First-year engineering students at Heriot-Watt University have just received the results of a pioneering computer-based exam, the latest development in the Pounds 1 million MathWise scheme involving more than 20 universities.
The 80 students have not been waiting for overburdened staff to complete marking the end of term exam during the Christmas vacation. The results were available one second after they completed the exam in December, but they were given a psychological breathing space.
"When asked face-to-face, none of the students said they wanted instant results. When you come out of an exam, you like to take your time to think 'How did I do? -- perhaps they'll be lenient'," said Cliff Beevers, professor of maths at Heriot-Watt.
He believes this is the first formal computer-based exam in the United Kingdom. It was developed by the Teaching and Learning Technology Programme maths consortium, in which institutions have been collaborating since 1992 to produce computer-based learning materials for non-specialist maths students.
"This is the first time to our knowledge that the computer has been used to both set the questions and mark them by checking the mathematical answers. It's not multiple choice," Professor Beevers said.
In future, the exam will count for 40 per cent of the students' first-term assessment. The pilot group, who worked on computers in the first term, have praised the objectivity of the assessment.
"They said surprisingly that they found it more relaxing to take the exam this way. I think that's because of the informality of doing what they've been doing all term," said Professor Beevers.
The questions have had to be carefully designed to minimise the problem of the computer being unable to award partial credit for nearly correct answers, but Professor Beevers says there has been an excellent correlation between the students' results on computer and in a traditional written exam.
The team believe they can pick up mistakes where a student has, for example, put a plus sign instead of a minus sign. They have also developed an "input tool", a small on-screen box which displays the mathematical examples as they would appear on paper, rather than in a straight line as they would normally appear on computer. "Roughly half used the input tool, while the others could visualise it without," Professor Beevers said.
He added that he and many of his colleagues liked marking exams because it let them see how the student was developing.
Students reacted well to the system. "It didn't feel like an exam at all, since we were sitting in the room we'd been sitting in every week, which settled a lot of people down," said student Michael Hume. "The novelty made the exam more enjoyable," agreed student Grant Burns, although he regretted the lack of time management preparation and suspected he would have done better in a traditional exam.