,” he said.

Nearly all institutions contacted by Times Higher Education said that while they would not ban in-person assessments, there would be a big reduction in their use and a significant shift away from exams based around memory recall. The move toward online assessments is being accompanied by wider adoption of open-book tasks that span several days and a broader embrace of formative, rather than summative, assessment.

SOAS University of London said it would “retain most elements of assessment online” but would continue with some in-person tests. The University of Oxford said it had “embraced remote forms of assessment” and was “developing plans to build on this experience in the next academic year.” Middlesex University said it was planning “a major project to review assessment methods, tools and approaches, learning from the pandemic experience.”

Andrew Turner, associate pro vice chancellor (teaching and learning) at Coventry University, said his institution had already begun to shift away from sit-down exams before 2020 but the pandemic had “accelerated the process.”

“There was a reticence from some academics, but the pandemic has certainly shone a light on the question of what exams are actually for,” he said.

In considering different forms of assessment, Turner highlighted the need to be mindful of the risk of academic misconduct and the impact on student workloads. For example, at-home exams spread over one to three days could lead to additional stress for students who would previously have raced through an assessment in three hours.

Jon Scott, former pro vice chancellor (student experience) at the University of Leicester and now a higher education consultant, said the shift should be welcomed.

“There has been a push to improve assessment for some time … The problem is that it required up-front investment, so people just returned to the default option,” he said.

“[The forced switch online] has a silver lining in that universities have reflected on how they’re doing assessments … moving away from that standard type of three essays in three hours type of exam, and hopefully towards more authentic assessment, which is more relevant for how students will be working in the future,” he said.

“It’s a real opportunity to take things forward that will be to the benefit of academic programs and to students.”

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