COVID-19 pandemic: the toughest exam for tertiary institutions yet |

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by Bhawna Sharma

Pandemics such as the ongoing COVID-19 have the uncanny effect of upending our quotidian routine. For businesses, it’s the disruption of critical supply chains; for governments, the struggle to provide enough hospital beds; and for ordinary citizens, stockpiling of food, hand sanitisers, and toilet paper. Pandemics have little regard for people, and test human vulnerability and grit at its peak.

Stuck in the chaos are university students like myself, who are bearing the brunt of fickle policies implemented by universities to ensure that learning goes on as usual. The undue pressure felt by students is symptomatic of an education system out of touch with change. COVID-19 may be the toughest exam for universities yet, and doubtless, it won’t be the last.

Disclaimer: As the situation with COVID-19 is continually changing, this article reflects the case at time of posting.

How universities are coping

Higher-education institutions across Singapore have taken several precautions in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. NTU, for instance, has converted 75% of final exams into continual assessments in the form of assignments and quizzes, while the remaining 25% will be conducted in-person with possible extension up till May if needed. NUS and SMU have ramped up online classes, and capped in-class lessons to fifty students at a time to reduce transmission.

The universities have also recalled overseas exchange programmes and internships, resulting in delayed graduation for affected students. In short, Singapore’s major universities have taken a pragmatic outlook in trying to maintain the status quo – a stark contrast against some of the swift decisions taken by universities in the US and UK including complete shutdowns and grading students on a pass/fail basis. 

Columbia Law School, for example, has mandated pass/fail grading keeping in mind that off-campus students who were sent home may have less access to healthcare and technology, thus affecting their grades due to factors beyond their control. Similarly, Harvard Law School implemented compulsory pass/fail grading for everyone following backlash from students that making letter grades optional, for those who want their courses to count towards their GPA, would send a wrong signal to employers.

A confession highlighting the room for cheating in online exams via NUSWhispers Facebook page

Local students have vented their frustration on online confession pages, criticising the sudden increase in workload following preponed exams. Some have also called for pass/fail grading as they feel unfairly disadvantaged from the sudden changes made under such short notice.

For instance, a confession on NTU Confessions’ Facebook page highlights how converting finals into assignments and quizzes conducted between week 11 and 13 leaves insufficient time for studying, as students would be bombarded by back-to-back quizzes and projects for multiple courses within those weeks. Because of the stress and anxiety caused by changing assessment components within such short notice, some students have pushed for pass/fail grading to protect their GPA from being severely affected by less-than-average performance.

A confession highlighting the sudden changes in course-load for studentsvia NUSWhispers Facebook page

Recognizing the gravity of the situation, Singaporean universities are slowly taking steps to minimise unintended consequences for students after listening to their concerns.

Exceptional circumstances require exceptional solutions

For students who had to cut-short their exchange programme in South Korea, NTU has given options such as delaying graduation, taking a leave of absence this semester, or joining the semester mid-way. According to one returning student who was contacted by The Straits Times, NTU could have provided better options to make up for the credits lost, such as allowing students to take some courses as pass/fail modules.

The fact that the universities are not ready to give concessions to those students who were relying on overseas programmes shows the unflinching rigidity of Singapore’s pragmatism. Why should students pay the price for extenuating circumstances that they couldn’t possibly preempt? Universities need to recognise that exceptional circumstances call for exceptional measures, even if that means breaking normal academic protocol.

As such, students should be granted credits for exchange and overseas stints that were recalled. These students not only spent precious time and effort in securing places, but also significant amounts of money on flight tickets and arrangements, all of which would have amounted to nothing.

Exposing the weakness of standardised exams

The pandemic sharply exposes the limits of heavily relying on standardised exams. Since there is no way of monitoring students, online exams, particularly for technical subjects, are prone to abuse. Students who have friends in their classes may discuss answers and therefore skew the bell curve in their favour. In such situations, universities need to be more creative instead of trying to stick to repeated methods.

Take-home assignments, for example, could be in the form of group work or be designed in such a way that students have to come up with their own answers. Even though this may not be optimal for certain subjects such as mathematics, one must remember that desperate times call for desperate measures – if finals need to be converted to group assignments to minimise the likelihood of cheating, then so be it.

A rigid education system which equates intelligence with doing well in exams has thus left Singaporean universities scrambling to keep up, not to mention the acute stress felt by students. By cultivating a more open mindset towards alternative ways of testing, universities will be better prepared for disruptive shocks. The COVID-19 outbreak thus serves as a timely intervention for teachers and academic advisors to rethink the purpose of learning in today’s digital age, where the concept of holding classes may well be obsolete.

Hopefully, in the near-future, Singaporean universities will also be more mindful of their students’ welfare and mental health instead of prioritising the need to maintain academic rigour during a global crisis.