How do we navigate the brave new world of online exams?

We must find ways to balance integrity, privacy, accessibility, workload and student expectations, say Jennifer Lawrence and Kylie Day

February 10, 2021
Empty exam hall
Source: iStock

You wouldn’t know it, given the recent panic, but online exams have been here for well over a decade. However, in the past year they have certainly been pushed more firmly into the mainstream than ever as the Covid crisis led universities to reconsider packing 300-plus students into a hall.

Digital transformation on such scale and speed has brought challenges alongside opportunities. At the core of many struggles has been the meeting point of academic integrity, privacy, workload, student perceptions and the way each of these pressures changes with the shift to online.

Let’s start with the basics. Why set an exam in the first place? Often the answer is: “Because this subject has always had an exam.” So why did it start that way? Exams allow us to manage identity and environment – we can confirm the person who gets the marks was the person who took the exam, without influence or help from other people. This is why external bodies require exams in some subjects or for parts of some courses.

If we’re honest, an element of workload management is sometimes involved in the choice, too. Exams can be faster to mark than assignments, and many institutional policies avoid time-consuming feedback to students. Given high-pressure workloads it’s not unreasonable to make this choice for pragmatic reasons, prioritising our time elsewhere in the student experience.


THE Campus resource: fair assessment and tackling the rise in online cheating


The dynamic between integrity, privacy, accessibility and even our workload is different with online exams to that with paper. There are third-party records, recordings or software installations on personal computers and it’s in your own home (sometimes your own bedroom), all of which can seem sinister in comparison to exam hall invigilators having student details or checking the contents of every pencil case.

One of my students raised how uncomfortable it made them when an exam supervisor asked them to turn their head side-on to the camera so the supervisor could check they didn’t have a speaker in their ear. In comparison, for some years many exam hall invigilators have had protocols to quietly check for earpieces, but this usually goes unnoticed. There is a ritual process for students to arrive at the exam hall, pull out their “allowed materials” and listen to the tap-tap of the invigilators’ footsteps up and down the aisle. For many of us, online exams still feel strange and different rather than routine.

A particular challenge has been the legal requirement (here in Australia, and several other jurisdictions) not only to inform students about the collection and use of their personal information by the third-party online supervision platforms, but also to give them the option to opt out.

This presents a challenge amid a sudden shift towards online exams and has led to many students requesting alternative tasks. How can we balance the need for rigorous assessment, which manages identity and environment, with the legal requirement to maintain students’ agency over their personal information − especially without creating additional work?

In the previous world of paper exams, we managed the equivalent (students with disabilities, medical conditions or geographic locations restricting access to the exam hall) with individually managed special requirements, in the form of ramps, ergonomic furniture, specific lighting, no allergens and travel support.

The pressure of creating alternative assessment tasks, as requested by students, has pushed many lecturers to rethink assessment formats entirely. If a task doesn’t require identity and environment checks, then why set an exam? This could be an opportunity to look at tasks that have authenticity within the field.


THE Campus resource: Designing online assessment to prevent academic misconduct


If you can’t change the type of assessment, “nudges” can work well to ensure options are available but encourage students to see the exam as the default. A great example I’ve seen was an alternative task in which students wrote a series of exam questions and a marking guide themselves, justifying how questions aligned to learning outcomes. I watched as students who put their hands up for the alternative task decided that perhaps they could sit the online exam after all – it’s a legitimate task, but nudges students to consider the exam the default. Contrast this with several other subjects in which the regular exam questions are simply set as a take-home paper (unsupervised), resulting in a significantly higher proportion of students deciding they preferred that option.

The key is to design your alternative to maintain the same level of rigour and communicate that early rather than pulling something together when a student asks and having an influx of others who see the alternative as the easier option.

Our students are getting used to new formats at the same time we are − and also trying to test the boundaries. We can draw parallels to changes such as internet banking or self-service checkouts – seen by some as controversial, and certainly pushing us to shift what we think of as “normal”.

Online exams are likely to continue their upward trend, both because of Covid pressure and the opportunities they present. During the transition these competing, sometimes conflicting, pressures will force us to solve problems differently from how we used to with paper exams − and open doors for us to do things that weren’t possible before.

Jennifer Lawrence (programme director, digital education) and Kylie Day (manager, exams and e-assessment) have overseen the University of New England’s transition to online supervised exams.

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