COLLEGES ACROSS THE country quickly transitioned to online exams in recent weeks as campuses closed in response to the coronavirus outbreak. With little time for schools to adjust, many exams have become online and open-book.
Students will likely experience new test formats and subsequent challenges in the coming weeks and possibly months as colleges adapt to administering online exams.
Colleges are navigating issues of academic integrity, managing students in multiple time zones, providing adequate resources for those with disabilities and ensuring students have the technology to take exams online. As schools and individual professors decide how to proctor online exams, students can expect to encounter possible technical issues during this unprecedented time.
In the undergraduate mathematics department at Northwestern University in Illinois, the decision to cancel in-person exams came just a few days before coordinated winter exams were scheduled across courses with large class sizes. Exams initially written to be given in-person had to be lengthened in number of questions, says John M. Alongi, director of undergraduate studies in mathematics. To ensure an even playing field, the exams became open-book, open-internet and timed.
“This was almost as far from ideal as we can imagine,” Alongi says. “We had to really pivot very quickly from a traditional final examination format to an alternative strategy within a matter of days. As that was occurring there was evolving policy from our university administration responding to the pandemic. As we would begin to develop a strategy, the situation would change and we would have to adjust our strategy.”
Students should expect each department and course to have its own unique set of limitations when it comes to how schools proctor online exams. Alongi says exams administered by Northwestern’s mathematics department are challenging because multiple choice and true-or-false questions aren’t used often, but free response questions are more difficult to give online.
Many colleges including Northwestern are relying on Canvas, a web-based learning management system, which can be used as a platform for online exams. Students using Canvas may encounter three primary online exam formats: essay exams; exams that have been converted to a series of smaller quizzes; and exams given online in combination with tools that lock down students’ web browsers so they cannot look up outside information or leave the exam until it is submitted.
Students might also have professors who choose to get creative with integrating video and other tools into exams, says Melissa Loble, chief customer experience officer at Instructure, the creator of Canvas.
“In particular around exams and preventing plagiarism or cheating, we’ve seen a significant increase in usage of tools like Turnitin and Respondus,” both tools that aim to help maintain the academic integrity of online exams, Loble says. “We’re overall seeing a 40% increase over normal utilization of Canvas already, and we’re seeing significant growth in the use of interactive conferencing and videos in general.”
Still, students may encounter issues unique to the extreme circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic when trying to take exams online. James Conran, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Oregon, says even aiming to choose an online exam format that was least disruptive to students came with challenges.
“A couple of students had travel-related complications on the day that meant they asked for and received extensions of a couple of hours,” Conran wrote in an email. “There was a late submission policy but in practice I didn’t impose any penalties.”
The transition to online exams should work for most students, Conran says, but those with children, multiple roommates or a failed internet connection could run into issues. Experts say students in these situations should communicate with their professor about the issue. Conran says, “I would tend to just take them at their word,” as most professors will likely offer students the benefit of the doubt during these unprecedented times.
As professors have more time to prepare for online classes in the coming weeks, Conran says students can expect that classes might rely more heavily on research papers and essays instead of multiple choice or free response online exams.
While higher education braces for the coronavirus crisis to extend into the summer, possibly affecting fall courses and exams, much remains unknown about how college policies on exams will evolve.
Alongi says his department is still working to understand the constraints on students in taking online exams, but for now the department plans to stick with the online, open-book format for spring quarter exams.
“As we’re pivoting to remote instruction, we don’t have the luxury of being able to really think hard about a longer-term solution to this problem. If this crisis extends into the fall, I think we’ll have an opportunity during summer to more carefully consider what our options are,” he says. “This is something we’re still trying to sort out.”