Handling Exams When Your Course Unexpectedly Moves Online

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Handling Exams When Your Course Unexpectedly Moves Online 

Posted on March 13, 2020 by Lisa Kurz 

This post is part of our Keep Teaching blog series meant to help IU instructors move their classes online quickly due to COVID-19. For more detailed resources, see the Keep Teaching website. 

For many faculty, quickly transitioning to online teaching is most challenging when considering how they will assess students’ learning. That’s especially true with face-to-face classes that rely heavily on the use of traditional assessments like tests, in-class assignments, and exams. 

While IU currently offers limited support for online test proctoring through Examity and Respondus Monitor, these tools are not a recommended assessment solution in the current COVID-19 situation. Introducing new software and testing procedures at this point in the semester puts significant burden on students on top of the usual stress of an exam, changes expectations mid-semester, and introduces inequities based on technology access and financial standing.  Therefore, faculty should consider other assessment strategies as they adjust to the current situation, only using proctored exams when no other options work (e.g., due to accreditation rules). 

Below we describe some options and things to consider as you work to assess student learning from an online platform. If you want to learn more about a particular tool, find details on Knowledge Base. The Keep Teaching website can provide some points for consideration when you’re deciding how to adapt exams for your online course. You can also connect with your teaching center to learn how to implement some of these strategies. 

General strategies: 

Consider your course learning outcomes and what has already been assessed 

Estimate how many of the outcomes have already been assessed prior to March 13. Do you need any additional assessments for these outcomes? Identify outcomes that still need to be assessed and focus on those. If so, could short lower-stakes assessments such as summaries or reflections that test for application and synthesis be used instead of an exam? 

Change the basis on which final grades are calculated 

If students have completed a significant amount of work already in a course, consider using the grades given for that work as a significant basis for the final grade, particularly now that a Satisfactory grade is an option, with the approval of your department/school. Or perhaps eliminate future exams in the course in favor of lower-stakes online assessment (e.g., Canvas quizzes), and combine those scores with grades given to previous work. This might be a possibility particularly in courses that regularly require students to complete homework online. In those courses, students could continue to complete the online homework assignments, which would be combined with already-earned grades to calculate the final grade. 

Consider alternative ways to ensure test/exam integrity 

Avoid trying to adopt technology solutions meant to ensure exam integrity, such as protoring or special browsers that require students to install software on their computers. Instead, consider strategies such as using question groups/banks, setting time limits on quizzes, or asking students to agree to honor pledges when completing quizzes and exams (see below for more detail). 

Communicate clearly 

Whatever option you select to assess your students’ learning, communicate about it clearly with students. Explain what they are required to do in place of the regular exam, whether there is a time limit on any portion of an assessment, and whether any portions can be taken as open-book. 

Be flexible 

Recognize that all students may not have the technology needed to take online exams, so be ready with alternatives or exceptions. And while none of the strategies below is an exact duplicate of the comparable face-to-face option, they will allow you to gather some evidence of your students’ learning, so be flexible in adapting to these new circumstances, which will help both you and your students ensure that teaching and learning continue in your course. 

Strategies for delivering an online exam: 

Canvas quizzes 

Instead of one larger multiple-choice exam that covers several chapters, create shorter quizzes in Canvas to cover smaller amounts of material. If you’re not comfortable with an open-book approach, consider imposing time limits on the quizzes; this will make it more difficult for students to look up answers in textbooks. To help prevent cheating, create large question groups in Canvas, shuffle the answers, and show only one question at a time. This essentially gives each student a different quiz. 

Open-book exams 

Modify your multiple-choice items to allow students to take your exam as an open-book exam. This would mean changing the questions to make them more conceptual and applied. For example, create questions that require students to apply what they’ve learned in new situations, analyze scenarios, interpret data in tables or graphs, or extrapolate their knowledge in new ways—things they cannot look up quickly in a textbook. More on open book exams in this other blog post. 

Quiz plus open book exam 

For questions that require students to simply recall material, put them into a Canvas quiz with a short time frame. Then, to test higher-order thinking, create a second exam that can be taken open-book. 

Scanned or photographed exam 

If your exam requires students to draw diagrams, charts, or to respond in other visual ways, you might consider posting an exam at a specific time and telling students to download and print it. Give them a specific time frame in which to take the exam, and tell them to send you a scanned image of the completed test (using an app like Adobe Scan).Note that if students don’t have a phone, or don’t have access to a scanner, this option wouldn’t work for them, so be prepared to provide alternatives.

Strategies for Alternative (Non-Exam) Assessments 

Alternate ways of assessing student learning 

If your course is small, consider eliminating the multiple-choice exam and replacing it with a take-home essay exam, paper, or project. For example, students might demonstrate their understanding of course concepts by writing a paper: an analysis of a case study, a summary of the pros and cons of a particular approach, a literature review, a summary of an article, or a meaningful paragraph. (In one Classroom Assessment Technique, students are given a list of terms and must write a paragraph incorporating the terms in a way that demonstrates their understanding of the terms and their interrelationships.) See the IU Bloomington Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning’s page on alternatives to traditional exams for more ideas. You can also consider ways to use the current COVID-19 situation and development as a learning opportunity within your course. Examples of discipline-specific learning activities and assessments are available here. 

