"In-person exams are essential for ETH Zurich"

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Photograph: ETH Zürich
Photograph: ETH Zürich

Online teaching has been the dominant feature of the Autumn Semester curriculum. Only three weeks remain before exams start. Hermann Lehner, Head of Academic Services, explains why sitting exams in person at ETH is so important, and the relevant arrangements.

Mr Lehner, the high incidence of Covid-19 cases in Switzerland has forced the university to switch almost exclusively to online teaching in the Autumn Semester. Will students sit exams remotely as well?
As in the summer, a whole series of examinations will be held online, including many end-of-semester exams and others which are normally written exams. Oral examinations will also be held remotely if necessary, to accommodate the circumstances of the candidate or examiner - should they belong to a vulnerable group, for example. For the written session exams, however, it is essential that candidates attend in person.

Why does ETH require students to sit the exams in person?
Firstly, because we want to be able to make a fair assessment of their performance, but we also want to be sure that actual learning attainment is accurately assessed, to keep up quality standards.

What do you mean by fairness in this context?
Many session exams are a "high stakes" test for candidates - in many cases, students must pass them in order to continue their studies at ETH. It is therefore essential for us to create a carefully controlled exam setting to ensure all students are given an equal opportunity to show what they have learnt.

And which particular learning attainments are you trying to assess?
In theory it would be possible to hold written examinations online, as other universities have already done this summer. Even if the vast majority of students abide by the rules, we have seen a strong temptation to improve results through technical aids or by consulting fellow students. Our responsibility is to prevent this as much as possible - which is all part of ensuring fairness. Above all, we must be able to guarantee the gold standard of an ETH qualification. We do actually use various proctoring solutions to monitor candidates, as in the case of the end-of-semester exams I mentioned earlier. But with session exams, with so many candidates, the results produced by remote assessment would fall short of our quality criteria.

If students have to sit exams in person, lots of people will be present in the same room. Is that allowed under current FOPH regulations?
Examinations are an integral part of the teaching curriculum. In-person exams are admissible if the goal is to assure a high standard of education. Obviously a rigorously applied protection protocol is essential for this. The exam session last summer was a good test run for the coming winter session - we are now well prepared. If students were prevented from sitting exams for this session in person, many of them would lose a year of study. That’s something we want to avoid under any circumstances.

Let’s talk about the safety protocol. Can you describe it for us?
It’s basically the same concept that worked so well in the summer, with staggered starting times for exams to stop all students arriving on campus at the same time, and buffer zones in front of entrances so that physical distancing rules can always be maintained. Obviously, these distancing rules must be followed in the examination rooms as well. But a new rule applies this winter: everyone must wear a mask on campus, even during examinations. We appreciate that wearing a mask during exams can be uncomfortable, but it does not disadvantage people if worn correctly.

Hermann Lehner has been Head of Academic Services at ETH Zurich since 1 July 2020. He received his doctorate in computer science in 2011 and was also President of the student association of computer science. Since 2016 he has been a lecturer at the Department of Computer Science and is study coordinator. In addition to his teaching activities, he developed the innovative learning platform "Code Expert", which is used by students from almost all departments.

One of the exemptions in the summer examinations included the annulment of failed performance assessments. Will the same rule apply for the coming exam session?
Unfortunately I have to disappoint many students here. The Rector passed this exceptional measure for the summer exams after teaching had to be switched online virtually overnight last spring. This disrupted the entire routine of students no longer able to come to campus to study. At the time of the decision, however, it was also totally unclear whether certain study modules, such as laboratory teaching, could be repeated. The purpose of this measure was to encourage students to continue their education as far as possible, despite the difficult circumstances and the associated uncertainties. We are in a totally different situation now. Even before registration for the Autumn Semester, it was clear that a large proportion of teaching events would be online, and the university also warned that there could well be another switch to online teaching in future. We are now in a controlled study environment and have developed a broad offering of advice and support tailored specifically to the current situation. As things stand, automatically rescinding failed performance assessments would give students an unfair advantage over previous and future cohorts.

It is likely, however, that some students will not be able to attend exams because they are in quarantine. How will ETH treat these students? Will they be able to resit the exam?
In fact, the Rector’s Office has already received several queries from concerned students and a petition has also been submitted demanding resits in these circumstances. We fully appreciate the dilemma. It’s certainly not a problem for oral exams - they can be held remotely. End-of-semester examinations are also often conducted online. Furthermore, in many cases it is possible to repeat the exam at the start of the Spring Semester. But due to the fairness considerations already explained, we cannot convert written session exams into oral exams for individual students, as it would effectively create an unfair advantage: a half-hour oral exam cannot provide the level of detailed measurement provided by a written performance assessment lasting several hours. In addition, organisational aspects make it impossible to offer an equivalent written substitute exam in the same session. Compiling a written examination takes two to three weeks full-time work - time we simply do not have.

What advice would you give to students sitting exams this winter?
Whatever happens, we want to make sure no students turn up for exams who have Covid symptoms or have to be in quarantine. We therefore urge all students to avoid unprotected contact with others in the run-up to examinations. In other words, to follow the same advice given by the federal government to all households for the festive season, so that families can celebrate together. However, if someone has to self-isolate or shows symptoms, they can deregister from individual exams up to an hour before the start without too much red tape or having to provide written evidence in support. One exception here is so-called exam blocks, where students must pass the full set of exams. If someone has to go into quarantine for 10 days over the course of the four-week exam session and is only able to complete some of the exams in the block, those completed will be credited, while the rest can be repeated later on the resit date.

Finally, let’s take a look back: How did the exam session go last summer?
In summary: very well overall. It was a huge effort to get the safety protocol up and running, but it paid off. Despite the difficult circumstances during the semester and the rules on exemptions for failed attempts, a similar number of students sat exams as in previous years. The results achieved were also on a par with past years. We even noticed that in some cases students managed to prepare for exams more successfully because more teaching materials (videos, documentation, etc.) were available, allowing better planning. Overall there is therefore no evidence that the quality of knowledge transfer and study in general has suffered.

Roland Baumann