Adjusting “exams” as they move online

Universities across the world are having to adjust to the fact that rooms full of students sitting exams is not an appropriate assessment format for May and June this year. As a consequence, teaching teams are needing to think laterally about how to interrogate students about the learning they have gained from their modules.

celebrity squares

Online meetings have started to look like episodes of the old “Celebrity Squares” gameshow

I am sure many places are way ahead of us on this one, but a few reflections on a recent teaching and learning committee meeting (held via zoom) may be of benefit to those who are just getting going in their thinking about this.

 

  1. Duration of tests and the length of time they are accessible. The amount of time that a test is “live” and the time for which an individual student can respond are not necessarily the same thing. A defined two hour period is not applicable for a number of reasons – including potential timezone differences and connectivity problems. My institution has mandated a “24 hour window” for assessments and it is our understanding at the chalkface (as it was) that this means that they are live throughout that time.
  2. Factual recall questions aren’t going to work. There has, of course, been a long-standing debate about the educational merits of an over-reliance of questions that reward regurgitation of factoids rather than probing higher learning skills. However, a move to remote (ie unsupervised) assessment of students who have ready access to Google* makes this format of question entirely redundant (*other browsers are available).
  3. Students need examples of any new style of questions. A decision that MCQs are not going to be appropriate is only half of the story. Introduction of radically different types of questions is going to require not only production of the actual paper but also additional specimen questions for students who will not be able to draw on past papers for guidance.
  4. Clear and timely instruction. Students are going to need clear guidance before the day of an exam, reiterated in the “instructions” section of the assessment itself. There will be all sorts of practicalities about submission as well as the questions themselves about which students will need advice.
  5. Essay questions will need word limits. For all manner of reasons the standard “three essays in two hours” format is not going to work. More time is inevitably going to mean more words. We all hope that essays represent carefully constructed and reasoned arguments in response to a specific question. Sadly the reality can sometimes be “brain dumps”, in which any material matching identifiable keywords in the title is served up for academics to sift through. A longer time will just allow for more of this unstructured stream of consciousness.
    Even taking a less jaundiced view, a good student is going to be tempted to offer far more material in support of their answer than they would realistically have managed in the typical exam scenario. If we cannot restrict the available time, then another option is to impose a word limit. Having looked at past answers, a suggestion of 1200 words for a 40 minute question (i.e. 30 words per minute) has been floated. The emphasis on “quality over quantity” needs to be emphasised – more is not necessarily better. Of course there may be a minority of student who would have written a longer essay that this, but even they will benefit from tailoring their material as a response to the specifics of the question.
  6. Plagiarism detection, and other “course essay” regulations, are back in play. The kind of measures being considered as “reasonable adjustments” in this unprecedented scenario are much more akin to coursework essays. We aspire to have novel synthesis presented in exam essays, but in the past we would not have penalised faithful regurgitation of material from lectures and other sources. Now, however, there is the very real danger of copy and paste plagiarism from lecture notes, from books and articles, or indeed of collusion between students. The requirement to use plagiarism detection tools is therefore going to be essential. Similarly, students will be able to drop in images taken from sources. Whereas in a constrained exam format we might not have worried about their origins, appropriate citation will need to be factored into marking criteria.
  7. Practicalities about format of paper set and submission requirements also need to be clear. It is not just the content of the questions that need addressing, but also aspects of the delivery of the paper and the safeguards students need to put in place regarding submission. For example it is likely that a paper will be distributed as a Word document, which is actually more accessible than many other potential formats. We know, however, that some elements of layout can be altered during the submission of word documents (eg positioning of images) and so we would probably recommend saving as a PDF before submission (much as we would usually for coursework).

This is not an exhaustive list, and you may instantly spot the flaws in the observations made – if so then do please let me know. I am very conscious that this is prepared in the context of a science program and that other disciplines may see things differently. But I hope these notes will be helpful for at least one or two of you.

