Higher Education (HE) courses’ assessment schedules can vary wildly, but January remains a popular time for coursework deadlines and exams. We spoke to a group of recent graduates about their experiences and what they think of January assessments.
After writing recently about how libraries could help stressed students staying on campus over the winter holidays, I found myself reminiscing with friends about the hectic period between the end of Christmas and the start of the new term, where I rushed to get everything learned and finished to an acceptable standard for my January assessments, while at the same time not neglecting my reading for semester two. My BA winter holidays were dominated by essay deadlines and project submissions, while my MSc had a delightful mix of this and exams right at the start of term. ‘Would you have preferred to do everything in summer, though?’ one graduate asked. ‘I wish I’d been able to spread my assessments out more, I’d have been able to plan it all much better.’
In recent years, GCSE and A Level assessments have been moving away from holding exams in January, pushing them all back to the summer period. A lot of great pieces have been written on the pros and cons of reforms like this, but I was interested in how HE students felt. Even within the same institution, different courses can have wildly different assessment schedules. What was the consensus on January deadlines? Were they horrible distractions from a much-needed Christmas break, or a crucial way to help the students plan their studying time better over the course of the year? For students who did have January assessments, I wanted to know how easy they found these to prepare for; how were they using their institution’s library services during this busy time, and did they feel their needs were being fully supported? I collected a varied group of graduates’ responses to see what they thought…
‘I didn’t mind having work due in January. We tended to get the submission dates quite far in advance and I planned to visit my family in advance too. I’d organise my studying time and make sure I had nothing urgent around Christmas. If necessary, I preferred to have a few days of cramming at the start of the new year rather than it get in the way of my Christmas. I never felt like it impacted my personal life too significantly, though. We did have quite a few exams in December which I really hated. It felt so rushed because I was still doing other modules and I couldn’t revise properly.
'The library’s online services were so important. We needed to quote a lot of research papers and I had to be able to find and refer to them easily. I wouldn’t have been able to see my family as much if I hadn’t been able to access the library’s texts remotely, but even when I was on campus I preferred to go online. It was just so much more convenient.’
'My course had exams after the Christmas holiday, which most of us spent off-campus. We had coursework due in during the first semester, though, which took some of the pressure off the holiday period. Although we could access the majority of the reading online, some was purely book-based and if we needed additional texts we would have to plan this in advance to take them from the library before breaking up for the holiday. I did sometimes find I needed last-minute additional reading, but getting hold of this from home was sometimes difficult—it required me to visit other academic libraries in London, which might not have been an option for more rurally-based classmates. On the whole, I’d say having my exams and coursework spread over both semesters was beneficial; we might have been stressed, but it’s easier to focus if you don’t have to do all your assessments at once.'
BA Media and Communications
‘We didn’t have exams in January, but we did have coursework due in then. Fortunately, all our course information was on the VLE [Virtual Learning Environment] and our library’s online services were fairly robust. I could visit my family and not feel like I was missing anything. Being able to reserve a book digitally and then picking it up in person was very helpful as well. Services like that made the experience much less stressful for students because it felt like the university understood what the problems would be when we were away from campus and helped to mitigate them.’
‘I didn’t have exams in January as an undergraduate—just coursework—so it was quite a shock when I started my master’s and had both. I managed the coursework with good organisation and taking advantage of the online library, but the exams were much trickier. It always felt like I should have done more revising, or that I was neglecting my preparatory reading for semester two. Needless to say, I didn’t have a very relaxing Christmas. Still, a master’s is only one year and you expect it to be a heavy workload. I’d strongly advise new postgraduates to plan their time meticulously because it is more stressful.’
‘Having M.E. (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) meant work and revision took longer for me to complete. This didn’t affect me over Christmas because I never really had assessments in January, but it meant everything was pushed back to summer. Every deadline seemed to come at once, with coursework due in for the first week back and exams immediately after that. The volume of work combined with my condition meant I’d often require extensions on coursework deadlines, but this still ate into the revision period. It was several months of never stopping. Going home over Easter simply wasn’t an option as although resources are steadily becoming digitised, access to the library remained essential. Not having exams in winter sounds wonderful, but—in reality—spreading deadlines out over the two periods would have eased the burden and made it easier for me to manage my time despite having M.E.’
What are your experiences in supporting students with different exam and coursework deadlines? Did your own experiences in Higher Education reflect the ones described here, or did you have to study without access to tools like online libraries and VLEs? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
About the author
Tess Pilgrim is a Digital Marketing Executive at CLA, having finished her MSc Marketing in 2016.