The Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic), Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington, said she was “disappointed” to hear that some students are being subjected to exams as long as four hours at the ANUSA-run Ed Talk: Stress and Assessment held late last month.
This was not the only issue raised at the discussion focussing on the intersection of assessments and stress, with students also noting the existence of many exams within a short exam period timeframe, and heavily weighted assessments, as particularly significant stressors.
However, unlike previous Ed Talks held on issues such as fee deregulation, safety and on-campus harassment, which have been problem-solving focussed sessions, there was little to come out of the Ed Talk on stress and assessment. Rather, it acted more as a promotion of university services already in existence due to the small sample size of students that attended the event.
Professor Hughes-Warrington said that 10% of students have to deal with back to back exams, and another 4% have to handle three exams back to back, and that this is never a desirable situation. She also said that an audit conducted last year at the ANU found that the number of exam-based assessment has increased but the number of courses offered has not.
As a result of this, Professor Hughes-Warrington said that they had made it clear to teachers that while two exams for a course is okay, exceeding that isn’t. However, she said the situation was a difficult one as every discipline at the ANU does things slightly differently, and that “it’s difficult when you have a discipline that wants assessment authentic to the discipline”.
A number of stories were also shared by students regarding examples of people who had managed to slip through the cracks of ANU’s special assessment policies regarding illness and unexpected circumstances. In response, Professor Hughes-Warrington highlighted the role of the Dean of Students and the ability of students to appeal against decisions they feel are unfair.
“I’m really pleased when students speak up and go talk to the dean,” the Professor said.
“The other side is that there are people who aren’t completely honest with us, but 99 percent of people are honest and we need to be empathetic.”
Hughes-Warrington also offered to ask the registrar to monitor lengths of exams, and raised that there is now improved communication between colleges to not schedule exams and assessments at the same time and that the special consideration has been centralised.
However, discussion became more progressive in nature when ANUSA President Ben Gills put forward the question of whether exam-based assessment remained the best evaluation of course knowledge, or whether it was time to focus on other mediums. Professor Hughes-Warrington said that such a discussion was worth exploring, but that ultimately it comes down to the degree, the skills that need to be tested, and what the best ways to examine those skills are.
However, the Professor did show great favour towards the growing use of differential assessment, where students are allowed to choose the form of their own assessment, whether it be an essay, take-home, or traditional examination. She stated that she was “a big fan” of the type of assessment as it “acknowledges people have different strengths and give students options”, and that she would like to see more courses organise their assessment that way.
Overall, the discussion led to the idea that stress is just something that students have to deal with, especially given that the ANU has a lot of high achievers in one place, making it a breeding ground for stress and anxiety. Students instead need to look at stress management, and utilise the Counselling Centre when needed.
Carolyn Farrar, Head of the Counselling Centre, highlighted that students go to the Centre for a wide range of completely routine reasons, and that things don’t have to get really bad before you look for support.