News, Student Voice

Putting the ‘Ex’ in Exams?

I didn’t finish Uni quite how I thought I would (to put it mildly). Ignoring, for now, the slightly terrifying world I’ll be graduating into (which is something I’m getting quite good at), one big change was in the way that the University determined the classification that would come with my degree. Instead of spending a total of nine hours sweating profusely in the Coombe Dingle sports hall, wishing that memorising my candidate number last minute hadn’t pushed that really useful reference out of my brain, I got an entire month to approach six essays at a slightly less breakneck pace. Now that I’ve had a few weeks to reflect on this alternative assessment method, I’ve tried to think about what I preferred, what I didn’t like, and whether there might be lessons that can be learned from such a huge and sudden overhaul. Obviously, we can’t just ignore the Global Pandemic in the room, but I think there are still conclusions to be drawn, even if they do come with a very large asterisk.

Gif of Dumbledore cancelling exams in the first Harry Potter Film
A boy can dream…

A bit of background about how BSc Biologists are assessed:

In second year, we do a mix of compulsory modules in 1st term, followed by optional modules in second term. It varies a bit, but the general assessment pattern is 40% coursework in the form of lab reports (or sometimes posters or podcasts) and 60% exam. The exams are hour-long single question essays (from a choice of three). Credit is given for independent thought and extra reading, but I personally felt from feedback and question style, that information recall was what was primarily being tested. In third year, non-exam assessment comes in the form of a practical project and report, and a literature review (on a different subject). All 6 optional modules are 100% exam-based. The third year exams are an hour and a half and tend to be framed in the form of suggesting an experimental design (for one out of two scenarios). There’s more of a focus on knowledge application and problem solving than 2nd year, but they still require the inclusion of large amounts of core lecture content and memorising key references.

The alternative assessment put in place due to coronavirus was to give us the questions we would have been given in the final exams (not heavily altered, as far as I’m aware), but now we had a month to complete and hand in all six, with a 1,500 word limit for each. The Biological Sciences department listened to student concerns, and, although it might not have been perfect, tried to find a solution that worked for as many people as possible, accounting for the drastically different situations students had found themselves in a result of the pandemic.

The Good

For me, the alternative assessment was, without doubt, a far better learning experience. I could take a more thoughtful, measured approach to the questions, gained a much better understanding of what I was writing about, and did deliberate, relevant extra reading. Ultimately, I wrote what I feel was much closer to the best answer I could write, as opposed to the best answer I could cobble together with the scraps of information that happened to be at the forefront of my memory in an hour and a half exam. It’s been drilled into me since I first set foot on campus that the biggest mistake students make in exams is not actually answering the question being asked. I’ve often been guilty of this – but it’s not always because I didn’t take enough time to read and understand the question. It’s usually because I haven’t memorised enough information or key references to answer the question being asked, so had to try to very indelicately jam the good information I did have into somewhere it didn’t quite belong. Because when you are sitting at that desk in Coombe Dingle, it feels like a complete, if slightly tangential, answer is better than just writing ‘sorry I only have so much capacity for information and by sheer bad luck, the questions you’ve asked are on the bits that I couldn’t fit in my brain, please give me a 2:1?’. With more time in the alternative assessments, and my notes available, I was able to actually answer the question being asked, using every tool available to me.

In terms of skills, I had more time to plan and think about what I wanted to include, and could look through notes and lectures critically to find only the relevant information. I found it much easier to make links between lectures and units because I had more time to let my thoughts develop and had access to all the information I needed. When I was searching for extra reading I was able to go really in depth, because I knew the question I was searching for more information on, as opposed to the sort of ‘scattershot’ approach I take before exams. I generally end up hedging my bets, and finding a relatively arbitrary set of papers that seem like they would be applicable quite broadly or have an author with a funny name so it’s easier to remember. Essentially, it was a more active process – I was doing a lot more with the information I had. Although I could be more selective in my revision, I don’t think that this was any detriment to the amount of information I retained. I don’t feel traditional exams are any better for information retention and overall understanding because they force you to get a very broad overview of a whole module that you’ll forget almost immediately. I suppose it’s a quality vs. quantity argument, and the alternative assessment wins hands-down on quality.