 

 

What is marking for?

Alongside novel challenges in the delivery and assessment of higher education, the current health crisis is causing some older issue in pedagogy to bubble back to the surface. One of these is the tension between between marking and feedback.

essayhand

Most academics, I suspect, have had the demoralising experience of finding boxes of carefully annotated work sitting uncollected in the administration office long after any interested parties will have picked up their work. Even with the switch of many assignments online (over several years, not just this week) you can see that the feedback feature hasn’t even been opened by many students in a given cohort (and you cannot tell the extent to which those who have clicked on it actually engaged with the comments).

I have been reminded of this by the impact of COVID-19 on existing plans. My first year students have recently written an essay under exam conditions. This is their first taste of an assessment format they will encounter much more frequently over the next couple of years. Yes, I know this is anachronistic, and yes we have made significant strides towards diversification of assessment, but it remains the fact that at present essay-writing in a time-limited setting remains a skill they will need to develop. My belief in the importance of this task as part of the student’s training was a significant factor in my heavy-hearted decision not to participate in the recent strike (but that is conversation for a different day). Continue reading

Time to call on BoB for help?

[Post updated April 24th, see additional notes at bottom – including details of new playlists, and free trials of BoB]

The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic has forced a radical rethink regarding so much of “normal life”. The cessation of face-to-face teaching at universities is just one of the areas in which people are having to investigate workarounds to usual practice. One of the interesting observations over this past week has been the sudden adoption of technologies which have been around for a while, but have never quite found the level of engagement that they deserved.

bobhomeIf you are a UK academic or student, I would like to add another example into the mix – the online TV and Radio repository BoB (https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand sometimes known as “Box of Broadcasts”).

BoB has been around in a variety of formats for about a decade. It currently has over 2.2 million copyright-cleared broadcast programmes available to stream, and over 120 universities and colleges are subscribed – if you are at a UK university you probably have access already but never knew it!

I am a massive enthusiast for BoB, and for the related Television and Radio Index for Learning and Teaching (TRILT). For full disclosure I am a Trustee of Learning on Screen, the organisation that runs both resources – but that role stems from my enthusiasm for their potential not vice versa!

I have written several articles and run workshops about ways BoB can be used in teaching. Rather than repeat myself now, here are a couple of pertinent links:

  1. An article Boxing clever in Times Higher Education from 2014 (link)
  2. A seminar Do you know Bob? Adventures with technology-based resources for teaching (and beyond) which I ran in in April 2019 (link)
  3. Another talk As seen on TV: Using broadcast media in university teaching from December 2018 (link) – there are inevitable overlaps between this and (2) but they were tailored for different audiences, so probably worth looking past the initial similarities – the “back end” of the two talks are rather more diverse.
  4. My work in this area was also written up as a case study (link)

In the recent past, Learning on Screen have started to develop subject-specific playlists. A few of us have also tried to co-ordinate disciplinary blogs, which allow for more description of the content and discussion of potential applications. As an example, see our Biology on the Box site.

These are tricky and uncertain time, but I’m hoping that when we get a chance to look back after the storm, the appropriate rise of online tools for pedagogy will be one of the plus points to emerge from the tragedy.

UPDATED (24th April): As the lockdown has continued and with the increasing realisation that emphasis on online teaching will persist for a much longer period afterwards, Learning on Screen have started a series of disciplinary playlists as the cornerstone of the development of more teaching resources. The lists themselves are within the members-only site (via this link).

I was asked to curate a Biology in Broadcast Media list (see this link, again within the members area I’m afraid). Learning on Screen made a promotional video (open access) about the playlist (see https://vimeo.com/407951233) and they also asked me to host a two-hour “takeover” of their Twitter account. I have make the latter thread into a PDF file, which can be accessed via this link.

Introduction to the other playlists can be found on the Learning on Screen Vimeo account (here). Where you can also find a video (here) about other current developments, including free trials of BoB until July 2020.

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