With COVID-19 shutting down campuses, the familiar exam rituals have been turned upside down. The stress these past weeks has been palpable, as faculty scramble to determine their best options for salvaging the semester. As the Manager of Customer Success Enablement at Top Hat, one of the most pressing concerns I’ve heard from educators is how best to deliver end-of-semester remote assessments.

Necessity is the mother of invention and right now, the goal should be finding a workable option, not perfection. Educators need to make peace with the fact that even under the best circumstances, changing a course you designed from face-to-face to online—including final exams—is a substantial undertaking. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that this is also something of a teachable moment. Whatever steps you take, however imperfect your solution, view it with an eye to the future. The lessons you learn along the way will be invaluable, especially knowing that the disruption caused by the pandemic is likely to continue for some time.

First, some guiding principles

As you explore and ultimately choose an online assessment option for your course, it’s important to start with the following:

    • First, recognize that this is an entirely new situation. With so much of our work and personal lives being thrown into the air, it’s important to get a handle on what exactly your students still need to learn. Knowing the ‘vital few’ will help you determine what is essential and where it is pragmatic to make concessions.
    • Second, maintain a healthy dose of empathy for your students. Focus on delivering an equitable experience, whatever alternative assessment method you choose. Student life has been turned on its head and many have been navigating these past weeks in a deep state of anxiety and uncertainty. The need to minimize complexity, ensure flexibility and provide clear communications on how the end of the semester will unfold cannot be overstated.
    • Third, while concerns of student fraud continue to swirl, especially in the context of remote assessments, appreciate that cheating is not a common practice. The vast majority of students preparing for success outside of college are willing to do what it takes and in a way that preserves academic integrity.
    • Last, recognize that there are no bad decisions under the current circumstances. Many educators may encounter obstacles in choosing an assessment solution. Whether technical, logistical or pedagogical, you may only be able to do so much. The key is to identify the option that best serves students and the learning objectives for your remote instruction while minimizing disruption.
  • Is an assessment necessary?

    When choosing an assessment option, consider these questions: have your students already achieved the course’s learning outcomes? Would your students be OK without a final exam? If you answered ‘yes’ to both, consider reweighting the assignments and assessments that have already been completed in lieu of a final exam.

    If, on the other hand, students have not achieved the necessary learning outcomes, consider whether a proctored exam is still necessary or if, perhaps, an open book exam might be just as effective. There are many benefits to this approach. From a learning perspective, open book exams allow you to challenge students by creating questions that encourage them to apply knowledge, compare and contrast and synthesize and analyze content. The technical requirements to support an approach like this are also relatively light, making life easier for students who don’t have consistent access to the internet or quiet work spaces.

    Open book and asynchronous assessment

    If an open book exam makes sense, give careful consideration to allotting a realistic period of time for students to complete the work. A timed, online exam may be difficult at the moment. Allowing a 24-hour period for students to submit their answers will likely afford most of them the flexibility needed to be successful. You might also consider specifying the length of responses to the questions you pose. This will avoid students providing answers that are longer than necessary. Make sure to inform students about what to expect and, if time permits, give them an opportunity to practice. Hosting virtual office hours or ensuring you are accessible throughout the duration of the exam period is also important since students will invariably have questions and potential technical issues to navigate.

    An asynchronous assignment is another good option. This involves having students tackle something new that allows them to apply knowledge gained throughout the semester. You might provide a problem to solve or have them write a paper or report that allows them to apply knowledge from the course by analyzing and evaluating content. The room for creativity is endless—as is the opportunity to mark the end of the semester on a more meaningful note. For example, you might have students create a portfolio of their learning—something that can be reviewed but that also serves as a keepsake from the course.

    If you’re concerned about students working together, perhaps you can use this to your advantage. Allowing peer collaboration on the final submission has been shown to be very effective in deepening the learning process. Connecting with peers at a time when most of us are practicing physical distancing can also help alleviate feelings of isolation while instilling the sense that ‘we’re all in this together.’

    Remote proctored tests

    For many educators, anything beyond a timed proctored exam is simply not an option. This is often the case for those overseeing courses that are required for accreditation. Top Hat’s remote proctoring solution offers the ability to validate student identities, monitor for irregular behavior using webcams and artificial intelligence and use timesaving features like autograding to assess results quickly and accurately. Even so, it’s important to think carefully before taking the remote proctoring plunge.

    The main challenge is that many students are still in a state of flux. They may be in the process of moving home or finding accommodation. They may lack computer access or quiet spaces they can use to concentrate without interruption. You may also have to consider the impact of having students write the exam from different time zones. A remote proctored exam may still be the best option but the need for flexibility and accommodating individual circumstances should be top of mind.

    Because this approach will be new for many, make sure to inform students thoroughly about the procedure ahead of time. Consider these questions: What is and is not allowed during the test taking? What are the system-specific requirements students will need, such as functioning webcams and browser versions? Will they need to have their student IDs at the ready to validate their identity? Beyond clear and careful communications, if time permits, walking them through the test-taking experience and providing practice questions can help set students up for success. Last, but not least, ensure you have a contingency plan should students encounter any technical difficulties. What if a student says their computer has crashed? What alternatives might you provide?

    Moving your teaching practice online can be challenging, especially when time is of the essence. Whatever assessment option you choose, be sure to clearly communicate how it will differ in an online format, how students can prepare and where they can go to get help. And remember, there are no perfect solutions. But by keeping things simple and the student experience top of mind, you can still complete the semester in a meaningful way.

    Click here to learn more about Top Hat’s solutions for remote assessments.