My first remote exam experience

This week I was due to be sat in a large hall with about 200 other Open University students taking my exam for module M347, the last of the modules for the BSc in Mathematics I started for “fun1. As with students in traditional universities, March 2020 gave a lot of uncertainty2. While some modules were switched to be coursework based assessment, mine was confirmed to be a remote exam with the originally planned exam paper. The paper would be accessible as a PDF on the day of the exam and then submitted in two parts: a multiple choice computer marked section and then a human marked second section. We would not be time limited (other than by the 24 hours in the day!) So how did I feel about this and how did it go?

If you’ve been following this blog over the past few years then you’ll know how much work and general life have both got in the way of my study, so I’ve always gone into the revision period feeling unprepared and overcome this with as many past papers as I could get my hands on in the days before the exam. This has usually worked out well for me – the slight pressure of having to have all this information in my head has helped me focus. This time, despite being at home and with no work responsibilities other than looking for a new role, it would have seemed I had all the time in the world to prepare well. Sadly not.

Home schooling my daughter is still taking large amounts of the day, job interviews via video conferences were scheduled throughout, and I found myself struggling to focus because of the lack of pressure. I started playing World of Warcraft (Classic) again – the one thing that I’d stopped doing to start this whole degree! The weekend before the exam I spent creating a simple neural network in an esoteric programming language just because it was a fun thing to do. The lack of pressure completely removed motivation until a few days before. Then my natural instincts kicked in.

I did 3 past papers and the specimen paper for the course, and marked using the model answers I had. I hid myself away in my study with headphones to drown out the constant construction noise coming from our neighbours, which has been low grade torture from 8am until 2pm 7 days a week3. One of my cats objected to this situation and started hurling herself at the door and making the wailing noise that only cats can make until I let her in. She then proceeded to sit on my work and wash herself.

Dot “helping” – she did this on both the past papers and the actual exam. Probably a good reason there wasn’t a strict time limit else I may have had to submit an exception for cat-wrangling šŸ™‚

The night before the exam I had a plan: I knew the paper would be available at midnight so I thought I would get it as it was released and print it. Have a gentle read through to make sure it was all there and it followed the same format as previous exams, get some sleep, then start it with a fresh head about 9am the next day get it done quickly and submit before the inevitable end of the day rush4. It’s good to have a plan, but it’s also good to accept that plans hardly ever turn out šŸ™‚

At midnight, the paper appears and I printed it. All good. I checked that I could access the computer marked section. Then my daughter was awake and was too hot to go back to sleep, so spent some time settling her. Had a quick read of the paper, all good. Tried to go to sleep. My daughter would not settle and kept asking for drinks/biscuits. It was 1.40am by the time I got to sleep, having already pushed back my alarm to 9am for a 10am start.

5.30am I was wide awake. I don’t think anything had woken me up particularly. I was still tired, but could not get back to sleep and had that awful decision of getting up knowing I’d be tired, or spending the time to try and get back to sleep knowing that I’d sleep in a lot later than I’d like. I decided to get up.

Tea in hand, cats fed and let out, I went into my study and made a start. Immediately it felt weird doing an exam in my pyjamas and dressing gown, it also felt like I was doing revision rather than an actual exam. I took the first few questions slowly and was glad I did. I was getting answers that didn’t seem right, and on checking discovered some wayward minus signs. I decided to stop for a bit.

Another tea and some breakfast later, I could feel my brain-fog clearing and went back to it, immediately spotting further mistakes. As I’ve mentioned before, doing maths while sleeping is not a sensible idea!

Then I started treating it like a normal exam…. except when I didn’t. Getting up to make a fresh cup of tea or coffee and pausing to eat proper food rather than “exam table snacks” was great. As was being able to listen to music, get up and stretch my legs, and transition my desk to its standing position. What was less good was the constant construction noises from next door, my cats meowing to be let in and then eating the exam paper or just sitting on it, my daughter asking for snacks, and all the other little interruptions you just don’t get in an exam hall. Taking out all the pauses and distractions (including the formatting of the handwritten part for submission which I did in OneNote just like the normal TMAs), I think I did it in the normal allotted 3 hours. I’m not sure whether I prefer the traditional experience or being able to do exams remotely – all the benefits of being at home seem equally matched by the negatives!

I do know that my heart goes out to anyone taking any exam from home where they don’t have a dedicated space where they can shut the door and focus.

Results are out late July and then I’ll need to think about what is next… More maths or a different subject entirely?

  1. Also because while I’m pretty well self taught there are always gaps that a formal course will fill in.
  2. If you don’t know why then this blog has survived something even the first 6 months of 2020 hasn’t prepared us for!
  3. First world problems I know, but seriously how many times do they need to drill holes in the adjoining wall?
  4. Also my daughter had a Zoom Brownie Guide meeting scheduled at 6pm which involved marshmallows and flames and I needed to be out of the study for that!

