Rethinking History Examinations for a Post-Covid World

Dr Sarah Jones, Lecturer in Modern British History, Director of Examinations (History)

Dr John Reeks, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History, Co-Director of Teaching (History)

Background and Context

A recent University of Bristol education briefing paper, ‘Education at Bristol in 2022/23: Transitioning from the Pandemic’, outlined a vision for our long-term approach to assessments, and the role of in-person examinations within that. As we unwind from emergency Covid-19 measures, which saw all examinations in History moved to an online and open-book format, our Year 2 and Year 3 students will not have sat an in-person examination for many years. We consequently felt that a phased reintroduction beginning in Year 1 would be best. This would also provide us with plenty of time to think about their nature and purpose, and for observation and reflection, to learn and improve as we consider the whole History programme in stages.

Generic Benefits of Unseen Examinations

Every form of assessment has benefits and limitations. The generic benefits of in-person examinations are well known. Research has shown that while it can be tricky to preserve the integrity of online assessment, in-person examinations are more resilient (Watson & Sottile, 2010). They can also be seen to go some way towards ‘levelling the field’, making assessment as equal and inclusive as possible. They can be calibrated to meet the requirements of individual learners (e.g., deploying assistive technologies or extra time), and partially help to address potential inequalities by removing the chance of well-meaning outside help and providing parity in terms of working spaces and equipment. Additionally, they are a well-understood and widely-deployed form of assessment in pre-18 education, especially in History, where they account for approximately 80% of the assessment weighting for exam boards such as WJEC, OCR, and EdExcel. This carries forward into the kinds of jobs that History graduates commonly enter. It could be implicit, in situations like job interviews, or explicit in continual professional development and workplace training, such as the Prince2 project management qualification, the Graduate Diploma in Law, NEBOSH certificates, or National Council for the Training of Journalists qualifications.

Perfectionism and Student Wellbeing

Consultation with our Senior Tutors challenged some of our assumptions about in-person examinations and student wellbeing, while experience during the pandemic has suggested that online and open-book assessments may not be the silver bullet for stress that we might have imagined (Times Higher Education, 15 June 2021). It has recently been observed that young people have become increasingly perfectionist, which can have troubling psychological effects (Curran and Hill, 2019). Because unseen examinations are resistant to the notion that perfection is possible, they open a space for continuing dialogue with students about the opportunities to hone their skills creating sharp, creative and bold arguments. In time, this should reduce the number of assessment points where students can feel pressured to produce ‘perfect’ work. This would also be pedagogically valuable. It’s easy for History students to get lost in details but to lose sight of the bigger picture: controlled time pressure can tease out bolder, clearer, and better-evidenced arguments. Though examinations can of course be stressful, other forms of assessment are not stress-free. Indeed, a mass of competing long-lead deadlines clearly brings its own problems.

Attendance and Engagement

We all know that attendance has a positive impact on academic achievement, and studies have been done which back this up (e.g., Halpern, 2007; Clark, Gill, Walker, and Whittle, 2011). We also know that attendance and engagement declined during the pandemic. A survey of academics in 2022 found that three-quarters had seen lower attendance in teaching compared to pre-pandemic levels (Times Higher Education, 9 June 2022). There are many explanations, including mental and physical health (both of students and their friends and family), online teaching, and the rise in paid employment among students. However, assessment design can have an impact on attendance and engagement, with forms like coursework essays and open-book assessments nudging students view some teaching as less relevant. Clearly, poorly designed unseen examinations are unlikely to improve attendance if students believe that the questions are predictably linked to parts of the teaching. However, their creative and purposeful use should provide an opportunity to encourage attendance and engagement as we shift back into pre-Covid patterns of teaching.

