Midterms in the era of remote learning

Midterms in the era of remote learning

Photo Credits: Justin Han / Aggie. While some universities are no longer proctoring exams online, UC Davis is still using systems like ProctorU.

From business as usual, to no exam at all: different ways professors are administering midterms remotely

With the first ever wave of online midterms now behind us, students and professors alike have been forced to evaluate, and reevaluate, the merits of exam-based assessments and how best to navigate them in this new digital terrain.

At the beginning of the quarter, many professors who normally hold in-class, closed-note and timed exams decided against this model for this extraordinary quarter. 

Korana Burke, a lecturer in the Math Department and current Math 17B professor, chose not to administer midterm exams this quarter due to the sudden switch to remote learning. 

“Part of the reason why I decided not to give midterms this quarter is because I wanted to have some time to gather more information on how to best give exams in this kind of setting,” Burke said.

By choosing not to hold midterms, Burke gave herself time to weigh her options regarding the final — though the exact format is still up in the air. 

As Burke normally provides everything to her students but a writing utensil during exams, her goal in crafting an online examination is to have it be as close to this model as logistically possible. This means that the only barrier to taking an exam should be events out of both her and her students’ control, such as the internet cutting out. 

In place of midterms, Burke has opted for increased homework and weekly quizzes, which she is also using as data points while crafting a final. 

Other professors have decided to continue administering midterms but have changed key aspects of exam taking. 

Chemistry Lecturer Bryan Enderle, a current instructor for Chemistry 2B, has decided to follow this route by making what would normally be a closed-book exam completely open-book. Enderle chose to make the exam open-book in order to mitigate cheating and to level the playing field.

“[A] really negative result would have been a bimodal mean, which to me might have indicated access issues for people: The disadvantaged folks on the bottom of the mean and the very advantaged or savvy people up on the high end,” Enderle said.

Despite the potential for this achievement gap and fears from colleagues who expressed concerns that making the exam open-note would skew the mean, the exam’s histogram was perfectly normal. 

“The plot of the histogram was beautiful,” Enderle said. “Some better than some in-class exams.”

Another aspect of exams that every instructor must address is whether to — and how to — proctor exams. Though Burke had considered the use of a proctoring system such as ProctorU, concerns still remain about the accessibility, accuracy and privacy of such proctoring tools. Other universities, including UC Berkeley, ban the use of proctoring systems for these very reasons. Enderele decided to proctor his exam by having students unmuted in Zoom Discussion sections, allowing TAs to hear a student’s environment while also allowing students a quiet testing environment if they turn their device volume down. 

In addition to simply allowing the TAs to monitor for any suspicious activity, this form of proctoring allowed Enderle more control. 

“I was hoping [for control] in a positive way, of the students and the proctoring situation, to tailor it toward the students and to be understanding of the situation that they were in,” Enderle said. 

This form of proctoring also addresses one of the largest concerns with proctoring systems: their effect on those who have accommodations

While using proctoring systems, students who have accommodations to read out loud, to have bathroom breaks or to use assistive technology can be wrongly flagged as having potentially cheated. 

Accessible Technology Analyst Joshua Hori explained that this is why it is crucial that even though exams may be online and students are in rooms alone, students must still seek out accommodations beyond just extended time on exams.

Similarly, many students who didn’t need accommodations on campus now need them in the era of online learning. This doesn’t just affect students: The Student Disability Center is also offering 12–1 p.m. drop-in hours, Monday through Friday, for faculty and other resources on the Keep Teaching website to help support instructors during this time.  

Though the switch to online instruction has made exams more logistically challenging for some students with accommodations, others, such as those who have accommodations to take exams in a quiet room or in a room alone, are often helped by the switch to online instruction. 

In general, the switch to online instruction has made people think more broadly about testing mastery of a subject, beyond simply traditional testing formats. Hori is optimistic that this change in the way exams are administered can positively impact future students. 

Science and Technology Studies Assistant Professor Emily Merchant also expects the way that we administer exams during remote instruction will make a lasting impact on the way we view future exams. 

“I feel like [taking exams is] not a great use of class time because we only have 10 weeks to begin with,” Merchant said. “It’s possible that this will lead faculty in the future to give out-of-class exams using this kind of software rather than giving exams in class.”

Another viewpoint is that exams are not simply a way to separate students who will pass the class and those who will fail, but exams are also a tool for assessing how much students have learned and which topics need more reinforcement.

“[Exams are] a way for faculty to assess if there are areas that students are struggling with and then they can go back and cover the material that students might be struggling with,” said Susan Ebler, the associate dean of undergraduate academic programs in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. “I think faculty view exams as an important part of the learning process.” 

Written by: Jessica Baggott — campus@theaggie.org