Writing a mid-term or final exam is a necessary though stressful aspect of any university experience, but for AU students, writing an exam requires a bit more effort than for students studying at traditional universities. AU students have several options when it comes to writing exams. Many students are able to write at one of AU’s campuses, whether the main one in Athabasca, or, more commonly, the ones in Calgary or Edmonton. But most students can’t travel that far for an exam. Instead, they must write their exam through an AU-approved invigilator.
A big change to how AU exams are written has been the shift away from writing paper-based exams to writing an exam on a computer. While this has its advantages, computer or no, students are still required to write in the presence of an invigilator. But many AU students feel that more improvements can be made. A thread on the Athabasca University Facebook page on the topic of exams created a lot of energetic discussion by students who related their experiences.
The quality of the exam-writing experience seems to vary between the Calgary and Edmonton centres. Both the Calgary and Edmonton locations are in the cities’ downtown cores, which theoretically makes the centres equally accessible, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Many AU students in Calgary travel to the AU Calgary centre using the C-Train. There is a station close by that provides easy access to the AU offices which eliminates the need to pay for expensive downtown parking. In contrast, Edmonton transit is not as efficient for getting to the Edmonton centre, so Edmonton students find it more convenient to drive. However, several AU students noted that much of the public parking close by has a two-hour limit, which is a problem when AU exams often take the full three hours to write. There is currently no provision for AU to provide a parking pass in order to exempt students from parking costs, so may students risk getting a fine to write an AU exam.
But the biggest concerns of AU students with their exams, at both the Calgary and Edmonton centres, were with conditions in the exam rooms, particularly at the Calgary centre. Many students voiced their displeasure with the strictness of the exam room environment. Tamra Ross finds the exam room at AU Calgary “not really conducive to doing well—the cardlock doors, no option to go to the bathroom ever, no water, no hats, you can’t even wear a removable sweater or jacket unless you promise not to remove it during the exam.” Other AU Calgary students echoed this sentiment, and wondered whether writing an exam during the summer in a room with windows that do not open, with a lack of water and no option to use the washroom facilities if needed, is a health concern that needed to be addressed. Another criticism of AU Calgary is that students must store all belongings into an outside locker and must provide their own lock; there is no option to place their belongings up against the exam room wall if they forget to bring one. Also, the AU Calgary office seems to enforce a policy that dictates only a minimum of writing materials brought into an exam. These policies leave AU students wondering why they have been put in place, especially for students who are adult learners and “beyond high school.” Several AU students theorized that perhaps these policies were adopted because of one incident of cheating on an exam. They expressed resentment that this has “ruined it for everyone.” While students conceded there will always be an element of possibility for cheating on exams no matter the environment, one AU student said that “we seem to be treated like kids.”
While similar policies are in place at AU Edmonton, this exam centre seems to be less strict. Many students have had a more pleasant experience writing exams. Washroom breaks are allowed if needed, but students are not allowed to bring a beverage into the exam room.
Aside from the exam room conditions, the biggest complaint of AU students, whether or not they write at AU centres or with invigilators, are regarding the computer keyboards used for the exam. Manuela Demian Roy’s experience is typical of many students. She says, “For the last exam, for which I had a lot of typing to do, I had to use a stupid little laptop/tablet. 15 percent of the time I spent only pressing the “backspace” and “delete” keys, to correct typos due to the keyboard, and on rewriting. I badly ran out of time, of course. Although my grade wasn’t too bad, it greatly impacted it, my mental state, and the time I had to work on the exam. I was close to tears by the end of that exam.” Students say that the keyboards at the AU Calgary and Edmonton centres leave a lot to be desired, but some computer terminals are worse than others in the same exam room. Several students said that the clunky and loud keyboards create a lot of noise, and when the room is full with no barriers such as study carrels to separate students who are all writing different exams, this can be detrimental to the concentration necessary for a successful exam. Students say that noise-cancelling headphones or earplugs would help, but they hesitate bringing them from home because they are unsure whether these would be allowed under the strict exam room polices. One student commented that he wishes he could have the choice to write a paper exam instead of a computer-based one because the paper room is so much quieter.
