Preparing for Online Physics Exams
Exams are always intimidating but last year, the added stresses of uncertainty and inexperience in the online setting were enough to dwarf everything else for me. I now know there is nothing wrong with online exams but when you have spent all of your time in education this far learning and perfecting techniques for taking exams in person, it’s a bit of a shock to suddenly have everything staring back at you from the screen.
That was my situation last year but now, armed with the experience of a year’s exams sat and passed, it’s worth reflecting on approaches to online exams and how they differ from the usual exam hall experience.
In physics last year, I had two of my earliest second year exams as Moodle quizzes. These were a nightmare! They sounded as if they should be easier given that they had some multiple choice sections and forced a lot of the answers to be short form but not having the opportunity to show working in maths based questions and having to struggle with inputting in the correct format just added to the stress.
Fortunately, for my exams this year, the physics department have abandoned the Moodle quizzes and made all of the exams Files Based Open Book Exams like the later exams of Summer 2020 were. For these exams, you simply write down your answers on a sheet of paper like you would normally and then either scan in or photograph your answers at the end.
These worked much better in my opinion and I think it bodes well to see that the department have clearly learnt and adapted as, quite understandably, the process was not perfect at the first attempt.
The other major change that I am aware of in the physics department (though this is not the same for every department) this year is that the 24 hour window in which to do the exams is now gone. Each physics exam will have to be started at the scheduled time whereas last year we could start later in the day if we didn’t quite feel ready first thing in the morning. Typically physics exams will begin at 9:00 or 14:00 so make sure you are aware of the start time before the exam day comes around so that you can get yourself mentally prepared.
I sympathise with international students who are going to have to contest with different time zones but I am definitely relieved that this will make the possible methods of cheating much more difficult. A lot of people I spoke to last year were concerned about this and I think, despite it being nice to be able to start the exam at any point in the day, this is a good thing overall.
Unless your department have informed you otherwise, you still get 45 mins at the end of your online assessment in the Alternative Exams Portal to upload files. That’s in addition to any extra time that you might have if you are a student with reasonable adjustments already agreed with the university.
So, that’s how I’m expecting exams to look this year but how did I prepare last year and will I change it for this year?
For the most part, I’m going into exams much the same as last year. I’ll make sure that my computer is logged on to the Alternative Exams Portal well in advance just to convince myself that there are no issues there. I’ll set out my notes and any relevant textbooks to one side of my desk. I’ll lay out my stationery and make sure I have a healthy supply of paper before I begin (just to be safe) and then try and treat it as much like an in-person exam as possible.
I also liked to have my clock up on my computer but also an alarm set on my phone (just as a back up) so that I didn’t accidentally overrun. I think this is something that could very easily happen if you forget to take it into account so just remember to do this before hand and it will all go smoothly.
That’s on the day of (and perhaps also the evening before) the exam but I also changed how I approached revision last year to try and tailor it to the new examinations.
I focused on making sure my notes were well organised and more detailed than normal. Given that these are open book exams, I wanted to give myself every advantage. I always write out a new set of notes during revision (despite people saying it’s not the most efficient method) as I find that re-writing gives me a chance to process them again as they go down on paper but it was even more important last year.
I organise my notes by lecture and in each module make myself a contents page with a brief summary of each lecture so that, in the time pressure of the exams, I can quickly find a specific section. I also added to my notes (written out in black ink at first) with red edits as I tried to do past paper questions and found my notes lacking in some places.
But it’s also important not to become complacent in learning given that you know you’ll have your notes to hand. You won’t have time to look up every last detail or step in a question so make sure you are still confident in your knowledge and use notes just as a supplemental tool.
And that brings me on to the second part of my revision process. In physics the best thing you can do is practice. Practice, practice, practice!
It’s so useful to familiarise yourself with the questions. At A Level and GCSE I found that by doing past papers I could almost predict the exact format of the questions that would come up. At undergraduate level, it’s not quite so simple. You will have to put more thought into how you approach a problem but by going through past papers (even if they were sat in-person) you can learn tricks and techniques to at least get you started on a question and then it’s often just a case of following through your method to the end.
In physics you can normally find at least the past five years of exams through the university or through Moodle pages for specific modules. Go through as many as you can and make sure you can follow through the answers afterwards.
If nothing else, practicing like this should give you confidence. In every module this year lecturers have taken the time to point out that there won’t be any bookwork questions such as definitions or derivations that could just be copied down directly from the notes. When these come up in past papers, they’re still worth doing but just know that they are very unlikely to come up in the actual exam. Later questions in the paper will normally be more like what we have been told to expect the actual questions to be like so I would advise focussing on understanding these if you are forced to be more efficient with your revision time.
These are the types of questions that really require a little bit more time and effort but are built on the same basic principles. Problems sheets are also a very common resource in physics modules and well worth looking at. In problems sheet questions you will often be pushed (even slightly beyond exam standard a lot of the time) so they are another great resource for practicing and perfecting technique.
It’s worth mentioning as well that last year the university offered a couple of example exams to familiarise students with the format. I found these quite stressful even though I knew they didn’t count for anything because I still panicked that I hadn’t answered the questions well enough.
That being said, I do also think that these were useful in making sure my exam set up at home would be okay for accessing the papers, writing out answers and then uploading afterwards. This whole routine became very familiar by the end of the exam period but I’m glad to have had this early trial run just to work out how exactly I would scan in and save my answers afterwards.
I would definitely advise working out your uploading method in advance just so that there aren’t any last minute panics while the clock is ticking.
Overall, yes the exams were different last year but I think the biggest challenges were setting myself up and getting in the right headspace to work from home rather than the different style of exam questions. I didn’t think they were all too different from questions in past papers and it was a relatively pain free experience.
I know that this is probably a concern for many people right now but the key is not to panic. Know that everyone else is in the same position and if you prepare yourself well, know the content and practice the questions, you should be absolutely fine. The university are aware of the challenges we are facing so I would say that it is also worth getting in touch with the department (e.g. through you personal tutor) if anything goes wrong.
Online exams are different but just think of the advantages. You are in your own space, don’t have to worry about being late because you were stuck in traffic and you can set up your workspace the day before just to be prepared. You’ll be okay!