Universities

Both online and in-person exams have issues, other methods universities can use

The pandemic has pushed universities to launch or accelerate plans to deliver exams online. These forced transitions have often been painful, involving stress and burnout. The exams were a big pain point. There are many accounts of the widespread cheating pandemic in online exams. These range from fun to depressing. Either way, cheating creates problems for everyone involved.

We need to understand student achievement to effectively identify, plan, and support student learning. The evaluation is meant to inform this understanding. Exams are high-stakes opportunities to generate large amounts of evidence of student achievement. Cheating invalidates this proof, which has repercussions at the individual, course and program level.

University program reviews, for example, are often guided by analyzes of that year’s exam results. Review data helps staff make changes to the program. If a significant percentage of exam results result from cheating, it can lead to errors in judgment about the syllabus and errors in the design of future exams. What happened during the pandemic? It is therefore understandable that many universities have adopted remote monitoring.

It involves the use of artificial intelligence software to identify and track students during exams. The value proposition of remote proctoring is that it allows us to easily replicate the security of an in-person, seated, proctored exam virtually, wherever our students are. It seemed like a tailor-made solution for the pandemic.

There is evidence that remote monitoring works as intended. However, we must also consider emerging concerns. Many students have been hostile to what they see as inappropriate monitoring practices. There are concerns about uncritical accusations by universities of cheating in reported cases generated by surveillance software.

On the faculty side, it is becoming clear that remote monitoring does not necessarily mean less work for staff. It can even increase the exam workload. Working in the field of educational assessment for two decades has taught me that cheating on exams is a serious and complex problem. It defies easy solutions. Remote monitoring will likely continue to play a role. It is essential, however, that we define this role critically and carefully.

So why not go back to the old ways? With enrollment increasing and in-person teaching resuming, it’s tempting to return to familiar exam practices. The return of traditional examinations, however, invites the reappearance of other well-documented chronic problems. Orchestrating mass in-person examinations presents a huge challenge. Ensuring the relevance of traditional exams to modern skills is also problematic.

It’s worth asking: how satisfied were we really with pre-pandemic review practices? Of the many ways we engage learners in higher education, assessment is typically the slowest area to change. Since exams are high stakes, it’s no surprise that exams are quite resistant to change. We therefore find ourselves before an unusual and timely opportunity. Currently, there is strong pressure for systemic improvement in learning, including better assessment.

Let me suggest two connected ways to move forward on better review practices. They are not axiomatic instructions. Instead, they are resource-supported ways to open dialogues within institutions and teaching teams to explore solutions that make sense for them and their students.

Making scholarly decisions Scholarship informs our disciplines. It should also inform assessment within our disciplines. The scholarship for teaching and learning (SoTL) in higher education is not new. In my experience, SoTL or SoLT has often downplayed or omitted to include evaluation, as popular forms of the acronym suggest.

Increasingly, we need to embrace SoLTA, meaning research that includes and promotes evidence- and research-based assessment practices. Adopting SoLTA involves becoming deeply familiar with the best research on assessment and examination practices in higher education and disciplinary contexts. This includes informing practice by consulting highly reputable journals such as Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education.

As with our disciplines, we must see ourselves not only as consumers of knowledge, but also as creators. This represents an opportunity for universities to help teachers apply the scholarship to teaching, including teaching-focused scholars. Don’t dismiss exams, improve them Exploring alternatives to exams is good general advice, but it’s not always feasible. Programs often have rational imperatives to keep exams in place, including the expectations of external accrediting bodies. In these cases, it is better to seek improvement rather than alternatives to examinations.

One path to improvement is to adopt good open book review practices. For exams with multiple-choice questions, there are solid guidelines for improving them. There are even approaches that allow multiple-choice questions to elicit cognitively complex answers. Two key problems I have found in online exam practices are students using search engines to search for answers and collusion. One way to solve the first problem is to adopt case-based approaches that use new material generated specifically for the exam.

Collusion is a harder problem to solve, but some people are taking new approaches to tackling it. These include running reviews divided into sections, with collaboration being an early and welcome part of the process. The status quo is not enough, changing the assessment is a challenge. Higher stakes mean greater challenges and greater resistance. As universities find their place after the pandemic, we have a window of opportunity in which we know we must change.

This allows us to answer the question: what is the next exam? Clinging to new and hastily adopted practices provides an unsatisfactory answer. A return to business as usual is no better. Instead, let us take a scholarship-based approach to developing our exams and ourselves to better face an uncertain and difficult post-pandemic future.

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