Some Suggestions for Online Exams and Quizzes

A friend asked yesterday how we can set up valid exams (ones that measure what we want them to measure) in the quick transition to online classes. Again, the process is different in a class that wasn’t originally online, during a time of crisis, for students who are not prepared to be online learners. So I’ll repeat my key advice: You are not doing work to the caliber that would be required if you were building an online course, and you cannot because there is not time or resources, and your students are not prepared to do the work that such a course would require. (Remember that many of them chose your F2F course because they know that it is the best fit for them, in part because they lack the resources.)

Today, some general guidelines. (Updated: Here is a post on how to use a test bank to curb cheating.)

  1. Decide if you want to do more work now or later. Robust objective tests (multiple choice, t/f) are harder to create but much easier to grade than exams that require students to write a lot. Of course, many of us use a combination of question types, but this is the first decision: what portion of the work do you want to do now v. later. Right now, you might make the decision based on your prediction of what could happen in your own life this semester. If you anticipate having children home from school soon but they’re not home yet, I recommend taking the time to write a test that will be easier to grade later.
  2. Collecting private data about students—including biometric information or video recordings of them taking exams—is unethical in a class that was not online when they registered for it. While classes that are designed for online students may make use of these security measures (We can argue about the ethics of recording students ever later.), students who are moving from F2F to online cannot freely consent to these, so don’t use them. Even if you ask them if it’s okay, they are not in a position to say no, so it’s not real consent.
  3. Students should not be asked to install any software. They may not have the resources to install them, especially as some may be using borrowed computers or ones in the public library (though these are rapidly closing).
  4. Software that prevents students from opening new tabs on the internet are ineffective at preventing them from using online resources. Students who have the resources will simply open a new tab on a second computer or use their phones—and students who do not will be penalized for following your rule that the exam be closed-internet.
  5. Make every assessment open-notes, open-book, and open-internet. You won’t be able to stop students from using these resources anyway. Making these resources available also means you can ask more complex questions, including ones that test their skills at using resources. You might just end up designing a better test!
  6. Limit the time to take the exam so that students cannot easily collaborate with each other. But make it enough time that they can be interrupted to get a child a drink or change a diaper.
  7. Present questions and answers in random order. This discourages cheating because students won’t have the time to scan all 50 questions on their exams to figure out which ones are the same as their peers.
  8. I permit students to try exams up to two times.. Otherwise, you will have students who face legitimate tech problems with taking the exam, and if only one attempt is available, they will email you in a panic asking you to re-set it. Save yourself the trouble of having to do so. Also, because unconscious bias can shape our perception of who is being honest and who is trying to deceive us into a second attempt, a policy that always allows second attempts increases fairness.
  9. But only count the most recent, not necessarily the highest, score. This discourages cheating; if you record the highest score, you give students who do well the first time incentive to open the test a second time and simply screenshot the questions to share with friends, which compromises the test’s validity. If they know that a second attempt will require them to do well on it, they’re a lot less likely to do that.
  10. Set your test up so that questions are presented all at once since when they are presented one at a time, there can be a significant lag in opening the next page.
  11. Disable any autosubmit features, which automatically submit the assignment if the internet closes. WiFi can flicker in and out without a student realizing it, so their answers submit after only a few questions are answered, even though they actually continue to complete the exam.

Above, St. Jerome used notes. It’s okay if your students do too.

So far, this is a list of why high-tech solutions to cheating don’t work so well. The fact is, we can never guarantee that there will be no cheating in a class—including in person. Even if you check IDs as you hand out an exam, most of us aren’t well trained on facial recognition to make sure that the person taking the test matches their ID.  What we can do is our reasonable best.

The good news, I think, is that the same methods for writing good tests are also ones that discourage cheating. As with so many things, good andragogy is the answer. I’ll share them separately.

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5 thoughts on “Some Suggestions for Online Exams and Quizzes

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  1. What can I do when administration pushes and requires students to download and install a program that “prevent cheating” during final exams? Administration is also requiring them to record themselves while taking the exam with this program. The program (Lockdown Respondus) can record students with their webcams. Instructors in the department have voiced their concerns about the program and the administrator does not want to listen. Moreover, these are college students who are English Language Learners. These are F2F classes moved to the online platform because of the Covid 19 situation. Any feedback and recommendation will be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would use the words “exposing the university to unnecessary risk of litigation.” I’d check with a privacy advocacy group to see if they have model language. And consider a call to a state senator who would be sympathetic to the issue—and let the admin know that it can only be expected that some agitated student is going to call that anti-higher ed Libertarian asshole senator, the one itching for a reason to cut higher ed even further. Maybe also an anonymous call to the ethics violation hotline for the university expressing concern. And put your meanest tenured faculty on it, arguing academic freedom.

      Then, come up with an alternative final that is designed to be open book.

      In other words: run a flank that makes what you are offering look more appealing.

      If the university argues that the recording is to prevent someone else from taking the exam on the student’s behalf, ask what the procedures are for that for in person classes. Ask how faculty are trained to match IDs to faces in either in person or online classes to prevent ringers.

      Of course, we are not. Which shows that this is security theater, not actual protection of exam integrity.

      Then, don’t do it.

      If you are not tenured, make it an accident. After all, how can you be expected to get all of this right? Forget to set up Respondus Lockdown.

      Or if you are tenured, let the admin know they can drop dead. Are they going to withhold grades for a bunch of international tuition paying students? Especially if the whole university does it?

      I know these answers sound flip, but they aren’t. I also know that not everyone is in a position where they can resist this kind of bullshit. But it really is in the best interest of the university to stop this.

      Otherwise, the press gets ahold of it and there are ugly stories about how your university admins were terrible when students needed compassion. And who can afford bad press when enrollment is already going to be down? Students will be choosing between online programs in the fall, and they will not be considering ones who get bad reviews because of stuff like this.


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