MAKING THE MOST OF THE AU EXPERIENCE:
WRITING EXAMS OUTSIDE ALBERTA
Recently, a prospective AU student asked me what it’s like to write AU exams at invigilation centres. This is a common question, since all students who are unable to access an AU Learning Centre (these are located in Calgary and Edmonton) or the main campus must use the services of invigilators. Unfortunately, because all invigilation centres are different, it’s impossible to give any concrete information on what the experience of writing with an invigilator will be like. However, there are some commonalities. The following information is based on interviews with a number of AU students who write exams at invigilation centres and who have agreed to share their experiences and advice with Voice readers.
EXAM COSTS MUST BE FACTORED IN TO OVERALL TUITION
Students who will be using invigilation centres should make certain to factor the cost of exams into their overall tuition needs. The cost of writing exams can vary dramatically, as can the number of invigilated exams per degree program.
Individual AU courses can have anywhere from zero to two invigilated exams each, and the length of these exams ranges from one to three hours, with a small number of courses having four-hour exams. The number of exams also tends to vary by subject area. For example, many women’s studies and communications courses base grades on final projects or take-home exams in place of invigilated exams, while science courses almost always have invigilated exams or as many as two invigilated exams per three credit course.
Some invigilation centres charge per hour, so both the maximum length of the exam and the time you take to write it may affect the cost. Others centres charge a flat rate per exam. The current rates paid by AU students across Canada range from flat rates of $20-$50 per exam, and from $10 to $25 per hour. This means that the cost of exam can range from $20-$100 depending on the length of the exam and where you write. With such a wide range of costs, is well worth students’ time to shop around. You should also find out if you have to pay ahead, or after the exam, and what payment methods the centre accepts. One student had to pay by 4 pm the day of the exam, but the exam would only begin at 6 pm. All centres are different, and independent of AU, so don’t assume they have the same policies.
Students are not limited to the invigilation centres listed on AU’s web site. In fact, you can generally use any college or university in your area. Call around for rates, and if you find a centre that charges lower rates than one listed on the AU web site, contact the AU exams apartment and find out if you can use the cheaper option. Some students have found centres that will allow them to write for free. Some will charge you for the full length of the exam whether you use the time or not, while others will only charge you for the time you use. If you tend to write quickly, you may want to find out if you will save money by completing quickly.
To illustrate how the cost of exam writing may affect your tuition, here are two cost examples based on the extreme higher and lower end of exam costs that you might encounter:
To use current figures, at $578 per course in Alberta, the base tuition for a four-year degree is $23,120.
Nick is lucky, and has found a centre that allows him to write exams for free. Regardless of how many exams he will write, his overall course costs remain at $23,120 (assuming the miracle of a four year tuition freeze while he completes his degree!)
Now, let’s assume Sandy is a Women’s Studies major, and that over the course of her program, only about half of her courses require exams. Since most exams will fall into the two to three hour range, her average exam writing time—she’s a fast writer—is about 2.5 hours. That’s about 50 exam hours over her program. Her invigilation centre charges $20 per exam, so the cost of exams over the course of her degree is $1000, bringing her “real” tuition to: $24,120.
Brent, on the other hand, is majoring in the sciences, and he’s taking some courses with invigilated midterms as well. He will write 45 exams in total, at an average of three hours each. His invigilation centre charges closer to the high end of the scale—$20 per hour. This makes Brent’s exam cost $2700 over his degree, and brings his “real” tuition to $25,820.
These figures do not account for other fees associated with writing exams, which could include parking costs, travel costs, babysitting, or even the cost of food if you must travel for longer exams. Each student should try to anticipate these costs and plan for them prior to enrolling in a program.
Put another way, the real tuition for a course should include the tuition that you pay to Athabasca, and the amount you pay for exams. Therefore tuition ranges quite a bit, but you do have some control. However, exam costs may represent the only out-of-pocket costs for your degree, if you are using student financing to pay for your tuition, and in this case, these costs may be your greatest concern and it may be worth your while to shop around.
One AU student near Toronto is considering changing to another invigilation centre to save money: Right now he pays $35.00, which is paid before the exam is written. He says, “this is my only real complaint. I think it is expensive for what we get. I have asked around and another student told me about a place about 45 min drive from here, which will do it for free. So I am thinking about that. 40 exams at $35 per are $1400 with a few mid terms … I also need this service” and the cost may “approach $2000. Spread over ten years it’s not bad but full time it could be the straw that breaks the student’s back.”
Your invigilation centre might not tell you that you have to pay for parking, so ask ahead to avoid a nasty surprise. Even students who live near an AU Learning Centre should remember to factor in the cost of parking, as both learning centres are situated in downtown areas where parking costs are high. In fact, the Calgary learning Centre is surrounded by parking meters and have only a two-hour limit, making it impossible to write a three-hour exam without parking further away in a lot, or bringing someone with you to feed the meter.