The wellbeing side of things is where the big ‘global pandemic’ asterisk comes in. In theory, I believe this style of exam was much better for my mental wellbeing. If nothing else, the entire exam process, from waking up on the day to walking out of the exam hall, is very stressful and anxiety-inducing, and not having to do that was a huge relief. But more than that, having time meant that if I was struggling to write a question, or feeling like I didn’t know enough, I could stop, put my laptop away and do something else, or start on another question. I got to set my own schedule and approach the questions how I wanted to and needed to depending on how I felt that particular day. Revision feels like a never-ending task – you could always be doing more: watching one last lecture, finding three more extra reading papers, going over those notes one more time. With these essays you have a progress bar – you can see how much you have achieved and make better decisions about when enough work is enough and you need a break or change of scenery. It also makes it far easier to plan work around other important commitments like jobs and care responsibilities.

The Bad

That said, the potential wellbeing benefit of this coursework style assessment is a double-edged sword. I don’t suffer particularly from perfectionism, as you may be able to tell from my rather rambling blogs, but for students that do, this style of assessment could be very difficult to approach. Because, in some ways, you have much longer than you need, you can keep tinkering and keep tweaking and keep agonising over every little detail to the point where it could become detrimental to both the quality of your work and your mental wellbeing. I heard about people entirely re-writing essays the night before the deadline because they were panicked that they had missed some key information and clearly that’s not good for wellbeing or academic success. If this style of assessment is used again, setting very clear expectations of students is critical, and this might mean re-assessing whether marking criteria are actually useful to students and working with students to make them better. I think students will need to have access to essays from previous years, along with justifications of the marks they achieved, so they can see what they need to do. And for some students who find the pressure of exams to be helpful, maybe the department could offer exam-style sessions, where students can come in and work under exam conditions for a specified time, with the expectation they will submit soon after the end of the session.

There is also the issue of selective revision. That is – students may be able to avoid attending teaching, then just replay the couple of lectures they need to at the end of the year, because they already know the question they will be answering. The easiest way to avoid this is to set questions that require entire unit understanding, and design units in a way that they fit together and information builds on previous information. For most of my essays, I dipped into my notes for basically all lectures as I was sure there would be something relevant. If lecturers are seriously concerned that attendance will drop off if students are able to pick and choose what they learn, maybe they could ask whether they are creating enough value in their teaching outside of simply providing information that is needed for exams (that they themselves set)?

The Not So Ugly

A week or two after sacrificing a goat to the gods of Virgin media, and praying my WiFi would hold out to submit all of my essays, we received an email from the department asking us for our feedback on the assessment. This was super positive to see and I’m really glad that Biological Sciences is finding out what students actually thought. I’m sure a lot of people felt differently to me about the new assessment and it’s important as many voices are heard as possible. I really hope that every part of the university that used some kind of alternative assessment has done the same – maybe assessment this year doesn’t have to be a one-off deviation from the norm, but a real chance to learn and improve the way students are assessed. And if you’re a student, and you haven’t been asked for your thoughts, tell them anyway!

A phrase that I heard from nearly every biologist I talked to during our assessment was “at least it’s better than exams”, and this was often precluded by “it’s not great, but…”. The university has shown that it can and will change the way it approaches assessment in response to students’ concerns. We need to stop asking the question ‘why should we move away from exam-based assessment’, and start asking ‘if we were designing assessment from scratch, putting student learning and wellbeing first, would we end up with the current system?’.

I wonder whether we would end up with a one-size fits all approach, or would students be able to choose a system of assessment that best suited them, their personal circumstances, and their learning goals?

