Sunday, May 24, 2020

Don't Replace Long Paper Examinations with Electronic Ones

Last week I tried a couple of demo exams with one of the leading online exams products. While just a practice, these brought back a tinge of the terrors I suffered as a student with assessment. As an instructor, I would not use such a system for long examinations. Such examinations are not a good way to assess the knowledge, and even less so for assessing skills needed for real work tasks. In addition such examinations increase the risk to the health and safety of students. Students were already at risk of mental illness and self harm before COVID-19. They are now at higher risk, and there are better, safer, ways to carry out assessment. Online invigilated tests should have only a small part in assessing students.

There were some good points with the online exams. The compatibility test beforehand warned my CPU was too slow, but it worked okay. I have a relatively under-powered laptop by today's standards and slow Internet connection.  This is not just because I am a cheapskate, I am doing what Ken Mattingly did for Apollo 13: make sure that if it works on my equipment, it will work for those out in the void.

The business of panning the camera around the room, to make sure no one else was present was a bit of light relief.

I has some minor quibbles:
  • The instructions said to click "I agree" but the button said "I accept". That might seem trivial, but it can unsettle an already anxious student.
  • There was no timer I could see indicating how long I had left. I did not dare look at my watch in case this was seen as cheating. Apparently there was a timer, but when someone is under stress, their attention narrows. The ATSB recently reported that two pilots landed an aircraft without the wheels down, because they were distracted.
  • I had difficulty getting the camera to accept my image. I had to move a lamp so it shone on my face, which was uncomfortable.
  • After completing all questions I could not work out how to get out of the software. I ended up closing down the browser, which in a real exam would cause additional anxiety. It turned out the exit button was just under the timer which I had not seen either.
Having tried this process twice, I could image taking a short test this way.

Overall the process was stressful, like a regular exam. There is the comfort of a familiar environment, rather than an exam room, but help is further away. If it was for a small amount of my grade (perhaps 20%) and short (around 30 minutes), this might be tolerable, just. But if for the majority of the grade in a course and for hours, there is no way I would ever contemplate sitting such a test.

I have spent a lifetime avoiding formal examinations. The first strategy is, of course, to not enroll in any course or program of study which has a long formal high stakes examination. If confronted with an examination, my first thought is: "Do I have enough marks already to skip this and still pass?". If all else fails, my options are reduced to withdrawing from the course, or the program, and then complaining to accrediting and funding authorities about the poor assessment process.

In my view, any exam should be relatively short, more like a take-home examination, than end of semester one. One issue is when the students can do it. I worry that some course designers are assuming all the students take the test at precisely the same time. This will not work well at home. There should be a period of a day, or days, over which students can choose to start their exam.

Academics and university administrators may be using online examinations in the mistaken belief that some law, policy or rule requires examinations. Even before COVID-19, there was flexibility with how assessment could be done. Assessment rules generally have a lot of detail about how to do a traditional examination, but then include a get-out clause saying that some other form of assessment can be used. Other forms of assessment take skill to design and resources to administer. But if you have been trained in how to design assessment (as I have), this can be done reliably, at reasonable cost.

Online exams and quizzes have been used previously for low stakes assessment throughout a course. The products being used now add automated invigilation. But if the student can choose when to start the exam, other measures will still be needed to make cheating harder. It is usual to have a question bank from which questions are chosen at random for each student, and some form of plagiarism detection for essays. Otherwise a student could note the questions, and pass these on others doing the exam later, so they could memorize prepared answers.

ps: Last weekend I was a Lead Mentor for the Australian and New Zealand Defence Forces Logistics Hackerthon. The format is similar to ANU TechLauncher, but compressed into a few days. These are good examples of how teaching and assessment can be done in a more realistic way. Participants have to undertake a real world task, and are assessed on how well they do it. There are no formal examinations, instead participants show what they did.

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