Is memorizing without understanding considered as learning

Online exams: interpret knowledge instead of learning it by heart

The folding seats creak under the weight of dozens of test specimens, sheets of paper are handed out, a supervisor checks that only every second seat is occupied. Then it is a matter of retrieving what you have learned, answering questions, ticking multiple-choice answers. What was normal for generations of students in the exam phase has been a rarity for many since the pandemic.

In contrast to lectures and seminars, many universities resist moving the exams one-to-one to the Internet despite Corona. The fear that the students will cheat or turn it into group work is too great.

Therefore, many faculties are relying on new exam formats for which aids and more time are expressly allowed. For example, so-called open book exams and essays replace the classic lecture exams. With the former, students are allowed to use their learning materials or internet sources. In the case of the latter, they have to give a scientific opinion on an open question.

With the form, the demands on the examinees also change: While lecture exams have so far been largely about reproducing knowledge learned by heart, students now have to deal critically and argumentatively with the material, says Alan Ross, historian at the Institute for Educational Science at the University of Vienna .

New learning behavior

"That definitely has a positive effect on learning behavior," says Ross. In distance learning, the students would increasingly be required to acquire the material independently and practically. For example, being able to work with certain theories is more important than just knowing the abstract definition. And if you know how to research and apply learning content quickly, you will also learn more sustainably.

The stronger focus on independence, research and argumentation can also be helpful when starting a job, says Bernhard Wundsam. He is the managing director of Uniport, the career service of the University of Vienna, and says: "The job interview alone usually convinces the person who can argumentatively combine their experience and knowledge with the position." And if someone can present their points of view authentically, conclusively and rhetorically convincingly, it will be easier for them on the job.

The new types of exams can help especially students who are afraid of exams. After all, almost a third suffer from it, according to the student social survey in 2019. "The most important thing is enough time to think about it in order to alleviate the fear," says Franz Oberlehner, head of the psychological student counseling in Vienna. But even with oral exams via video call, fear can be reduced: "The distance means you are less emotionally exposed." So if you don't sit directly in front of the examiner, you feel more secure and panic is less likely.

But that does not mean that students who are afraid of exams will generally benefit from the pandemic. "It always depends on how high the pressure is otherwise," says Oberlehner. This has increased enormously, especially in everyday life, the third lockdown is a problem for many. The isolation makes students more susceptible to anxiety and less able to concentrate and prepare for exams. "About a third are going under and can't get out of their pajamas - and the trend is rising," warns the psychologist. These students are often so desperate that they can no longer take any exams - regardless of the form.

Passed more exams

Most examinees accept the new exam formats well, practice shows. At the University of Innsbruck, Vice Rector Bernhard F├╝genschuh is pleased about the "very positive" feedback. In the previous summer semester, almost 40 percent more exams were taken than in the previous year. Overall, the students are therefore much more active in their exams - but according to F├╝genschuh, the reasons cannot yet be classified. Even after the pandemic, teachers who prefer to test digitally will be given technical and didactic support.

At the University of Vienna, too, one observes that many students are more actively pursuing their study plans again. Here, the number of studies in which exams were taken rose by 1.5 percent. In view of the changed framework conditions, this is a considerable increase, according to the Vice Rector.

After the pandemic, exams on paper and in the classroom will largely return, says educational historian Ross. Tried and tested formats such as open books or essays would, however, very likely be continued. But: "Universities are sluggish," says Ross. He does not assume that there will be a fundamental reform. (Tobias Mayr, March 5, 2021)