Will Online Exams Completely Take Over?

With the recent announcement by the AMEB that the May Written series will be abolished, leaving candidates with only one option per year for sitting a ‘traditional’ face to face written exam, it seems that online exams are being embraced with such force that they may be the ONLY option available to students in the very near future.

I have very mixed feelings about this. There is no denying the convenience of online exams, but there is so much to experience taking a ‘real life’ exam, not to mention developing the important skill of actually writing music, as opposed to dragging and dropping it.

Back in March this year, I wrote an article in the newsletter about my daughter’s class at Australian Music Schools, who were all studying towards their ‘face to face’ Grade 3 Theory exam in May. However this year their teacher decided to give them the option of enrolling for the online exam instead, due to the fact that for some students the examination date clashed with school camps and other important things. It was explained to them that apart from needing to familiarise themselves with the online format, and of course the fact that they’d do the exam at home in their own time, all other aspects (cost, content, time studying) would remain the same.

An interesting thing happened. Despite the fact that a) the online exam could be done at home and b) there was no 6-8 week wait for the results and c) they were all very aware that it would be possible to ‘cheat’ by having a book open, ALL students chose the ‘face to face’ version. They preferred to re-arrange any potential clashes and do the exam ‘in real life’, as my daughter puts it! She even commented that she felt her results would not be ‘proper’ results if she did it online.

This raises the question: are students missing out on a valuable face-to-face experience by doing their exams online? Although the online exams are supremely convenient, to both student and parent, perhaps it really is important to go through the nervousness associated with being in a strange room with strange people and still trying to perform at your best. My daughter’s class enjoyed the experience they had in Grades 1 and 2 Theory, sitting nervously outside the exam centre, armed with sharp pencils and effective erasers; they also loved ‘debriefing’ together afterwards before returning to school (or in some cases not, if they could convince Mum and Dad ☺). Exams have always been a bonding experience for them, including finally finding out their results after the very long wait. So I guess it really is not much of a surprise that they all wanted this experience for Grade 3.

But there’s more to it than that. What will become of music handwriting? There is no need to learn how to draw notes, clefs or leger lines for these online exams. Writing music on manuscript paper may become a lost art, replaced by dragging and dropping symbols on a screen. This is where the 21st century is taking us, but is it a bad thing? Just as we don’t write with quills on parchment anymore, perhaps this is just another step in the evolution of how we document things.

So does it really matter if a student can’t draw a treble clef or write a scale neatly? My gut feeling is a resounding YES! It does matter! But when I look at it from an evolutionary point of view, and I see that it’s just as easy to compose and create and understand music without having to painstakingly draw it… well the jury is still out on that one.

From a personal point of view, I’d certainly hate to see face-to-face exams abolished completely. There is much valuable experience to be gained from both writing music and sitting an exam under proper ‘exam conditions’. I also think that until there is a fool-proof way of ensuring that students cannot cheat while taking the exam at home, the online exam results are somewhat devalued in comparison to the face-to-face exam results.

Check the AMEB website for more information about online vs face-to-face exam sessions.

Samantha Coates

Samantha Coates is a professional pianist and teacher with over 25 years experience in both private and group tuition. She is the author and publisher of BlitzBooks, the music education series that has captured the imagination of students across Australia and transformed the teaching of music theory, sight reading and general knowledge.

One thought on “Will Online Exams Completely Take Over?

  1. Giddens says:

    I can only say that when my students do online exams, they remarkably achieve much higher results…with less effort, that students who sit the written exams. As one student said to me, if it is online, it is open book. I know some teachers suoervise the exam so there is no reliance on a piano , written notes, and computer access to information, But I also know many who do not. But that is now how it is…

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