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Mar 18, 2020

Final exams in an online course

Many instructors use performance-based summative assessments: essays, papers, projects, etc. For them transitioning their assessments online is not an issue. For those who are used to more traditional proctored exams, the new situation presents a dilemma. Proctoring online is technically possible, but none of the services will cope with the high demand. There are ways of locking the browser, but they are glitchy and won’t prevent from browsing on a phone, while taking exam on a computer. Here is an incomplete list of options for you, the exam-lover:

1. Think of a performance-based assessment. Whatever the essential skill you want your students to learn, think of an artifact they can produce that would demonstrate it. Final papers are very difficult to fake and plagiarize, and cheaters are easy to catch. I am aware that some courses have substantial portion of declarative knowledge to be learned and assessed. After all, if you have to learn educational law, or history, you need to memorize something. There is a minimal basic set of facts that creates a cognitive map of a discipline. However, there is probably a more profound skill – like the ability to exercise the specifically legal way of thinking that is actually more important than the knowledge of statutes. Apply some effort, and you will find a good performance-based assessment that will assess both the fundamental skill, and the student’s ability to call on important facts. Just give it a good rubric – and voila!

2. High stakes multiple choice tests are great, because they are objective, and easy to grade. However, they are almost always biased and have validity problems: you end up assessing memory, not thinking. Here is a plug for low-stake open books multiple choice (or short answer) quizzes. Make many of them – every week or so, give them low point value, and it will remove all incentives and opportunities to cheat. The number of points for each is just too low to bother. Also, if you time them, say, give 20 minutes for a 5-question quiz – there is enough time to look it up in the book when you read it once; you know where the answer is. But it is not enough time to start reading the book anew. So, you are making sure they read the text, and isn’t it the whole point?

3. Remember oral exams! It is an ancient form of assessment, highly biased. However, if you ask students to solve some problem, or create a project, a 5-minutes online conversation will quickly reveal if they have done it, or a friend helped. I would not assign them too much weight, because prettier, more assertive kids with no accent will inevitably score higher. But as an additional check, it works fine.

4. And finally, consider getting rid of one final assessment altogether. Just ask yourself: do I know enough about my students’ learning to make sure they got the main thing I want them to learn? If the answer is yes, you may not need the final exam at all. Education is not about assigning a fair grade; grades are the means, learning is the end.

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