A Programme-Level Perspective

With the Covid-accelerated move to near-total use of coursework assessments and online terminal assessments, there is a risk that the re-introduction of unseen examinations might be too hap-hazard, which may result in increased levels of confusion about their nature, as well as few opportunities to progress. This mirrors the situation described by Jessop and Tomas, in which they highlighted the ‘random and infrequent’ deployment of non-traditional forms of assessment leading to student confusion and an impaired understanding of the goals and standards of a programme (Jessop and Tomas, 2016). If unseen examinations return, then they should be a regular part of the general assessment diet. Naturally, not all History units lend themselves equally well to the format, but one of the main lessons of our TESTA programme audit was the need for a programme-level view of assessment for coherence and progression, which we believe our staggered re-introduction will enable.

Our Approach for 2022-23 and Beyond

As part of our extensive discussions on curriculum enhancement in 2017, our Department agreed that in-person examinations had a key role to play and arrived at a rough figure of 30-40% for their overall relative weighting. However, a ‘business-as-usual’ approach, where we simply ‘snap back’ to the pre-Covid norm, is unlikely to maximise benefits and minimise risks, because it would ignore the altered context and would pass over the unique (perhaps only) opportunity to fundamentally think about what we want to achieve with examinations.

Our phased reintroduction allows not just the opportunity to reflect on the process in clear stages, but it also ensures that we begin with the year group most accustomed to sitting in-person examinations. We will establish an Examination Working Group with our Director of Examinations in the Chair, joined by the two Co-Directors of Teaching and the Year 1 Unit Co-Ordinators as members. Before the start of the academic year, we will address the following questions:

  • What do we want to achieve with in-person examinations? This will include the relative balance between knowledge recall and knowledge application or problem-solving. History is an evidence-based discipline, but we do not instruct our students to rote-learn a ‘canon’ of facts. Without pre-empting our discussions, we sense an opportunity to talk to students about how examinations should help them to demonstrate deeper learning through their ability to craft more ambitious and creative arguments.
  • What makes a good examination question in History? We have experimented with different examination types and formats, but we also need to address the fundamentals of question-setting. Our hope is that we can arrive at some principles for good practice which can evolve over time as we learn from experience. It may be that this creates new opportunities, such as certain kinds of questions for certain kinds of unit.
  • How do we talk to students about examinations? We have a unique opportunity to talk to students about the different expectations between school and university. Mixed messages can be intellectually damaging, so our hope is to build a shared perspective. Evidence from our 2020 TESTA audit suggests we won’t be working completely against the grain. While some students believe that examinations encourage ‘cramming’ and ‘memorising’, others are open to the opportunities, for instance to add ‘coherence’ to a topic, or to focus on ‘core arguments’. 

The group will meet again in February and June 2023, to reflect on our experiences between semesters and academic years. We can reflect upon and, if necessary, recalibrate our messaging or approach at critical points. The in-person examination has long been—and remains—a powerful assessment tool with wide application. In the Department of History, we hope that our plan for a systematic and phased reintroduction will deliver what students need during this phase of their intellectual development.

Gordon Clark, Nick Gill, Marion Walker, and Rebecca Whittle, ‘Attendance and Performance: Correlations and Motives in Lecture-Based Modules’, Journal of Geography in Higher Education 35/2 (2011), 199-215.

Thomas Curran and Andrew P. Hill, ‘Perfectionism is Increasing Over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences From 1989 to 2016’, Psychological Bulletin 154/4 (2019), 410-429.

Tansy Jessop and Carmen Tomas, ‘The implications of programme assessment patterns for student learning’, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 42/6 (2016), 990-999.

Nigel Halpern, ‘Attendance in Higher Education: does it matter?’, Investigations in University Teaching and Learning 4/2 (2007), 7-13.

‘Class attendance plummets post-Covid’, Times Higher Education, 9 June 2022.

‘Are online exams better for student mental health?’ Times Higher Education, 15 June 2021.

‘Good stress, bad stress’, Stanford Medicine News Centre, 12 December 2012, [accessed 4 August 2022].

Watson, G., & Sottile, J. (2010). Cheating in the Digital Age: Do Students Cheat More in Online Courses?. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 13(1).

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