Ask students to defend and explain their answers using video/audio 

If your course is small and you’re planning for synchronous (real-time) instruction, you might consider setting up a one-on-one or small group Zoom call in which students can explain their solution to a problem or answer to a conceptual question (think oral examinations). This can also be done asynchronously by asking students to record short videos using Kaltura. Note that this will require that students have access to a camera and microphone. 

For essay exams 

If your exam includes an essay, or consists entirely of essays, consider assigning the essay as a separate assignment in Canvas. If the exam has multiple essays, you could make each into a separate assignment, or combine them into one assignment and allow students to choose which essay topic they address in their response. You should also consider making the essay assignments open-book. 

For other projects or presentations 

For other projects, ask students to submit them in a digital format. For example, students might take a photograph of a poster and submit it, or submit the digital file they created (if they created the poster in PowerPoint, for example). They can do this via a Canvas assignment or through email. For presentations, ask students to record their presentation (inKaltura Personal Capture or Zoom, for example) and submit the recording. 

Authentic Assessments 

Authentic assessments require students to apply what they are learning in novel or complex situations. Because this approach often includes creative problem-solving, there is less concern about cheating, and students can use notes or texts. This approach also allows students to demonstrate a deeper level of understanding than do traditional exams. For more, see the Authentic Assessments resource from the IU Bloomington Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning.

Strategies for ensuring test integrity 

While Indiana University has used services for test proctoring for fully online courses, it is very highly discouraged in the current environment. Proctoring requires students to have certain technology available, such as a computer with a camera, microphone, and high-speed internet connection, which cannot be universally expected now. Additionally, as proctoring (especially live proctoring) services are used more frequently in response to nearly every university’s suspension of face-to-face classes this semester, it’s possible services may have difficulty scaling up, resulting in waiting times for students to schedule exams. Because of these and other challenges, there are a number of other strategies to build exams/tests/quizzes that can discourage and prevent cheating. 

Use question groups/banks 

Exams built in the Canvas Quizzes tool allow an instructor to create groups of questions and have Canvas pull randomly from each group so that each student will see a unique set and order of questions. For example, you can have a group with 20 questions but only have Canvas choose five random questions from the group. A quiz can use multiple groups. 

Using time limits to ensure integrity 

Time limits can be used in two different ways to promote integrity: restricting when a quiz can be accessed, and restricting the amount of time available to take the quiz. 

To restrict access to assignments, Canvas has a variety of options, such as adjusting release dates before which students are unable to access the assignment/quiz/discussion. Additionally, in the Quizzes tool, instructors can require students to enter a code to access the quiz. Instructors who wish for students to take the online quiz synchronously could provide that code at the start of an examination period. 

In addition, instructors can set up a time limit for the quiz. When time has expired, the quiz will be auto-submitted. Setting up a time limit can be effective, even when allowing for open-book exams, if the time limit is such that a student would not be able to do well on the exam unless they were well-prepared and familiar with the material. 

Ask students to agree to an “honor pledge” 

Some research has suggested that reminding students of a university academic integrity statement or asking them to affirm a academic integrity pledge at the beginning of an exam results in less self-reported cheating. Consider adding a question to a quiz that simply asks students to affirm a statement like the following: 

“Consistent with Indiana University’s Code of Student Rights, Responsibilities, & Conduct, I agree that my answers to this exam/test/quiz represent my work and my work only. I also understand that all forms of academic misconduct are prohibited including, but is not limited to, all forms of cheating, fabrication, plagiarism, or the use of unauthorized materials.” 

Alternately, embed a Kaltura video in the quiz instructions for providing guidance about the quiz and reminding students about academic integrity. Seeing you on video reinforcing academic integrity can psychologically deter students. 

For lower-level math-related disciplines, use the “formula” question type 

Canvas Quizzes allows instructors to create quiz questions that use variables and can present each student with a unique question (with a unique answer) based on the rules set up for that variable. This is especially useful with math or other subjects that require students to calculate a correct answer based on some sort of formula. For courses that require higher-level computations/analysis, consider using methods that allow students to document their problem-solving/show their work, such as asking students to upload handwritten exams or asking them to record video of themselves explaining their solutions. 

Instructors who believe they require the use of live proctoring should seek consultation with their campus teaching center. Additionally, because of issues with student data and cost, authorization to use such services will need to be approved by the instructor’s dean and potentially other academic leadership. 

For more help: 

For more help on using these tools, see the Keep Teaching website’s Resources page. For assistance with adapting your tests for a different format, or for designing alternative assessments, contact your local teaching center for a consultation.