International students face challenges taking midterms during remote instruction

With different accommodation policies across departments, international students are losing out on adequate exam and class environments and proper test preparation. (Illustration by Nitya Tak/ Daily Bruin)

By Noah Danesh

November 13, 2020 at 4:42 p.m.

This post was updated Nov. 13 at 11:16 p.m. to address a transcription error in Bakur Madini’s quote.

The COVID-19 pandemic and UCLA’s subsequent shift to remote learning has affected how some international students have approached their education. In light of International Education Week 2020, here are four stories that highlight some of the challenges international students have had to deal with during fall quarter.

Some international students have had to cope with midterm exams at odd hours during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many professors have allowed students to take exams at alternative time slots or have offered a 24-hour window to start a timed exam, said Bakur Madini, the Undergraduate Students Association Council international student representative. Madini, who lives in Saudi Arabia, said although he was able to take most of his midterms during the day, he has had to take some at 4 a.m.

Madini, who is also a representative on the Academic Senate Committee on International Education, said the Senate is more limited in terms of what rules it makes professors follow. Department chairs, and departments in general, have more control over the policies implemented by professors, he added.

The lack of a standardized policy on midterms hurts international students, said Madini, a second-year physics and pre-economics student.

Lana Sami, a first-year microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics student who lives in Qatar, said she hasn’t faced many issues with exam scheduling in the fall quarter, but her exams have had different policies.

While her life science course gave her a 12-hour window to complete her exam, her physiological science course had a set time to complete the midterm, she said.

Aniket Saigal, a second-year biology student, lives in India. He said most of his professors accommodated his more-than-12-hour time difference by extending the time window when all students could take the exam.

Sami said that there are other aspects to exam preparation lost for international students.

For example, Sami said she is often unable to attend office hours because they occur at night in her time zone, and doesn’t have as many opportunities to ask questions in preparation for exams. Many review sessions are also held at difficult times and may not be recorded, she added.

Saigal said that he has certain mandatory discussions and labs at night, which can make learning and preparing for midterms difficult.

“If I’m solving something or if I have to answer a question properly, I sometimes feel like my mind sometimes has to work extra hard to be alert at that time,” he said.

Studies have also shown taking exams at night may impact a student’s grades. A study conducted by Danish scientists in 2016 found that students’ scores decrease by about 1% of a standard deviation for every hour later in the day they take a standardized test. A 2012 UCLA study found that students who sacrifice sleep to study have more difficulty on exams the following day.

Internet connection issues pose an additional challenge for many international students, Madini said. When internet connection disconnects or slows down during an exam, it can lead to more stress for students, he added.

Madini said he had a midterm for which the professor had accommodated international students by adding an additional time slot, and to access the midterm, students needed to receive a passcode from the teaching assistant over Zoom.

However, before the exam started, the TA’s internet disconnected and Madini said students worried that they would not be able to access the exam. While the issue was resolved, Madini said it might have impacted student’s performance.

“It’s going to throw a lot of students off their game. You would normally go into an exam with a calm mind,” he said. “But then this happens and it really stresses you out, just before the exam starts. … You start the exam with a different mentality.”

Madini said that his office is working with department chairs, the Academic Senate, and the University of California Student Association to implement consistent accommodation guidelines for professors and departments.

Ideally, Madini said that professors would offer exams in a 24-hour window, allowing all students in the class to begin the test at any time during the window. Professors should also give students untimed exams to account for potential technical difficulties, he added.

International students – and students in general – can reach out to faculty or their department chairs to ask for accommodations given their specific situations, Madini said. But this is inefficient and puts more stress on students, he added.

“Students shouldn’t be reaching out continuously to ask for accommodations, because it’s a burden on them,” Madini said.

Having a standardized policy would help avoid this scenario and would be better for both students and instructors, Madini said. Such a policy would also reduce uncertainty because students would have a sense of what is to come during the quarter, he said.

Madini said that he hopes UCLA implements policies that provide accommodations beyond midterms.

“If you give me 24 hours for a midterm, and then I have my classes at 3 a.m., that’s not really useful, because I will still be awake at 3 a.m. to attend the classes,” Madini said. “A comprehensive accommodation policy is needed for both classes and exams.”

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