What is the future of exams during pandemics? What are the advantages and disadvantages of online assessments/exams, and how can we stop students from cheating?

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By Education Today

Posted on April 5, 2022


12 min read

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What is the future of exams during pandemics? What are the advantages and disadvantages of online assessments/exams, and how can we stop students from cheating

What is the future of exams in the UK after the pandemic that has engulfed the entire world?  For two years running now the GCSEs and A Levels have been cancelled, and it has been up to the students’ teachers to come up with a grade. However, this has led to an inflation of grades[1] – as most teachers will often overmark their students.  This can clearly be seen in the data that the government agency, Ofqual[2], has supplied: For GCSEs, based on the final grades, on average, subjects in 2020 were graded nearly three-fifths of a grade more leniently at the overall subject level than in 2019. At grades 4, 7 and 9, these were about three-quarters of a grade, one-third of a grade and one-tenth of a grade respectively more lenient. For A levels, based on the final grades, on average, subjects in 2020 were graded about half of a grade more leniently at the overall subject level than in 2019. At grades C, A and A*, these were about three-fifths of a grade, one-third of a grade and one-fifth of a grade respectively more lenient

However, it is very easy to blame the teachers for this.  One must not forget that many teachers across the country are under ever-increasing pressure from their Heads to achieve outstanding results across the curriculum, both at GCSE and A level.  Many teachers even have over ambitious targets as part of their appraisals.  So, what is the fairest solution, if in the future we have to close the schools on a consistent basis in case another pandemic comes along?  What we need is a paradigm shift in our approach to exams. Where students are allowed to take these exams, and where we can minimise the amount of cheating that goes on in exams.

In recent times, devices like Smartphones have enabled students to cheat during online exams. According to some companies that conduct online examinations, such as Prometric, some students are using tiny and undetectable Bluetooth devices during online exams. Also, smartphones are used by students to cheat.  What came as a surprise to me is how many students are cheating. According to Dr. Donald McCabe and the International Center for Academic Integrity[3], 68% of American undergraduate students admit to written or test cheating. Indeed, the most searched queries on the internet revolve around ways to cheat in online exams from home. It’s well-known that cheating in online examinations is on the rise, and students are undeniably devising smarter ways to outwit proctoring technologies while taking examinations. 

Romila Kanchan, in her fascinating article: Ten Clever Ways Students Cheat In Online Proctored Exams,[4] explores how many students cheat in their exams, and how technology can be used to combat this type of online cheating.  This cheating includes: the use of hi-tech devices, the use mobile phones, using auto coding software, abusing navigation privileges, impersonation (someone else taking the exam for you), use of external devices, the presence of family/friends in the room whilst you are doing the exam, copying & pasting and other shortcuts, purposefully logging out of the exam (an excuse for not being able to complete it) etc.  She then goes onto explain how Online Proctoring programs with AI-Powered Tools, such as those used by Mercer[5], could be used to conduct secure virtual exams, and solve many of the above problems.

Perhaps the best solution is to beat them at their own game; especially for those who are less technically minded.  Examiners are fighting a losing battle.  It is the same for internet security; just when you believe you have a fail-proof security system, someone hacks into your computer to steal all sort of data, or they secretly instal spyware.  So rather than attempting to deter cheating, let us embrace it – and set out exams that encourage the use of higher cognitive skills.  Let us create open-ended exams, where students are allowed to track down the answers, and have access to downloaded notes.  Let’s be honest, these days if you need to find answers or solutions to any given problem – you use your variety of internet skills to track down the answer.  Whenever I want to learn how to do something, I always turn to all those instructional videos the public have put up on YouTube.

Schools need to set up the policy of an open-book exam, with challenging broad and open-ended questions.  Here the students can either refer directly to the course material that they are studying, or they can use their own research and tracking skills from a wide variety of resources on the internet – to help them come up with a reasoned and balanced answer. Mike Farrell in his illuminating article: Want to stop cheating on online quizzes? ……. Let them cheat[6], gives some valuable advice when creating exams:

  • Draw specifically on course content/lectures. If the questions are too basic, non-specific and too general – the first thing students will do is to go to Wikipedia (or a similar website) and plagiarise the material that is there – without really thinking about the answer. Instead, ask them higher level questions that get them to analyze various arguments or scientific models; or get them to interpret the results shown in a diagram/chart, and come up with their own conclusion.
  • Use Bloom’s taxonomy[7] to set out your questions. In 1956, Benjamin Bloom with collaborators Max Englehart, Edward Furst, Walter Hill, and David Krathwohl published a framework for categorizing educational goals: Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. The framework elaborated by Bloom and his collaborators consisted of six major categories: Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation. The categories after Knowledge were presented as “skills and abilities,” with the understanding that knowledge was the necessary precondition for putting these skills and abilities into practice.  With this in mind, these higher order key skills will be tested in the exams.  Simply plagiarising and cutting & pasting text from the internet will not suffice.
  • Keep the time tight. Let students prepare for the exam by giving them a rough idea of what the questions will be. This requires a new set of skills: organisation, research, interpretation, time-management etc. Then give them a set time to complete the exam.
  • Make the questions tough. Use application and analysis questions that challenge students to fully understand and synthesize the concepts related to the learning outcomes.  Chris Woodhead, in his seminal work, A Desolation of Learning[8], was aghast at how easy the GCSE and A ‘Levels had become and, indeed, the book is a lament on the English educational system, with successive governments failing to prepare students for modern life.

