Parents question university over exams schedule

Parents of Foundation students at the National University of Samoa (N.U.S.) have expressed grave concerns about the one-week time frame given to their children to sit five critically important exams. 

The concerns were highlighted in a letter addressed to the national university, signed by parents of students attending the university.

A copy of the letter said “the exam timetable was poorly designed and too demanding for all students whose exams were cramped in a very limited time span of one week.”

In the past years, Foundation level exams run for two weeks allowing most students free days in between to prepare. 

For this year, that has changed in order for N.U.S. to align the release of Foundation results with the deadlines of development partners' overseas awards.

This will allow them to process students placements to overseas tertiary institutions. 

But the parents said the adjustment has caused stress and anxiety on their children.

The letter further states that the exams should have been spread out carefully. 

According to the parents, this will give students ample time to mentally recuperate before the next exam. 

“In this case, the exams were held within a period of one week, and in the case of Science students, the Physics and Chemistry exams were held on the same day, noting that each exam was worth 50 percent of the students’ total mark,” the parents highlighted in a letter to the university.

“This in our view is a lapse on the University’s part given that it would have been a more sensible option to spread out the exam timetable, as per the usual two-week period as stipulated in the university’s calendar for exams. 

For the Science students they had to “sit five consecutive exams for difficult Science subjects in the period of four (4) consecutive days was stressful and traumatic to say the least. 

“It is our understanding that students need to achieve a 75 per cent aggregate total to be considered for a scholarship. 

“Given the competitiveness of the awards and the limited scholarships available to students, we believe that the University has failed in its planning to ensure that whatever changes and events happening, it would not have an adverse impact on the timing for student examinations, as already laid out in the University’s Calendar for this academic year.”

It is believed that the Foundation level used to have exams within one week some 20 years ago.  

According to the parents, this is unacceptable and given the numerous developments and changes within the university that have evolved over time. 

The parents say the change was inconsiderate and students were “put under considerate pressure, stress and anxiety which were very concerning for us parents to witness”. 

Furthermore, the parents claimed the N.U.S. management was negligent “in its duty of care for these young people who are already under so much pressure to perform at a highest academic level to meet all criteria of the limited competitive overseas scholarship awards”.

“The amount of stress the students have had to go through and experience is not acceptable as the tight schedule impacted adversely on their mental preparations for exams with the pressure to perform well in order to get scholarship awards given the results of first semester are the determining factors for scholarships and awards.

“In our experience our daughter was mentally and physically exhausted by the third day of four consecutive exams from sleep deprivation and stress.”

Speaking about N.U.S.’s duty to care, the parents say the institution does not have a policy to address three consecutive exams like other institutions such as Auckland University and others. 

The policy prohibits students from sitting three exams straight within a day or over two days because it can adversely impact on performance of students to produce excellent results. 

The parents say while N.U.S. has a deadline to meet donor countries on scholarship awards the current adjustment will have an impact on students’ results. 

“N.U.S. may have a deadline for Foundation Level to meet with donor countries (especially New Zealand) on the scholarship awards but poor planning in squeezing the teaching programme is counter-productive and not conducive as the results may not be as good as expected which will be disappointing to all concern, especially the students themselves,” the parents wrote. 

“The confidence and self-esteem of affected students will be low as the consequence of such tight exam timetable. 

“Depending on the outcome of exams we believe N.U.S. has failed in its duty of care on all Foundation students in not providing ample time for students to study for and during exam period.

“Other Universities have provisions for such situations but N.U.S. does not.”

In addition, the parents say the students had a busy workload of assessments through the semester and had no time for revisions with just one week to study for five exams. 

Another matter raised is the compulsory Samoan subject for Science students to take when it is not counted towards assessment of scholarship awards. 

The parents asked how can the N.U.S. management expect excellent results from students in such “dire adversary situation”. 

“We understand there are internal issues within the National University of Samoa and its Management but we believe that better decision making and planning regarding the scheduling of exams should not be jeopardised at all costs, given that these exams are the determining factor in deciding the next steps in the students’ academic journey,” stated the letter.

