From My Perspective – Writing Exams

I’m doing a lot of last-minute cramming these days, since I’m trying to finish up my courses in time to meet the graduation deadline. This also means I have been writing a lot of exams in a short period of time.

Last month I had an unusual problem occur when I went to book an exam for Spanish 300. I was told that since this exam was allotted 3 1/2 hours, there were only certain days that the ELC could accommodate this. Although I was calling well in advance of the 15-day deadline, this restriction would mean I could only write the exam on Tuesdays, and the only available Tuesday was the following week. I was “reprimanded” by the person on the phone, since I was supposed to have known this already from my course materials, and since I’d been a student for a long time I should know better.

Although I have been a student for a long time, I learn new things about my university daily, and this was something I’d never heard of before. I was certain that although my course materials said the exam was 3 1/2 hours, there was nothing stated about only being able to write an exam longer than 3 hours at the ELC on certain days. I explained this, and we managed to sort it out and the exam was booked. Subsequently I checked through my course materials and online in the exam information centre and confirmed that there was nothing stated anywhere regarding this restriction. I brought the matter to the attention of VP Alan Davis, and I’ve been advised that this will be adjusted so that students are made aware of this restriction.

However, this got me thinking about the whole exams process. This is not hard to do, since I have written two exams last month and three this past week! The very notion of a 3 1/2 hour exam was a strange one to me. Although most of my exams have ranged from 2 to 3 hours allotted time, I’ve rarely used my full allotment, often finishing well under 2 hours. I don’t do well with exams, and although I consistently maintain good marks in my coursework itself, I rarely do as well on the exam portion. I don’t suffer exam anxiety, I just seem to experience a semi-complete loss of memory the moment I enter the exam room. Staying longer in the room does not improve my memory, so I write my answers as quickly as possible and get it over with. If the exam is multiple choice, I try to resist the impulse to go back and “second guess,” going with my “first instinct” instead – otherwise I’m guaranteed to change a right answer to a wrong one! But where I have the most trouble is with exams that consist primarily of essays and long written answers. Unfortunately, most of the psych courses I’ve taken are of that type, and I’ve even had a few communications studies exams that are comprised completely of essays – each expected to be four or five pages in length.

It’s not particularly the content of the essay or long answer that gives me difficulty – it’s the fact that I’m required to handwrite these answers continuously over the space of several hours. Due to injuries sustained in two motor vehicle accidents some years ago, I have great difficulty with my upper back and wrist. I generally avoid handwriting because I can only manage to do it for a few minutes before my hand starts to cramp. In an exam situation this means I get about fifteen minutes into my first essay and my wrist starts to seize up, my arm becomes numb and painful, and my fingers stiffen. As soon as I feel this coming on, I start to write as quickly as possible – trying to get maximum words onto the page to meet the minimum word count before I’m unable to write at all. Of course this means that my handwriting, horrible at best, rapidly deteriorates as I go along. I pity the tutor who has to decipher my exam essays – many of them look like they’ve been written in some hitherto-unknown form of hieroglyphics!

Aside from my handwriting difficulties, even just the logistics of an exam of that length are quite daunting. At my work, employees are all required to receive a 15 minute break within any four hour shift, and I’m sure most employment situations are similar. No doubt a 3 1/2 hour exam tests other parts of a student’s anatomy besides the brain! Students are sometimes allowed to leave the room to use the washroom, but this is not a preferred option – not only is it disruptive, it sometimes raises suspicions among the invigilators that you are potentially “up to no good” (in fact most universities do not allow exam bathroom breaks). Even just sitting for a period of that length can be difficult, and standing up to do some callisthenics in the middle of an exam is not exactly acceptable exam behaviour either. I often reach the point where I am simply tired of being seated in the exam room – and hurry up and finish the exam just to get out of there.

And of course there is the parking situation. At both the Edmonton and Calgary Learning Centres (ELC and CLC), parking is difficult to find and expensive. I’ve had occasions where I’ve written my exam with one eye on the clock, fully expecting a parking ticket if I spend more than 2 hours in the exam room. In some areas of Canada AU students are required to pay invigilators by the hour – meaning longer exams are more costly. Students with young children may have to factor in child care into their exam cost as well. Worrying about parking and money adds to the exam stress.

