How do I design a written exam for my online course?

Credit comedy_nose / Flickr Creative Commons

The current situation with the Covid-19 pandemic has forced us all to adjust and adapt our teaching and examinations. Campus courses have been turned into online distance courses overnight. One issue that has been widely discussed and debated among the colleagues at University is: How do we design written examinations for online courses?

Under normal circumstances, our campus students would all gather in a large hall, at a given time, and write their exam under strict surveillance. The same students now have to write their exams at home or somewhere else, using digital tools. This transition has proven challenging to the lecturers. Some pertinent questions that were raised by the colleagues: 

  • How do I make sure that the students don’t cheat?
  • How do I know that it is the right person that writes the exam?
  • How do I design an online exam?
  • How should my students present their calculations?
  • What software do we use to control the students’ access to the Internet?
  • How can I film each student when he/she is writing the exam to make sure that they don’t cheat?

The list of issues and challenges can go on and on for many pages. 

The discussions raised many questions that I hadn’t dealt with properly in my regular online courses. So, what solutions are there to the issue with the written examination in online courses?

First of all, the idea of surveillance of students while they write their exams is intrusive and sends a strong signal that you don’t trust your students. The same applies to ‘lockdown’ of the student’s computer during the exam, i.e. to only allowing access to the exam paper while all other software and access to the Internet are locked. This tool doesn’t bring much value as a student could have a second unit like a smartphone or tablet to access software and the Internet.

My view is that it is the responsibility of lecturers and examiners to adapt the exams to the online environment. The exam should have a format that allow the student to present his/her learnings and understanding, and at the same time limiting the benefits of, and possibilities of collaboration among students during the exam. The open book exam is a good starting point for inspiration.

Our current approach for written exams in our online courses in Environmental Engineering is an adaptation of the traditional exams to suit the online environment:

  1. We divide the written examination into parts with one online written test per module. So, a course with four modules will have four written exams.
  2. The exam is available for several days, but limit the time the student can spend doing the exam.
  3. Exams have a mix of multiple-choice questions and complex essay questions.
  4. To limit the possibilities of group work during the exam:
    • Randomise the order of questions.
    • Randomise the order of answers in multiple-choice questions.
    • Don’t allow the student to go back to questions already answered.

So, in short:

  • It is challenging to develop written exams for online courses
  • Traditional written exams will, in most cases, not work in the online course.
  • To observe your students while they write their test is intrusive and signals distrust.
  • Adjust your traditional questions to a set of multiple-choice and complex essay questions
  • Limit the time of the exam, but not too much. Your objective is to assess the students’ learnings and understanding, not their stress tolerance!
  • Randomise the order of questions and don’t allow back-tracking to already answered questions.
  • Inform the students about the format and limitations of the exam before they start the exam.

However, one crucial question to ask is, is the classic written exam where our students answer a set of questions still a useful form of examination in the online environment? Maybe a problem based approach, where the students have full access to information is better? What about students answering the questions by recording a video?

The current situation when we have to adjust and adapt our methods of testing our students’ learning and understanding makes this the best time ever to explore new and innovative approaches.

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