‘What is worth learning is without exception difficult to learn. We delude ourselves and damage our children if we pretend otherwise…But I did learn, that if you want to make any progress, you have to struggle.

Thankfully, since he wrote this the Government has addressed some of these issues and made both sets of exams harder, with less emphasis on remembering things (factual questions) and more on the higher tier of questioning found in Bloom’s taxonomy.

  • Randomize the questions. Randomize questions so the same ones do not appear in the same order for each student. Have a bank of different papers in each school which share the same success criteria.  The effect of this is that student sitting next to each other cannot casually look at the neighbouring screen and copy their answers, as they will have received different sets of questions that need to be tackled.
  • Tell students you know they have access to their resources. Students will find this puzzling, as they are not use to it.  They will wrongly believe they do not need to study, until they are corrected.  Whilst it is true that they do not need to learn by heart all the mathematical and scientific formulas, they will have to learn how to use this knowledge.  The exams then become more focused on key skills, rather than on acquiring a vast amount of knowledge which will not be used in their adult life.  Who in their adult life has found the knowledge they learnt, whilst studying a particular period in history, a vital part of their future job?  It isn’t really knowledge (you can never compete with the internet) that you need to acquire, but key transferable skills.  This was a key point that Ian Gilbert was trying to make in his ground-breaking book:  Why Do I Need a Teacher When I’ve got Google?[9]  Both teachers and students need to acquire an ever-changing set of skills in an ever-increasing competitive world economy.  The way of studying and teaching needs to change, if the UK is going to be a leading player in this world economy.  For the doubters of this course of action, Mike Farrell concludes:

“…But they aren’t learning anything that way!” you say. Aren’t they? It is true that they aren’t memorizing things and recalling them later. But that isn’t necessarily our ultimate goal. Our goal, when it comes to assessments, is to measure our student’s achievement of the course learning outcomes. If open book tests can help, why not give them a try?”

So, if exams are to be computerised, what are the advantages and disadvantages of this?  Many exam boards, and companies that produce online tests and exams, would point out that exam candidates are used to recording things digitally, and are using a wide variety of editing tools across many pieces of software.  It is hard to switch to pen and paper when you are used to working digitally, and it can be very tiring over long periods.  It also greatly reduces the costs. Printing, circulating exams on paper and organising shipments of completed scripts to markers/schools is a time-consuming and costly process.  They would also state that it is also much quicker for markers/teachers to mark online; and candidates welcome receiving results quickly. With auto-scorable questions, results are available immediately. Working online also makes it easier for the examining body to manage all the tasks involved in creating exams. For example, authoring questions can be done collaboratively, with clear workflows for review and approval of questions before they are added to the question bank.It’s also more environmentally friendly – with less paper, printing and transport used overall. With online assessments/exams, examining bodies can offer exams to candidates located just about anywhere in the world, and at any time in the world.  You are not restricted to one location or one time. Assessments/exams can be modified so that they are accessible to all – they can be adapted for students with learning support very quickly e.g.changing font size, background colour, adding extra time for candidates who need special considerations. Basic online assessment can be automated, so that it will give the student feedback and auto-grade itself.Teachers can distribute multiple versions of the exams and assignments, without having to manually monitor which students got which tests. This cuts down on cheating. Electronic assessments allow teachers to quickly evaluate the performance for the group against the individual. Report-generating capabilities help teachers identify learning problem areas for the group and individual students.

The biggest problem with online assessments/tests/exams is that they are limited. In some ways the answers on online assessments can only be right or wrong.  There is no real room for explaining your answer, and a teacher/examiner will not be able to see how you worked out the answer to a mathematical or scientific question.  If you got the answer wrong, the examiner/teacher can not identify where you went wrong.  You can not give partial credit for an answer.  Basically, the examiner/teacher can not see your line of thinking when answering your question.  Another problem is that, as we know, technology is not always reliable or secure. Information can be lost because systems break down, or are hacked into.  In the short term, it is also not cheap.  You have to train staff, examiners etc how to create these exams, which is also very time-consuming.  More importantly, this type of testing is not suitable for essay writing, analysis or cognitive thinking testing. You have to ask questions which cannot be easily retrieved from books or the internet. Open text questions are possible, but they don’t auto-grade, so you have to mark them yourself.  You would also have to add a timer to each question, so there is no time for students to search for the answer. 

So, to answer the question what is the future of assessments/exams during times of pandemic, and the possibility of schools being closed down, I would suggest you need two type of assessments/exams.  To assess the lower tier of Bloom’s Taxonomy (recalling facts and basic concepts) I would invest in technology which is able to administer this in a quick and efficient way; where these types of assessment/exams can be marked and reports generated in a blink of an eye.  Ragavi Sivakumar, is his article5 advantages of using online assessment tools to evaluate students[10], believes this is where the future of education is.  He strongly believes in the use of automated tools:

 Uploading and sharing assignments, conducting online tests, assigning grades, storing study materials, and creating lesson plans is a breeze!  Using automated tools is the easiest way to streamline the academic and administrative processes.”

However, this will only take you so far. What we need to do is to create online tests that cater to Bloom’s higher skill set; where Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation are the key parts of any exam.  So far, computers can not cope with these types of complex questions.  For this you need the educated human brain of a teacher/examiner…and long may that continue!  Finally, let us also   give the students the digital tools to perform well in these exams – key skills they will take with them and use in the workplace, as they become adults.