Stress & assessment Ed Talk notes

ANU students joined Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington, Head of the ANU Counselling Centre Carolyn Farrer and guest moderator Ben Gill, ANU Students’ Association (ANUSA) President, at the Brian Kenyon Student Space on Monday 20 July to discuss assessments, exams and related stress.

Question: How many exams should each student have in each semester? Students also said this data used to be published but it was discussed that this is no longer the case. Why is this happening? What can students can do if they are struggling with exam workload?

  • Marnie Hughes-Warrington: Across the University, we have noticed that the number of scheduled exams has increased and we have cases where there are more than two exams per course. The Registrar has been leading discussions on appropriate measures, which include recognition of stress on students and transport issues, such as longer exams ending after bus services stop. We are happy to look into the matter of exams reported to be longer than three hours, and it would be a good idea to have a discussion in the University Education Committee about the role and nature of exams in the University’s approach to assessment.

Question: Should students be receiving a number of take-home exams at once?

  • Marnie Hughes-Warrington: I’m very happy to talk to the Registrar about the number of take-home exams given at a time.

Question: What is the appropriate length of exams? Some students spoke of exams often exceeding three-and-a-half hours, with one student recalling a five-hour exam. What is required from students during assessment tasks?

  • Marnie Hughes-Warrington: The usual exam length at ANU is about three hours. Exams that go past four hours are unusual. If that happens, you can bring it up with ANUSA or your course convenor. I will follow this particular instance up for you.  Course assessment should reflect learning outcomes, and assessment, therefore, varies by course and across disciplines and in line with professional accreditation requirements. We will follow up with a discussion on assessment types and exams in the University Education Committee.

Question: What can be done to help students with stress caused by exams weighted 50 per cent or more? Should students receive feedback from course tutors by the time exams happen?

  • Marnie Hughes-Warrington: I don’t have definite answers about the stress level on students but after we received feedback, we introduced changes to the University Assessment Policy that mean 100 per cent weighting on exams will not happen. All students will have feedback on an assignment before the final exam. If students have not received feedback, do raise it with the course convenor. The policy is in place to ensure students do get an idea of how they are going before final exams.
  • Carolyn Farrer: It doesn’t matter what percentage the exam weighting is, the stress will still be there. For a small cohort the stress of exams will be there no matter what. It’s important that students know the expectations and we get a lot of the first year students who haven’t got their heads around things. But not getting feedback is really important.

Question: What are the best approaches to dealing with exam stress?

  • Carolyn Farrer: Exercise gets rid if the cortisol that is released through your body when you’re stressed. It is a great way to lift your mood and actually help your whole body.
  • Marnie Hughes-Warrington: Taking caffeine and stimulants in exam season is not good. Find out when is the best time of day for you to exercise and study. Some people beat themselves up when they spend a morning studying and not getting anywhere when they just aren’t morning people. It is also important to reward yourself when you are doing well.

Question: Is the best way for ANU to conduct exams through open or closed book exams? Are exams are needed at all?

  • Marnie Hughes-Warrington: One of the challenges in determining the best way forward is that most research into this area has a small sample size. One of the areas we’re currently debating is how we deal with smart watches in exam situations. However, that assumes exams will look the same forever. Internationally, the best kind of assessment seems to be one that students can retain the information and apply. Getting the relationship between the assessment and its associated outcomes is important.


Question: Students spoke of the recently-reformed ANU special considerations process. Why is a three-day extension applicable?

  • Marnie Hughes-Warrington: We’ve centralised the special consideration because views and opinions varied so much across colleges about what circumstance required what extension. We are trying to make sure people are treated more fairly. In rare cases, people aren’t honest with us so we have to balance this out. If you’re unhappy with the treatment given, you can raise an appeal about the final grade by talking to the Dean of Students.
  • Carolyn Farrer: The three-day rule is there for acute cases. If the illness is something more serious, other time limits will apply.

Question: What is the required level of oversight in non-invigilated assessments?

  • Marnie Hughes-Warrington: A course convenor can come up with a spot test and call it an exam. This is perfectly reasonable and is allowed. However, all exams managed centrally should be in exam conditions. This includes an adequate amount of space, natural light and the appropriate comfort conditions. Where it becomes interesting is the prospect of invigilated online courses. Some course convenors are looking at these options. We are actively looking at possible solutions but we’re not there yet.

Question: Education Access Plans allow students with a disability to be fully included in ANU life. Why are students regularly asked about their disability status?

  • Marnie Hughes-Warrington: People’s needs do vary over time so this is often part of the University’s engagement with these students. It may sound like we do not value disability in its permanency but it’s actually about us wanting to talk to you about your individual situation on a regular basis.

Question: What resources does ANU provide its staff on disability awareness training? Are there any statistics that show the number of staff who have undertaken this training?

  • Marnie Hughes-Warrington: Pro Vice-Chancellor (Student Experience) Richard Baker is working with staff on disability awareness training. I think it’s important that all staff do this training: I did it and I found it fantastically helpful.. There are no statistics on this topic. The number of students disclosing disability has grown at ANU but the Federal Government’s funding arrangements on students with a disability have not. We would like to work with ANUSA to raise awareness of this lack of funding.
  • Carolyn Farrer: The Education Access Plan process is one of the big areas of reform where we’ve had great success over the last few years. Up until a few years ago, many staff didn’t know what it was. The process is not perfect yet but I do think there’s an increased awareness of that process.
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