I rarely handwrite exams. I’ve done so once or twice, but they’re not the kind of knowledge assessment that I’m used to as a second-year book and media studies student at U of T. Instead, I usually type my exams.

If I’m asked to answer multiple-choice questions on Quercus from my home or submit any kind of assignment, this poses no problem apart from minor procrastination. But I, like many of my peers, have trouble with many aspects of traditional in-person learning. 

It’s not uncommon for a student to express discontent with the old-fashioned pen-and-paper giant lecture hall. Upon hearing about a month ago that a midterm for one of my classes would be in person with no aids permitted, I felt a deep, wrenching dread within. Particularly now, as preparations for final examinations menacingly creep over our weary shoulders, this feeling of dread is familiar. 

But what I’ve experienced isn’t a normal dread related to, say, writing an essay on a topic I’m mildly unpassionate about when I’d rather be doing anything else. It isn’t the same dread someone’s grandmother probably felt 60 years ago, when she sat in her 5:00 pm lecture at Sidney Smith Hall as her professor told her class the date of her final examination. This dread is different — it’s the shock of the unknown in a digitally dependent world. My academic dependence on technology leaves me with the overwhelming feeling that I’m just getting by. 

Our cultural environment is completely different from what surrounded generations before us. Furthermore, our environment actively changes the way we think and react to our surroundings. Factors like the internet, modern technology, and a long-standing pandemic have drastically altered the way we see the world. So how do we balance these changes as U of T students? 

Moving past memorization in our exams 

The classic university setup depends on memorization; traditional methods of testing place heavy reliance on this skill. Now, we’re able to rely on it a little less, thanks to digital learning advancements.

While we seem to be straying from an overarching dependence on memorization in our learning environments, the need for it surpasses just academics. Memorization skills are an important component of our lives as students, friends, peers, and individuals. Say you’re at the grocery store, trying to determine how many ingredients to buy when cooking dinner for friends. You don’t have to search eight multiplied by nine on a calculator — I still know the multiplication tables up to 12 off the top of my head thanks to that poster my parents made me hang up in my room. I know how to tell time, and I know the alphabet. These basic skills require memorization, so it’s hard to argue that we can eradicate it entirely. One aspect of in-person learning we can get rid of — and maybe it is for the better — is unnecessary memorization in the classroom.

According to Fraser Institute senior fellow Michael Zwaagstra’s “The Decline of Standardized Testing in Canada,” this is the exact reason why written standardized tests do not have the same value as they did decades ago: these tests place less emphasis on subject-specific knowledge today when compared to alternate learning methods. 

Further proving Zwaagstra’s argument is Ben Orlin’s “When Memorization Gets in the Way of Learning,” published in The Atlantic in 2013. In the piece, Orlin, who is a high school teacher in California, writes that there are two methods to memorize information: repeatedly reciting a fact or using mnemonics,  songs, acronyms, or rhymes. Neither of these methods, Orlin writes, solve the underlying problem as “they still bypass real conceptual learning.”

Instead, Orlin recommends academic exercises that repeatedly reference and integrate the information that students are attempting to memorize. As an example, Orlin references writing a poem about Robert Frost’s poem, “Once by the Pacific,” and memorizing the poem by dissecting the meaning of each of its lines. 

Students know exactly where and when their tests will be, explains Orlin, “so it’s easy to cram.” Students are also aware of other factors, like that their exam or test will be time sensitive, so they should memorize in advance. They know that certain midterms or tests will only address the most recent lecture rather than material taught at the beginning of the semester, and they know that, because instructors and teaching assistants often grade a high volume of tests at once, they’ll most likely ask factual and computational questions, a case in which “memorization most pays off.”

Orlin’s solution calls for exams that allow for cheat sheets, which he argues will transform memorization-based questions like, “Why did the Confederacy use Richmond as its capital for most of the Civil War?” to “Did [the student] remember to jot this down on [their] page of notes?” This way, Orlin argues, students will be encouraged to read over their lecture notes again, often learning about the “why” in a relaxed setting instead of regurgitating information on written exams, which does not equal to retaining that information.

Paolo Granata, an associate professor of book and media studies at U of T, believes in balance. While he acknowledged the importance of memorization in an email to The Varsity, his final assessments “always balance content knowledge and experiential learning.” Moreover, he outlined the importance of intertwining the skills that we are taught in academic evaluations.

Granata added that, although memorization-based assignments are “an essential aspect of learning,” they can negatively affect student learning and understanding. These assignments “often require students just to mix and remix information… rather than truly understanding and internalizing it,” he explained.

Jayda Abdel-Latif, a second-year student at UTM, agrees. In an email to The Varsity, Abdel-Latif wrote that course assessments that allow the use of aids “are harder than no aids” because they “actually [prove] that [students] can critically apply information to a question and analyze it.”

The written, memorization-based assessment can only go so far. It should be considered a component of learning but often gets misinterpreted as the definition of it. Our learning systems were built on a reliance on memorization. However, as important as it traditionally has been, there are a multitude of ways we learn as a digital generation, so it’s necessary to take advantage of the tools we’re given.

Accessibility in the digital classroom

Technological advancements in the classroom help make learning more accessible. At U of T, students can register with Accessibility Services, a team that, per their website, “assists in navigating disability-related barriers” to students’ academic success, and “[provides] services and supports for learning, problem solving and inclusion.” In the 2021–2022 academic year, 5,730 U of T students registered with Accessibility Services.

