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Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education clarifies Trinity examinations arrangements

Following concerns raised by a number of students surrounding academic arrangements for Trinity term, Cherwell reached out to Martin Williams, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education for an interview. Emphasising the importance of open communications in the lead-up to examinations, the Pro-Vice-Chancellor agreed to an interview on all matters from examinations arrangements to teaching methods for next term.

Has the University decided on the structure of the safety net policy which will prevent students from performing markedly more poorly than expected?

(Please note that these questions were posed before the safety net was published earlier this week)

The University has now published its safety net policy, which aims to reduce the risk of students being disadvantaged by coronavirus, or circumstances surrounding the outbreak that are beyond their control. The policy applies to subjects where remote assessments take place in Trinity term (either open-book exams or longer pieces of assessed work).

Further detail about the policy and how it will be applied to individual courses will follow in the near future from departments and faculties. Given the diversity of Oxford assessment regimes, it’s been necessary to give subjects some local autonomy to do something that works for them, but divisional offices have worked hard to ensure a reasonable degree of consistency. We will not use Prelims performance or tutorial grades as safety net measures.

The University has referred to an “honour code” as well as “specialist software” to protect against cheating. What exactly does the specialist software entail, will it be anti-plagiarism or surveillance? Given the gravity of the results of final examinations, is the University concerned about students cheating in exams?

As part of our honour code students will be asked to confirm that they have understood and are willing to abide by the University’s rules on plagiarism and collusion. Further details available here.

We will also continue to make extensive use of plagiarism checkers for submitted work, and we reserve the right to conduct follow-up viva voce exams to check students’ understanding of the examined material.

A lot of thought has gone into planning the exams, and phasing them in a way that ensures the overwhelming majority of our students have no opportunity to view the paper beforehand, and that all students are aware that doing so is cheating – as is facilitating ways for others to see the paper. The penalties for cheating are extremely severe and given how hard our students have worked to get to Oxford in the first place, cheating at this stage would undercut all their efforts and jeopardise their future plans. So, the short answer is no, we are not worried about it, but we are prepared for it.

Although Oxford does account for mitigating circumstances, the examinations announcement does not seem to recognise differences in students’ working environments. Aspects like noise levels, internet connection for open-book examinations etc. will naturally impact a student’s attainment, will the University take these smaller differences into account in awarding grades for examinations?

The University is sympathetic to students experiencing difficulties studying at home and appreciates that these are unprecedented circumstances where everyone is doing the best they can. Students were asked to complete a readiness self-assessment which will really help to inform our understanding of their individual circumstances, and therefore our response to their needs. We aim to best support those who are in need of equipment to complete assessments as best we can. All students will have a further opportunity to set out the circumstances in which they sat their exams shortly after they finish, and these will be taken into account by examiners.

If students are unable to sit their examinations this summer and are unable to return to sit examinations next year, they automatically graduate with “Declared to Deserve Honours”. How will the University protect this degree classification from damaging students’ career prospects, particularly since this classification is likely to be awarded to those students who are the most disadvantaged by the COVID pandemic?

DDH has been modelled on the long-standing award which is available at Cambridge for students experiencing exceptional circumstances. Our colleagues there have shared very positive experiences of how the award is recognised for employment and further study, and we are confident that Oxford students taking this option should not be negatively affected. DDH students will also receive an enhanced reference stating their expected result, and both documents will include wording referring to their circumstances making it clear that they are in this position through no fault of their own.

We expect the vast majority of students to take the remote assessments as scheduled, unless extreme circumstances like illness or caring responsibilities, prevent them from doing so.

Students have raised concerns that the alternative assessment arrangements defer much of the decision-making to individual departments. Certain departments have reduced workloads and examination demands on students while others have maintained high workloads for this term. What guidance specifically was given to departments to direct them in adapting teaching and examination policies this term?

All subjects were asked to consider whether they could make reductions in the Trinity Term assessment load in response to the exceptional circumstances. However, the decision ultimately has to be left to individual subject boards – they have to balance workload concerns against the need to assure themselves that the course learning objectives have been met, a task that requires understanding of the subject and how it is taught and assessed. Failure to do so would reduce the value of Oxford degrees. Besides our own internal regulation of standards, we are answerable on this to external examiners, to regulatory bodies such as the Office for Students and to professional standards bodies for degrees such as Law, Medicine and Engineering.

College libraries currently have varying policies on postal loans, and the Bodleian is shut for the foreseeable future under government regulations – for certain subjects, independent study and reading constitutes a large part of regular degree work. For students carrying on with ‘normal’ but remote study, what central effort is being made to give access to materials online? For those students carrying out research that is limited to physical copies (e.g. manuscripts, archives), will missing a term’s worth of access to these materials be taken into account in next year’s final exams?

While it’s true that the Bodleian Libraries are closed in a physical capacity, and that the loss of access to archive materials irreplaceable, I think that the team are doing a fantastic job of delivering e-resources in their thousands to fill this void. There are 1.4 million resources currently available on SOLO and 60,000 eBooks in their online catalogue now, which is a phenomenal amount.

Students also have access to new webinars to support their learning and research and a Browzine feature of comprehensive journal references including over 2,700 articles.

Of course, we will not be able to make every single library resource available online, but those with a specific need that has not been met should contact the library team and see what else is available – likewise with the college library set-up. If vital texts are not available this will of course be taken into consideration in their assessments.

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