It is not uncommon for students to obtain student loans funding for their living expenses and course expenses, but find themselves short of cash when it comes to writing exams. To avoid being placed in the very difficult situation of having completed your coursework, but being unable to afford your exam, make sure to plan ahead.
MAKE CERTAIN YOUR CENTRE IS AWARE OF YOUR NEEDS
Just as students have to prepare ahead for the cost of writing exams, AU students would be wise to learn what their exams will require prior to enrolling in a course. The number of courses that require four-hour exams is very low, but students must keep in mind that may be more difficult to book a four-hour exam. The AU learning centres only accommodate these exams on certain days, and this may be true of other invigilation centres.
Additionally, some exams have special requirements. Some may require you to write the exam on a computer, and some (such as the popular music course) may require the use of a cassette player or other media. Find out if your invigilation centre will be able to provide these things, or if AU will be sending all needed materials for the exam.
CONTACTING THE INVIGILATION CENTRE
Your first step in locating an invigilation centre should be to visit the InvigNet page on the AU website: http://www.athabascau.ca/depts/registry/invignet.htm
Here you may search for exams centres within your city or town. If more than one is listed, call them all and get prices. If you’re not satisfied with the rates quoted, call your local colleges and universities and find out what they charge for the service. If you select an invigilation centre that is not on AU’s list, be sure to check with AU that the centre you have chosen is acceptable. It’s better to find out beforehand, than after your exam has been ordered. Some students have found libraries and embassies that invigilate exams, and which are not on the AU list. Also, ask people on the AUSU discussion forums what centres they use. Other students can be a great source of information and general exam tips.
Make certain to also find out how busy your invigilation centre is, and how far ahead you must book your exam. If you wait until too late at the end of your course contract date, you may have to purchase an extension to write your exam. Remember AU also has a deadline by which you can order your exam. Be aware of both of these deadlines. Some invigilation centres only allow you to write exams one day a week, or they may have a few set times. You may have to choose one invigilation centre over another if your schedule will only allow you to write exams on certain days. Many invigilation centres may have different hours during the “off season” from May through August.
One AU student reports that an invigilation centre in Kelowna only offers two regular exam days per month, and chooses the day for the student to write. This centre charges double to allow a student to pick their day.
Find out what methods you can use to book an appointment with your invigilation centre. Some must be phoned, but others have e-mail or Web access. Being aware of all this information before you write your first exam should make the process of booking exams very simple, which can help you avoid exam stress.
You should also find out if your invigilation centre will allow you to write in exam earlier than your booked time if they receive it early from AU. If you must reschedule to write your exam later than the requested date, remember that you have only five days in which to do this. After that time your invigilator must return the exam to AU and you will be charged a supplemental exam fee to order it again. Waiting until the last minute to order your exam is never a good idea, and it’s always good to confirm your write date a few days after you set up the appointment, and ask your invigilator to call or email you when your exam arrives. Also, when your exam arrives at the centre, have them double check that it’s the correct one. At least two non-Alberta AU students I spoke to have shown up at invigilation centres to write and found out the wrong exam was sent. There are also reports of this happening with the AU Learning Centres. Leave nothing to chance!
An overseas AU student offers this advice: “If it is my first time writing at a new centre … I normally make sure I arrive early … it saves not finding it and being late and lowers the stress or the unfamiliar that adds to the regular stress one already has on exam day.”
WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO DO?
Once you have selected your invigilator, not much! All you have to do is book your exam time, and show up on time to write it. Athabasca University will send your exam to the invigilator, who will usually contact you once they have it. When you’re done writing the exam you will hand it in to the invigilator, who will send it back to the University. You must bring photo ID with you. If the invigilator cannot confirm your identity, you may not be permitted to write.
If you are able to use online booking, you may not have to speak with anyone at the exam centre until the day of writing, but getting to know someone at the invigilation centre can be helpful.
WHAT IS IT LIKE TO WRITE AT AN INVIGILATION CENTRE?
This, too, will vary a great deal. You may write in a large room with many other students, or you may be alone in a small office. Ask ahead and visit the centre before your exam if you tend to get nervous and if your surroundings when writing are important to you. The invigilator might be very strict, or quite lax, as one AU student describes: At one exam, “the invigilator work[ed] at a community college. She parked me (with another AU student, who was writing a math exam) in her office while she went and got a roomful of 20 or so students started on something else, then moved us to the “full” room later. There were several opportunities for me to cheat or chat with the other student and nothing but our honour to keep us from doing so. (We were good anyway.)”