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Dr Janet is a Molecular Biochemistry graduate from Oxford University with a doctorate in Computational Neuroscience from Sussex. Iā€™m currently studying for a third degree in Mathematics with Open University. During the day, and sometimes out of hours, I work as a Chief Science Officer. You can read all about that on my LinkedIn page.

10 thoughts on “My first remote exam experience”

  1. Congrats on completing your degree Janet. I’m sure you’ll be back for more. The remote exam is quite an interesting one.

  2. Hi Janet. I’ve just finished my MST124 remote exam two hours ago and am now debating whether to study a physics or a second maths module as my last level-1 module. That’s how I found your blog, which is hugely interesting, and it has made me want to study a lot more maths. On an abstract level, I tend more towards physics/chemistry subjects, but the introductory science module S111 was too wordy and not mathsy enough for my taste. Being a literary researcher in my day-job, I don’t want to write essays during my free time. Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that your blog was very stimulating, motivating and inspiring. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that your last exam went well, and I hope to get there one day (in the far future) too!

    1. Glad you have enjoyed the blog šŸ™‚ Sounds like you’d be better off with more maths and then pick up Physics later – coming at the Physics from the maths side felt a lot easier than some fellow students who’d taken the Physics route to level 3, but I think it depends on your other modules and previous knowledge too. Hope your exam went well too and I am sure you will get to the end.

  3. Congrats on finishing up the course! I just took the M303 exam and I agree that the positives of at-homeness just about balanced out the negatives. One of those “negatives” was lack of closure on the day itself – I felt like I had to check and re-check my exam because it would be reckless not to, so I sat there re-doing problems. Ok, this is actually a luxury, but I didn’t get that “high” of walking out the exam room and being done.

    How did you find M347 in the end? I am going to take it next I think but it has some worrying reviews so I feel some trepidation.

    1. hi – I completely agree about the lack of closure! I forced myself to walk away from it after I’d checked everything and I didn’t want to be submitting it last minute šŸ™‚ As for the course itself I found it good – it goes more into the theory than M248 (which I hadn’t done). I found it fairly straight forward as I do data science and statistics as a day job so it’s hard to judge as someone coming completely fresh to the material. I think the comments are fair – it’s hard if the topics are new to you and you will need calculus, which some students from a more statistical pathway may not have. The exam was fair and representative of previous years. I have no complaints – it just wasn’t as exciting as some of the other modules – but definitely good statistical theory šŸ™‚ Hope this helps.

      1. Thanks Janet, that’s really helpful.

        I am pretty torn to be honest – I work with ML research types in my job as a product manager, and I have been working towards getting a good “under the hood” understanding of what they do, and so consequently I was planning on taking M373 (Optimization) and M347. But I must admit I have accidentally “fallen” for the pure stuff and I am considering doing Complex Analysis instead…

        I’m fairly sure the latter won’t actually be useful to me, but I just find the process of pure mathematics so satisfying and worth it for its own sake, and that seems like a rare thing.

      2. 100% do what you enjoy šŸ™‚ For ML, the concepts you learn in M347 are all abstracted into libraries if that helps with our choice šŸ™‚

  4. Thanks for sharing your experiences throughout your degree. It’s been very helpful; there are useful insights here that just aren’t to be found elsewhere.

    I’m currently in the revision phase of MST125 Essential Mathematics 2, which is a remote exam this year. Rather than 24 hours though, we get 4.5 hours; nominally 3 hours for the exam and 1.5 hours for scanning and uploading etc, although we’re allowed to use that time as we like.

    Did your remote exam result(s) come out as you’d expected? Or were marks adjusted beyond all recognition? I worked so hard to get every last mark I could in the assignments, but I can’t shake the feeling that it might be moot, if exam marks end up being standardised down considerably. I’d love to hear your insights.

    1. Hi Dan – that’s interesting that they’ve changed the exam format – I suppose that now that the processes are streamlined they can be more precise in the exam timings – something for everyone to be aware of going forward!

      As for the results, at level three most people got what they were expecting based on how they’d done in the TMAs or other exams. Normally the statistics by question are published after the exam and nothing is adjusted unless there are errors in the questions. But we only got the final mark this time so it’s impossible to tell if there were any adjustments or not. There certainly wasn’t the sense of marks being adjusted down. If you are concerned at all – reach out to your tutor and they should be able to let you know if there are any plans to standardise the results to an expected bell curve…

      Best of luck for it!

      Getting as many marks as possible in your TMAs is a great approach – the only piece of advice I would give is do as many past papers as you can so you are comfortable with the time limits

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