“It is unheard of for a university to allow its students to sit three consecutive exams over two days because they want their students to prepare well and produce excellent results. 

“They also have a duty of care to their students. The scheduling of Foundation exam timetable for semester 1, 2019 clearly shows N.U.S.’s management negligence of its duty of care to its Foundation students and should be rectified. 

“Such poor planning must be stopped and not to be repeated in the second semester.”

Lastly, the parents highlighted the Government’s need and priority on the Science related area and the university should provide an enabling environment to foster Science students. 

They suggested an independent audit of N.U.S. systems relating to exams is advisable as means to identify problems and provide remedies accordingly. 

In response to the serious concerns raised, N.U.S. Interim Vice Chancellor, Silafau Professor Sina Vaai, noted the matters and offered an explanation to the adjustment. 

She pointed that out unfortunately there were grave concerns in the finalisation of the selection of 2018 recipients of overseas awards due to the release of the official results in December. 

“There have been changes in the selection criteria and selection process of overseas awards and our development partners also have deadlines they must adhere to in processing the student’s awards and placements,” says Professor Vaai.

“Hence our adjusting the Foundation calendar to align the release of Foundation results with the aforementioned deadlines to ensure there is sufficient time to process the student’s placements in overseas tertiary institutions.”

Following advice from the Scholarship Committee in January 2019, the management and academic personnel after considering the issue resolved to three options. 

Those options include the start of foundation programme two weeks earlier than scheduled, secondly have one week for the examination period and three weeks break in between the semesters instead of the usual four.

According to the Interim V.C., the changes will allow the release of foundation results four weeks earlier and avoid a repeat of the problem encountered in 2018. 

“Please note serious consideration was given to this matter and other possible changes such as the lecture dates are not possible as the curriculum has been designed to be delivered in fourteen teaching weeks,” she wrote in the letter. 

“The other two possible weeks the university considered removing were the mid semester break and/or the study week, however the removal of either one of them would affect the students exam preparation time as students also use the mid-semester break to prepare for their mid semester assessments. 

“Hence the changes made were considered the least likely to have an adverse effect on the students.”

She reiterated that the examination timetable accommodates the largest classes first to allow more time for marking.

The students clashes are then considered and unfortunately this means some students may have to sit two exams in one day. 

“As some students take a mixture of courses it is very difficult to schedule Arts, Commerce and Science courses on separate days,” said Professor Vaai. 

If there are two courses of the same discipline set in one day then it means a student or students have a clash. 

The Interim V.C. emphasised that it is unfortunate that the one week schedule caused considerable stress. 

“But please be assured no other student was given an unfair advantage over them as all the students were subject to the same timetable,” she said. 

“The changes were made known to the students in the Foundation January 2019 enrolment and tutors and lecturers have reminded them of these changes throughout the semester.”

She also urged the students to utilise the Student Support Services, which is available to them free of charge. 

The services include additional assistance in numeracy, literacy and counselling which offer them techniques in how to better manage stress. 

“The success of our students is paramount and we understand the challenges these changes bring are difficult but manageable,” she added. 

“In addition these were the best options given the circumstances of deadlines which are beyond our control. 

“To ignore our donor partner’s pertinent deadlines is irresponsible on our part because failure to comply would result in the delay to the student’s placement in an overseas tertiary institution by at least one semester. 

“We trust this clarifies the matter and we will continue to assist students as best we can to manage and succeed in their studies.”  

In January 2019 the National University of Samoa decided to start the Foundation programme two weeks earlier than its normal schedule to allow for the early release of students’ official results.

The Important Dates for the university is normally confirmed in October of the previous year and by the time the decision was made in January 2019 to change the Foundation Programme’s dates, the University’s Important Dates had already been publicised in its Calendar. A hard copy of the change in the dates were given to the students at the time of the January enrolment for the Foundation Programme where the one week examination period was stated.

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