Toby Roberts, BILT Student Fellow: Active, Collaborative Learning

Student Voice, Teaching Stories

A PASSion for Active Learning

With Christmas over, I’ve been looking over my timetable to see what the next teaching block has in store for me, and there’s now a conspicuous absence on a Tuesday afternoon. Until now, I’ve spent my time after lunch on a Tuesday with a friend scouring Blackboard, my fantastically unhelpful notes, and her slightly more helpful notes to try to plan an hour’s worth of interesting and useful activities for somewhere between one and seven 2nd year Biology students. That’s not just out of the kindness of my heart – alongside being a BILT student fellow, I’ve been moonlighting (or maybe it’s more accurate to say twilighting) as a PASS leader.

If you’re not aware what PASS is, it stands for Peer Assisted Study Sessions. It’s an initiative run for about 24 subjects in the university that provides student-run sessions for students to come and work on study skills, ask questions, get support with uni work and life and meet other people on their course. PASS is highly flexible, and changes to meet the needs of the students, but there are some key concepts:

  • It doesn’t replace teaching
  • It’s collaborative
  • It’s fun
  • It’s a partnership
  • It’s inclusive

PASS is definitely not more teaching for students. I’m barely qualified to be a student, let alone a lecturer, so I’m not there to give a seminar or disseminate knowledge. It’s about facilitating students to take charge of their own learning. But they don’t have to go it alone (the clue’s in the PA part of PASS). Students work as a team, helping each other by sharing knowledge and skills, in an engaging, enjoyable (I hope!) way. And more importantly, in the way they want – every part of the session: the plan, the content, the activities, is flexible to respond to what the students are getting the most from. There’s no point running an essay planning workshop when they’ve all got a coding assignment due in the next few days. There’s also no point running sessions that aren’t inclusive. By making sure feedback is asked for and heard, PASS can be made useful and enjoyable for everyone who attends. 

Sounds a lot like active, collaborative learning? With one key exception – PASS doesn’t replace teaching. It shouldn’t, either, it’s really great as an augmentation to the way students study already, and having a risk-free space where students can ask questions they might not be comfortable asking academics is very important. But, I think other forms of active, collaborative learning should start to replace teaching. 

Not all of it, certainly, and in many cases across the university, it already has. But it’s really important that lecture heavy, content loaded subjects think about what they can change up. Being a PASS leader really highlighted to me the failings of lecture-centric teaching and what’s great about active, collaborative learning. 

It’s not even been a year since I passed my exams on the content we were giving PASS sessions on, and I really struggled to remember it. “Rings a bell, definitely sounds like genetics” isn’t quite the same as having a deep understanding of the content, but in a lot of cases it was all I could muster up. And yet, an often used defence of the more traditional teaching style is that university needs to create disciplinary experts. I wouldn’t say I’m a disciplinary expert, but an expert on remembering content long enough to regurgitate it in an exam where I’m separated from my (admittedly slightly poorly written) notes. 

Conversely, the content we did go over in PASS sessions feels much more firmly cemented in my mind now. I had to understand it if I was going to design activities based on it, and answering questions as well as hearing the perspectives and thoughts of other students really pushed and challenged that understanding. 

There’s technically no barrier to creating exciting revision activities to work on in study groups as students ourselves. But when you’ve got 90 lectures worth of content to commit to memory (with extra reading, of course) and 6 exams looming, you’re going to stick to what works to pass the exam, even if that’s not the best learning experience. 

And there’s something else really important that I feel I’ve not mentioned enough, which is the fun element of more active and collaborative activities. All of the student fellows did a podcast recently, and we talked about how we don’t seem to focus on joy in learning nearly enough. I’m sure part of the reason my knowledge of molecular genetics has flown from my mind with such alarming speed is because of the unpleasant association with stress, the signature ASS Library smell of sweat and energy drinks (with a hint of desperation), and never-ending lines of garish notes, highlighted in every colour imaginable

As part of my work as a student fellow, I’m developing a quick start guide to making teaching more active and collaborative. But while that’s still in the works, check out the Digital Education Office’s resources, which includes case studies from throughout the Uni of how digital tools can support active and collaborative learning.

