As we approach the end of the school semester in the midst of a pandemic, institutions and instructors have been forced to break from the long-held rituals of summative assessment season.

But just as the speed and enormity of the COVID-19 crisis have thrown the usual exam strategies into disarray, the issues of student equity and access have also been thrust into the spotlight.

Related content: 10 best practices for live virtual teaching

The pandemic has done much more than simply shutter campuses. For many students, the closures have disrupted access to vital non-academic resources such as housing and counselling services, as well as the technology they depend on to complete their studies.

Taking into account the complexities of the student experience is arguably more important than ever, especially as instructors explore their options for end of semester assessments.

I encourage educators to think about active learning activities and to use digital teaching platforms to create engaging and effective learning experiences. As schools began to respond to the pandemic by moving classes online, it became essential to help educators ensure the continuity of their courses. In recent weeks, these efforts have expanded to providing advice on options for delivering assessments remotely.

Here is some of the guidance Top Hat has been providing as instructors balance the need for student equity and access, while maintaining some semblance of business as usual during this time of dislocation.

Remote proctored tests and exams

By far the most common request we’ve received is from those seeking to leverage remote proctoring functionality to administer secure remote exams. For many professors, including those teaching courses required for accreditation, this is the best option to ensure course continuity.

Remote proctoring technology has come a long way in recent years. Advanced ID verification, the ability to secure browser, settings and the use of artificial intelligence to monitor students have helped assuage concerns over academic integrity. Access to a variety of different question types and auto-grading functionality are helping create new efficiencies for time-starved educators.

Given the disruption to academic and home life, however, it’s important to consider the student experience before taking the remote proctoring plunge. The reality is that many students are still in the process of moving home or finding accommodation. You may have different time zones to consider and different levels of accessibility depending on computer and internet access.

Remote proctoring also raises concerns about privacy. Depending on your situation, and the technology students have access to, professors can opt to conduct remote proctored exams without the use of a webcam to alleviate some of these concerns. A remotely-proctored exam may be the best option, but ensuring flexibility in terms of implementation, timing, and making exceptions based on individual circumstances should be priority one.

Knowing this pandemic will likely cause disruption for some time to come, adopting a learner’s mindset as you go through the process is important. Consider using your first remote assessment as a stepping stone to explore the full potential of what a digital or blended learning experience could mean for your students in the future.

Open book online exams

In many circumstances, students no longer have the same access to instructors they used to, so having course texts available during an open book exam can help make up for the absence of any support they would have received on campus. I recommend instructors design open book exams to be slightly more difficult than an exam with no aids. You want to make sure that searching the web won’t provide any advantages by focusing your exam squarely on your course content and discussions.

Google Classroom and learning management systems (LMS) like Canvas are more than adequate for supporting this type of approach. This can be an especially good route given that many educators are already familiar with these tools. Google forms and most learning management systems offer a variety of open and closed question types to support the creation of an open book exam. In the case of an LMS, you can also schedule availability to instill a sense of urgency in completing these assignments. Centralizing where students find assignments and submit their work also helps simplify the process while eliminating the frustration of navigating multiple systems.

If you’re new to these tools, it’s a good idea to understand the avenues for support and troubleshooting available to students ahead of time. There’s enough work to do without adding ‘tech support’ to your list of responsibilities. Again, with students being in remote locations, scheduling can be an issue. Make sure to factor this into your design. For example, if the exam takes two hours to complete, you may want to allow a window of four hours to provide the needed flexibility.

Turn your exam into an asynchronous assignment

Over the past month, we’ve worked with many professors whose courses can be completed with an online summative assignment rather than a formal scheduled exam. The structure is similar to a take-home exam but with a longer window to complete the work. With this approach, students in a state of flux needn’t worry about adhering to a set schedule.

I recommend instructors adopting this method intentionally challenge students with more difficult questions. If you’re familiar with Bloom’s taxonomy, think of creating questions that encourage students to apply knowledge and analyze content, rather than just demonstrate understanding through memorization.

5 options for flexible and empathetic summative assessments

Platforms like Top Hat and LMSs including Canvas allow for the use of multiple question types to cover a wide range of scenarios. What’s particularly useful is the ability to embed multimedia content such as video, images, and diagrams, which lend themselves well to analysis and synthesis-based questions. When building assignments, you can also add in hints and prompts to mimic the support students might normally receive from their instructor.

If you’re worried about collaboration, you can actually use this to your advantage. You might even insist on it. Designing a more challenging assignment and allowing peer collaboration on the final submission can be a very rewarding learning experience. Peer instruction has been shown to be very effective and can be incorporated into your final assessments just as easily as your regular participation activities.

Research projects and epic finales

If you’re looking for creative inspiration, Anthony Crider, a professor of Astrophysics at Elon University, has an interesting take. Crider has championed the idea of the ‘epic finale’ in place of the typical exam. This involves having students tackle something new that allows them to apply knowledge gleaned throughout the semester in a creative way. Or, you could give students the opportunity to create something of their own that they can take away from the class as an artifact of their learning. Depending on the course and goals for learning, this may be a more meaningful (and practical) way to bookend the semester.

Whether assigning group-based or individual submissions, you might also consider having students tackle a project using the 4-S style of problem solving. This is where students are challenged to state the problem, structure the problem around possible solutions, solve the problem using a variety of different methods, and sell the solution. Depending on timing, drafts of smaller portions of the major project can be submitted earlier in the course, so it feels like a culmination rather than a singular event.

Video solutions like Google Hangouts make it easy for students to collaborate on assignments. However, depending on the number of students in your class, using Google Hangouts or Zoom may not be realistic when it comes to coordinating presentations. In these instances, I recommend using Loom, which operates as a browser extension and allows you to record both what’s on the screen and the speaker in one go. These recordings can be submitted in a variety of different ways, giving instructors the flexibility to review student work at their convenience. Not only is Loom easy to use, it’s also free.

Culminating summative projects

For those undertaking course design for the spring who also have the luxury of at least some time to prepare, I recommend considering a culminating summative approach. The idea here is to have everything in your course build up to the same, singular assignment. This could begin by having students attempt a major research project or final paper at the beginning of your course, and then using the rest of the learning experience to improve and refine their final submission.

Executed with the benefits of a digital learning platform, it becomes very easy to provide ongoing feedback on different iterations of the same project. By treating your entire course in this manner, you also create opportunities to reward improvement and effort as students progress. This approach has the added benefit of eliminating the need for a final exam. More importantly, the constant revisiting and revising of material can have lasting effects on retention after the course is done. So you can be confident that students have not only achieved but sustained mastery of the material.

If there was ever a time to add a healthy dose of creativity and compassion to your curriculum, it is now. Empathy for students and delivering an equitable experience should be at the center of whatever choice you make. Still, given the pressures educators are facing, there may be no perfect solution. But with a little reflection and a little ingenuity, creating a meaningful end to the semester for all students is still within reach.

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About the Author:

Mike Di Gregorio is the Manager of Customer Education at Top Hat and holds a PhD in Political Science from McMaster University.


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