As it turned out, I didn’t need 3 1/2 hours for my Spanish exam. The invigilator kindly offered to stay for an extra half hour if I needed the time, but as usual I was out of the room in less than 2 hours. I was quite interested to discover that there are 16 AU courses that have exams that are 3 1/2 hours in length! (see the Exam Request Form link below).

It’s not just lengthy exams that can be problematic. Take, for example, the exam for Humanities 289: History of Popular Music – Blues to Big Bands. This exam requires listening to pieces of music and identifying the composer, performer, time period and style. When you enter the exam you are given a portable tape recorder. However, when writing at the ELC or CLC, you are in a large room filled with others writing exams. The room is generally very quiet, except for the scratching of pencils on paper, nervous movement in seats, and the occasional desperate sigh. But there you are with a pair of headphones and a recorder. Not only are you aware of the noise of the music leaching into the room from the headphones – each time you stop and rewind there is a loud click and whir. With every loud click, you can feel everyone in the exam room shift in irritation at being distracted by your noisy intrusion.

Then there is the occasional student who panics only a few minutes into the exam and packs up and leaves. I find this very distracting, since I am left wondering what exam he/she was writing and just what was so horrible about it that motivated the students’ abrupt departure. On the other end, I’ve been the last person in the room writing the exam – and this leaves you wondering whether you are extremely slow, or just not as sharp as everyone else. I’m sure it usually just means that they were writing shorter exams – but when you are in that room your thoughts can easily become rather distorted.

Unfortunately most of us have to put up with this – unless you are a “special” AU student like Alberta Premier Ralph Klein. The last time he wrote an exam at the ELC, he was given a private room, and his bodyguard stood watch outside!

AU does make some accommodations for students with special needs who may need alternate arrangements to write exams. Students with disabilities can sometimes even arrange to write exams in their home. I’ve had it suggested to me that I should request an option to write my exams on the computer to alleviate my handwriting difficulties. However, accommodations for special needs are still not adequate for every situation.

Writing exams is stressful business, regardless of how and where they are written. AU recognizes this, and there are some excellent materials available online on reducing exam anxiety. But these only address part of the problem. Students who don’t have the option of writing at the ELC or CLC must find their own location to write exams. AU provides a list of possible locations, but students are not limited to these (see the exam invigilator network below). I’ve heard that some of these locations can be problematic and the environment may be less than ideal. Some are noisy, or don’t have comfortable writing areas, and sometimes AU students are treated as unwelcome outsiders. In addition, costs can range from nothing to $40-$50 dollars or more to write exams in some places.

I’ve seen pictures of students writing exams at the U of A, thousands of desks in one gigantic gymnasium, with invigilators walking the aisles. For the most part, too, we have freedom to book our exams at our convenience, as opposed to campus-based universities where students get them all in the space of a few days. So I guess we don’t have it that bad at AU! However things can always improve, and I’d encourage anyone with a comment on any exams issue to express it on the AUSU discussion forums or contact the AUSU office.

At the outset I noted that in spite of being a student for a long time, I’m still learning new things about the university. One thing I learned this past month was that if you need to get your marks in a hurry, AU will accommodate you. It took me several emails & phone calls before I finally found the answer on rush marking, but here it is:

“¢ First, contact your tutor and let them know you need to meet the graduation deadline with all marks in by May 5, 2003*. Ask what they require of you to ensure assignments can be marked and returned in time. Ask if they mark the final exam, and if so, get permission to have the exam sent directly to them.
“¢ Contact the course secretary (your tutor usually can provide this name, or obtain it through the course coordinator) and advise that you will need a “rush” placed on your exam marking.
“¢ Go to the post office and purchase a pre-paid Express Post envelope. Fill in your tutor’s address, but do not put a return address (the exam cannot go to you). Do not choose the option of requiring a signature, since this means the tutor will need to be home and sign for the exam which could delay the process. Take this envelope with you when you go to write the exam and give it to the invigilator.

*applicable to 2003 graduation year only. Students can also seek rush marking for other situations.

For more exam information check out:

Exam request form:

Exam info from online calendar:

Exam invigilator network & list of approved invigilators

Debbie’s article reminded me of many of my own exam writing experiences – which range from infuriating to hilarious. We all do strange things when we are nervous! Do you have any funny, frightening, or just plain strange exam stories? Send them to for a future Sounding Off column. [ed]