Toby Roberts, BILT Student Fellow

500 Words

e-marking as a tool for teachers and learners: evaluation of a GradeMark trial

Author: Andy Wakefield

School/ Centre: School of Biological Sciences

Provision of timely, detailed feedback is important for student learning (1), yet can be challenging to achieve in practice. Technology may hold the solution, say Dr Andy Wakefield.

The tech bit

Implementation of electronic management of assessment (EMA), has enormous potential for transforming teaching and learning (2,3). One widely used online tool is Turnitin, equipped with an originality-checker but also an e-marking function called GradeMark. This allows markers to annotate and grade student work digitally without the need to download or print work; no more stacks of paperwork on your desk and fewer trees being felled.


Here I summarize my findings from a GradeMark trial within the School of Biological Sciences (SoBS), in which I asked:

  1. Does using GradeMark allow for more efficient use of staff time?
  2. How does using GradeMark support student learning?


I conducted the trial on a third-year unit which consisted of four modules, each assessed via a 500-word report. I provided students with instructions for the e-submission process and teachers with guidance on how to access reports and use key tools within GradeMark. Student (n=19) and staff (n=3) opinions were gathered via end-of-unit feedback questionnaires.


In general, both students and academics had positive views of GradeMark. Students:

  • found the digital workflow easy to use;
  • appreciated how easy it was to obtain/access their feedback;
  • liked the specific nature of their feedback;
  • liked the breakdown of marks offered by the rubric system;
  • liked the improved clarity of digital feedback.

Staff found GradeMark easy to use and believed that they provided the same amount of feedback for students in the same (n=1) or less (n=2) time, relative to marking paper-scripts. When asked about future use, all three agreed they would “definitely like to continue to use online marking”.


From my study I found that e-marking can allow for more efficient use of staff time. It can also support student learning by allowing easy access to clear, timely, individualised, assessment feedback. These findings echo those published in the literature (4,5). One of the strengths of GradeMark is the QuickMark comment function, which allows for saved comments to be quickly reused. This function doesn’t currently exist within the Blackboard e-marking toolkit, which is the standard for EMA at UOB.

Other benefits to e-marking include: increased privacy of marks and feedback; and a greater likelihood that students will revisit feedback due to ease of access (3). However, focusing all our attention on the quality and quantity of our written comments may not fully address current student dissatisfaction with feedback. Large cohorts limit time available for student-teacher communication that was once integral to the feedback process (6). But don’t worry, technology provides us with multiple ways to switch from monologue back to dialogue. Why not try mediating discussion boards and blogs within Blackboard, or investigate adaptive release functionality to prevent release of student marks until they have reflected on their feedback? Engagement with EMA offers professional development benefits to staff and is claimed to be “essential for reasons of both pedagogy and efficiency(2).


  1. Gibbs, G. & Simpson, C. (2004) Conditions under which Assessment supports Student Learning. Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, 1, 3-31
  2. Ambler, T., Breyer, Y., & Young, S. (2014) Piloting online submission and online assessment with Grademark. In S. Kennedy-Clark, K. Everett & P. Wheeler (Eds.), Cases on the assessment of scenario and game-based virtual worlds in higher education (pp. 125-151). Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference.
  3. Ferrel, G. & Gray, L. (2016) Electronic management of assessment. Using technology to support the assessment life cycle, from the electronic submission of assignments to marking and feedback. Jisc guide. Available at [Accessed 16/05/2017].
  4. Chew, E. & Price, T. (2010) Online originality checking and online assessment – an extension of academics or disruption for academics. In S. L. Wong, S.C. Kong & F.-Y. Yun (Eds.), Proceedings of the 18th International Conference on Computers in Education (pp. 683-687). Putrajaya, Malaysia: Asia-Pacific Society for Computers in Education.
  5. Buckley, E. & Cowap, L. (2013) An evaluation of the use of Turnitin for electronic submission and marking and as a formative feedback tool from an educator’s perspective. British Journal of Educational Technology, 44 (4), 562-579.
  6. Nicol, D. (2010) From monologue to dialogue: improving written feedback processes in mass higher education. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 35 (5), 501-517.

If you’d like to share your work with BILT, please email for more information.