If you are the type who finds that surroundings at an exam centre are important to your performance, scope out a few locations or try writing exams are more than one location to find which one you like best. Visit the centre before your write date and get to know your way around. You may find one that’s perfect for you. In fact, your writing environment may be better that it would be at an AU Learning Centre (the writing environment at the Calgary Learning Centre is quite poor, in my opinion. The exam room is tiny, the walls are paper thin, and for over a year, there was major construction of a massive condo complex going on right outside the exam room window. The neighbourhood is also kind of scary! Out of province students aren’t missing out on much in this area.)
The experience of writing an exam may differ depending on the time of year you choose to write, as traditional colleges and universities are much busier from September through April. One AU student notes: “I often write my exams off the ‘off season’ … that way I can pretty much go when I want.” Writing in the off season may also mean there will be fewer people, and quieter surroundings.
Those surroundings may vary a great deal, as an AU student who has written exams in both an embassy in Switzerland and a college in BC describes: “It was a little nerve wracking to walk past armed guards at the embassy … once inside they were super nice, as were the college and high school in BC. It is always surprising to see where they place me to write. I have been in a fancy pants board room with leather seats and a fireplace
(unlit) while at the embassy, then a classroom all alone, I wrote in the secretary’s office in one place, and in a library as well.”
Another student wrote AU exams in Canada and at an Embassy in Germany and had quite a different experience: In Ottawa I wrote in a “classroom with desks arranged in a U shaped pattern with 3 to 8 other students writing. [The] supervisor [sat] at the front. At the Embassy I share an office with the supervisor who normally will go about catching up on paperwork while I write. I think she actually enjoys this since she can do stuff without getting bothered by other staff since I should not be interrupted.”
A BC student also has experience with more than one invigilation centre: “In Kelowna we wrote exams in a board room with between 5 and 10 people … this leads to more noise and more potential for an allergic reaction to someone’s perfume … I have bad allergies and I normally have to bring my inhaler into my exams in case I have an asthma attack…. it was a formal exam procedure with the rare occasion of chatting with others before the exam. The exams also started at 6 pm whether you were there or not.
In Penticton it is a smaller atmosphere and the invigilator is [always the same person]. She is very caring, … shows concern for my schooling and even asks how my little one is doing. She allows the exams to start early if everyone is there and agrees to start … There is still a chance that I will have an allergic reaction but it can be dealt with easier and being that there are many times that I write alone there is less chance of having to use my inhaler. If there is any problem in my life that has suddenly come up she offers the opportunity to write it on another date. Such as in my most recent exams my little one was in the hospital with a temp of 103.8F and I had to write an exam the next morning. I showed up for the exam, tired and somewhat unprepared and she offered to change the date of it.”
Like the BC student, many AU students have special needs and may need to do some research to find a center that is as accommodating as possible. The AU Learning Centers may also be quite helpful, as I found out when I showed up to write an exam with a throbbing migraine. The invigilator allowed me to sit in the open book room, which was quieter and rather empty on that day.
A quiet space is not always an option, however, and you may have to write in a large room, as a London, Ontario AU student has: “The classroom is usually large enough to accomodate 50 or more students. The room is quiet and sometimes is it full, but most times I find only about 20 students writing at the same time. You are handed an envelope with your exam, and told to sit where you want. When the envelope is handed to you, you are told how long you have to write and if any aids are provided.”
In some cases you will write other students from the college or university you are writing at, but you may be surprised to find that you often will write alongside other AU students. Many students outside Alberta report having written exams with students from AU, in a wide variety of cities across Canada.
WRITING OUTSIDE OF CANADA
For overseas students there may be options beyond using college or university facilities. The student who wrote exams in Switzerland was able to write at an embassy for free. Government agencies can often provide information on where you may write. It’s difficult to provide precise information on writing overseas because the options may vary greatly from country to country. The best advice is to plan well ahead, and know where you will write long before you are ready to book your exam. The student in Switzerland notes that she had to book exams two months in advance. Remember, you don’t have to be finished your course assignments before you book your exam!
They key to a great exam experience is simple: ask plenty of questions, be prepared well in advance, and leave nothing to chance. Scope out the exam location before an exam if you are nervous, and call ahead to confirm your write date and time. Have the centre call you to confirm receipt of your exam if they offer this service. Once you are set up to use an invigilation centre, the process is very simple and should not be a source of stress.
However, if you find writing exams in general to be a stressful experience, you may order a set of helpful guides to combating exam anxiety through your Students’ Union (AUSU), courtesy AU Counselling services. See this link for information: http://www.ausu.org/services/publications.php
For more information on selecting an invigilator, also see the AUSU Student Help Centre page at this link: http://www.ausu.org/helpcenter/index.php
Good luck on your exams!
Tamra Ross Low
Editor in Chief