For those AU students who wrote with an invigilator, they said that their exam experiences were pleasant, but trying to book a slot at a mutually convenient time for both themselves and the invigilator was often problematic, especially when it came to finding childcare or getting time off work. Many students did say that their invigilation centre did their best to accommodate them and to provide the best exam experience possible, though. Deanna Roney says her exam invigilator “is so awesome. If the school is going to be busier than normal the day I am looking to book they tell me, and ask if I would prefer a quieter day so I can concentrate better. I also get my choice in offices; whichever is quieter they will set aside for me. I think I should get them a thank you.” Stephanie Winger has also had very positive experiences. “I love where I write my exams. It’s at a local small college here in town, but so far for my exams I get a huge classroom all to myself and they check on me to see if I need anything. Not to mention they have Kleenex etc. in the classroom. And the ladies are so friendly ...” However, this experience is by no means universal. Amanda Smith said that she has formally complained to her particular invigilation centre for the poor quality of the exam room. “It is no bigger than the size of a small walk in closet, zero ventilation, while the incredibly outdated computer is left running all day [which] makes for a very hot little room. The lighting was so extreme in this particular circumstance I had a terrible migraine after my three-hour, online exam. I made the comment to them “Do you guys work for the FBI? Talk about a pressure cooker situation.” She said that her complaints were well received with assurance that they would be sent to the director of the department, and hopefully improvements will be made.
The biggest complaint by AU students who have had to write an exam with an invigilator is that the cost for doing so is not covered by the AU course fee and there is wide variation in those additional costs. In an informal poll on the AU Facebook page, most respondents said that the cost was less than $50, with some public libraries charging an average of $30. Grace Makusu said that for her exams, she pays $130 per exam at the community college because the public library does not have a certified person to invigilate. If her course has a mid-term as well as a final exam, the cost per course is an additional $260. Some students even pay for a private, in-home invigilator to minimize the hassle of seeking out an invigilator in a public building, and some invigilators charge by the hour for their services rather than a flat rate. AU students who study outside of Canada may have the steepest invigilator fees and also the most limited locations to write their exams. Overseas students say that their invigilation cost per exam is between 120-150 Canadian dollars.
All students who pay the extra fees say that while they understand the additional charges, they feel that it is a bit unfair that these costs are not included in their tuition, especially when writing the final exam is not optional. They said that, in this regard, AU students are not all equal and there is a glaring discrepancy between the students who study within Alberta and those who are based elsewhere. Several students said that wherever possible, they pick courses that do not require a final exam just to save a bit on their course costs. When students must also pay for parking, childcare, and time off work, in addition to invigilation fees, the cost of writing exams over the course of a degree becomes significant.
Finding a solution that accommodates all concerns of AU students may not be easy, and no exam situation is perfect, but it would be wise for the AU administration to compare exam policies at bricks-and-mortar universities and adapt them to the AU experience. For example, the SAIT (Southern Alberta Institute of Technology) exam invigilation policy has two governing principles: First, the school recognizes that the examination process is inherently stressful and should be managed to minimize confusion and uncertainty and second, the examination environment should enable students to concentrate and demonstrate what they have learned. Their testing centre web page recognizes that: “We do our best to maintain proper testing conditions as well as provide earplugs on request. There is also access to water fountains and restrooms if required.” SAIT makes its policies regarding cheating on exams clear, but it seems to give its students a bit more benefit of the doubt when it comes to its exam policies. In contrast, the AU examination policy manual makes no mention of facilitating positive student exam experiences. (The current exam policies can be found at http://ous.athabascau.ca/policy/registry/ugexamrequest.pdf)
However, there is a positive AU policy regarding nursing mothers who write exams. According to the guidelines, which can be found at http://examservices.athabascau.ca/nursing/index.php, AU “will provide a private examination writing room for exam completion/nursing requirements, provide additional time to the student that examination completion and nursing may require, ensure the appropriate adjustments to online exams to accommodate nursing time.” This policy is welcomed and many AU students complimented the university in its accommodation of nursing mothers.
The AU Registrar’s office has not responded to a request for comment on the current exam experience, but AUSU President Shawna Wasylyshyn says that AU is working on a new pilot exam project, which AUSU is currently involved in. While she is unable to give any details at the moment, students are encouraged to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org with any specific concerns, so she can raise them in future meetings with AU.
Carla is an AU student majoring in English. She welcomes comments and discussion on her Twitter feed, @LunchBuster.