To learn more about how Canadian universities can offer more accessible learning assessments, The Varsity spoke to Eyra Abraham, the founder and CEO of Lisnen Inc. Lisnen Inc. is an artificial intelligence (AI) company that aims to develop AI to benefit those with disabilities at home and in their workplace. 

Abraham is hard of hearing, and engages with technology and accessibility daily in her workplace. She provided me with a retrospective view of her undergraduate days as a McGill computer science student, speaking on her experiences with accessibility and technology.

Her first encounter with accommodation services happened when she felt she wasn’t succeeding in her courses. When writing exams, her requests for her university’s accessibility services mainly included a need for a smaller assessment room.

“Using new technology in classrooms, [while] there’s no soundproof wall [or] auditorium, [makes] it very difficult for people with hearing loss,” she added.

According to U of T’s Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation, the university has set up Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a framework that “promotes inclusive practices that work to increase accessibility by reducing barriers (physical and cognitive)” and “[builds] sustaining and evolving learning environments for all learners.”

One of the UDL’s guidelines is to “offer alternatives for auditory information”; in this guideline, the organization recommends that classrooms use speech-to-text technologies or captions, use American Sign Language, or display visual representations of information. To help students who have trouble processing visual information, the UDL recommends providing textual or auditory descriptions for all graphics; using “touch equivalents,” such as objects of reference, to represent key concepts; and providing spacial models to convey perspective or interaction.

Additionally, the university adopted the University Facility Accessibility Design Standards from the Ontario College of Art and Design University as an accessibility standards framework, which U of T follows in accordance with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disability Act (AODA). The AODA is an Ontario law that guarantees non discrimination towards individuals with disabilities.

When it comes to taking exams, U of T’s Accommodated Testing Services provides on-campus assessment accommodations for students with disabilities who are enrolled in in-class courses at UTSG. According to their website, these accessible features could include “adaptive technology,” “ergonomic furniture,” and “alternate print formats”; however, students must be registered with Accessibility Services to access these accommodations “on a per-assessment basis.”

Without attention paid to accessibility, Abraham explained, it can take people with disabilities a lot longer to access and benefit from necessary academic materials. “At the university level, your professor [is an] academic who has expertise in a particular field,” Abraham said. “That also makes it very challenging [because] they may not be aware of ways to make learning more accessible.”

Traditional and digital: Finding a balance

These days, it can feel like the pressure to surrounding ourselves with technology seems imminent, but we can depend on traditional methods of learning and new developments in technology in unison. 

In first year, I was shocked when one of my professors described the lengthy process of going to the library and finding the catalog card for a desired book, then actually finding the book. I had never realized there was once a need for catalog cards. But why would I? Many of us will complete our university degree while never taking out a book at Robarts — all because we have the resources to support our schooling online. 

My feelings aren’t out of the ordinary; according to the 2020 study titled “Providing Online Exams for Online Learners: Does It Really Matter for Them?” published by the Education and Information Technologies, “Online exams have started to become a preferred method of assessment in both online and traditional learning environments.” 

It’s not just students who agree that online assessments should be used; in their book Teaching for Quality Learning at University, John Biggs and Catherine Tang argue for the concept of “constructive alignment,” which promotes establishing coherence between all phases of the learning process. Biggs and Tang argue that all elements of the learning process, which includes assessment tasks and grading, should support one another. Therefore, according to Biggs and Tang, the online tools regularly used for teaching should be a regular part of students’ examination process.

“Maximizing learning while minimizing cheating: New evidence and advice for online multiple-choice exams,” a 2020 study published in Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, suggested that the multiple-choice exams post-COVID led to reductions in learning outcomes. However, a later study conducted by the same researchers concluded that students scored much higher when exams were online and had no time limit. 

These statistics suggest that perhaps an online format is not the most important factor when considering the ‘traditional exam’ replacement. But online exams do provide opportunities for helping students in ways that in-person exams cannot. While research has indicated that no major discrepancy exists between online test results versus traditional exams, an article published in The John Hopkins News-Letter described how students experience a decrease in anxiety when taking tests online, as compared to in-person exams.

In each of my lectures, I’m surrounded by a sea of notetakers frantically inscribing as much as possible onto their tablets, their styluses barely keeping up with the professor’s speed. I see this as a benefit of technology: faster notetaking leads to less stressed students, who might be able to focus more on what the professor is saying rather than copying down lecture slides. Additionally, technology enables economic accessibility in academics through cheaper or free textbooks and readings, and lecture slides that are posted online for students who can’t make it to class. Students unable to attend lectures can still pass courses if attendance isn’t graded and lecture slides are accessible.  

In the drastic shift to a digitally dependent environment, it’s vital to remember the practices we were brought up on — finding that balance between the traditional and the digital is essential.

It would be ridiculous to be against something that can help people succeed in an academic setting. Students each want to succeed in their own ways, and this means taking advantage of technological advancements in the classroom that ensure that a lot of us actually can. I love being able to find all my library sources on my computer. I love submitting essays at home, rather than printing it out in a crisp plastic folder with a carefully written out title page. I love annotating slides on a tablet, rather than frantically transcribing everything my professor says until my hand grows numb. But I think it’s about balance: at the end of the day, I’ll still carry a notebook around.