End nigh for agonising results wait

June 6, 1997

MORE than 300 undergraduates in Scotland are being spared the sleepless nights endured by generations of students during the long wait for examination results, writes Alison Utley.

This week, in a pilot study which could revolutionise university assessment, on-line examinations in medicine and geography have returned students' results in just 15 minutes.

The technique took two years to develop at a cost of Pounds 30,000 and could be adopted throughout higher education, according to Aberdeen University.

Exam questions are networked to first-year students' computers in normal examination conditions. Their results and ranking in the group are automatically calculated and are available by the time they leave the exam room.

The benefits go further than savings in marking time, although these are substantial, said Keith Chapman, head of geography at Aberdeen.

"We firmly believe this has raised the level of our students' learning," Professor Chapman said. And he insists the tests are no easier than essay-based exams. "There is no indication that overall performance has slipped."

First-year geographers had formerly been assessed by a three-hour essay-based examination.

"With computer-assisted assessment you can achieve much more comprehensive coverage of the knowledge base," he said.

Students also take part in computerised self-assessment during their course and their results allow those at risk of failure to be identified quickly by tutors.

Professor Chapman said the exam questions were more sophisticated than multiple choice. They used complex graphics and assertion and reasoning tests.

A report on the Aberdeen study will be available this summer, but the system is not intended to replace lectures or tutorials, according to Simon Heath, the university's computer-assisted learning development officer.

"There is a natural concern that objective testing is not appropriate to a university education," he said. "But assessing student knowledge is an important part of what we do, and this technique can be used very effectively alongside other forms of assessment."

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