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If final exams are not an option, what are the alternatives?

The current Coronavirus is requiring universities to find rapid but reasonable alternatives to face-to-face assessments in situations when staff or students cannot attend in person. This Quick Guide aims to offer some suggestions on in-session adjustments that might be made to assure the standards of students’ achievements. However, it needs to be recognized that, in ideal circumstances, none of these would be quick fixes but are likely to need considerable planning, training and activity on behalf of the university to ensure they are viable for staff and students. Any alternatives should endeavour to “be as close as possible to the current unit running in face-to-face mode” (University of Sydney*) and should maintain the balance of formative and summative assessment accessible.

In these difficult times, experts advise it’s easier to stick to low-tech and text-based systems and recommend the simpler the better. It is also important to recognise that university staff, including learning support staff and administrators, may themselves be affected by illness or by disruptions in childcare or other family support. It is important that any changes to assessment are communicated and explained to both students and all those involved in assessment of learning outcomes.

Why is it important to explore alternatives?

The current outbreak is likely to impact students’ final assessments and beyond, so we need to aim to alleviate the inevitable disruption of study as well as consequent awarding of marks and degrees that are likely to be caused by university campus closures. Most universities, therefore, may wish to make strenuous but reasonable efforts to mitigate subsequent disadvantages students might experience.

What can we reasonably do?

In our view there are two basic strategies programme teams might adopt:

Change the mode of submission

Work that was formerly submitted in hard copy could now be submitted electronically, ideally through established university e-submission systems but also, in the final resort, via email to a named contact. Many of you are already using e-submission processes for coursework, including narrated PowerPoints or similar for submitting student presentations. Where students can make video recordings, these can be submitted electronically, however, some work, such as artefacts, will still be problematic.

Offer alternative assessment formats

The table below provides some manageable alternatives to consider, together with some important considerations.  What are suggested here are some reasonable adjustments to be used in times of crisis, which will not exactly replicate the original assessments, but may offer your students some manageable alternatives in challenging times. Below the table we have included some links to resources* that you may find useful.

If you currently use… You could instead consider using… To ensure standards, you might need to consider…
Time-constrained unseen exams in invigilated exam rooms or in-class tests “Take-away” exams, in which you set the questions or tasks virtually and ask the students to submit their responses electronically within a set period of time (see detailed advice leaflets from LSE4 and Manchester Met below5).

Remote proctoring often relies on students being able to use technology that can be problematic for home use, so it’s not as straightforward.

UM Learn can support the timed release of examination papers and corresponding submission facilities that can help support time-constrained exams.
As with normal take-away papers where students have access to materials, the design of questions may need to be reframed to move away from recall-based tasks to questions that require students to demonstrate how they use information, rather than reiterate what they have learned. It will be important, therefore, to provide guidance for students with the change in orientation of the task. It is also good practice to re-run any changes to question formats through the usual moderation processes.

It is unlikely you will be able to put this in place for scalable numbers unless you already have systems in place; although various vendors are working hard to meet urgent demand.

To deter cheating, you could advise students that you will run ‘spot checks’ with a sample of the student population, where you will discuss their reasoning for the answers they’ve provided.
In-class presentations where students speak to an audience of their peers/others and are assessed not only on the content but also their presentation techniques Ask students (individually or in groups) to submit a narrated presentation in electronic form that can then be tutor-marked and peer-reviewed.

PowerPoint is familiar to most students, and offers a slide-by-slide voice-narration recording facility.

Ask students to prepare a podcast on the topic to be submitted electronically.
You will need to take account of the fact that, given the recorded presentation format, students can have multiple opportunities to prepare the item they are submitting, rather than having to cope with the one-off nature of a live presentation.
Portfolio, logbook or assessment notebook It is likely that the best solution here is to move hard-copy portfolios to e-portfolios, for example in UMLearn. Where these have been partially completed already, assessors will have to use professional judgment to decide whether sufficient evidence of achievement of the learning objectives has been achieved already by the time of university closure.
For some students without ready internet access or lacking digital confidence the move to e-portfolios might be quite challenging, and they may need extra guidance.
Oral exams, for PhD examinations in person, or other forms of oral assessment (e.g. in language learning) These could readily be undertaken by Webex or other electronic remote means (as they already are on occasions when Doctoral examinations are undertaken transnationally). Students may need significant support in developing confidence to work virtually where they have no prior experience.
Assessed seminars, group discussions and other similar activities It is likely these could be held in an online platform already used within your university such as WebEx. Staff as well as students may need be supported to learn how to use this approach if it isn’t currently part of their normal learning experiences.
Lab work It may be possible to replicate some aspects of lab work through simulations in which students are presented with data sets and required to interpret them. Often this means focusing on interpretation of data rather than working in the lab to achieve the results personally.
Simulations can also be used remotely so students can ‘see’ data produced elsewhere and be asked to comment/interpret.
If students can be provided with different data sets for personal interpretation, this can mitigate the risk of ‘over-sharing’ or personation.
Posters You can potentially use a digital infographic, mind map or other visuals which can be submitted via UM Learn, for example, or posted in shared spaces, particularly if peer review is required. To confirm authenticity of the submitter, you may wish to supplement this with a short online oral.
Objective Structured Clinical Examinations (OSCE) and other test requiring students to demonstrate a range of skills It may be possible for students to submit digital portfolios containing, for example, videos of themselves performing a range of practical tasks. This may be problematic in professional disciplines where the achievement of specific capabilities is required at 100% (e.g. Nursing, drugs calculations).
Peer assessments and support Peers can email each other drafts for comments or use a virtual space within the university’s LMS e.g. UM Learn. Group performances may well be too complex to organize off-site.
Theatre, dance and other performances Individuals and groups can be asked to work off-site to prepare and submit videos of their work, alongside reflective commentaries/accounts. Videos cannot replicate the authentic live performance  element but may suffice in crisis time.
Face-to-face feedback Individual and generic group feedback can be delivered by tutors via audio or online means.  

Best practices for open book final exams delivered online

  • Prior to the exam, explain clearly to your students that they have access to their resources (clarify what resources those will be – textbook, study notes, ppts, etc.)
  • With open book exams, students often think they don’t need to study, but that’s not the case. Consider giving a practice exam with a few questions (5-10) to demonstrate that students do need to study and also to help set expectations of how time consuming it can be to look for answers when you don’t know where to look. Place emphasis on students needing to understand the context of the material to be able to answer questions. 
  • Along with the previous point, give enough questions that completing the exam within the 2 hours will be tight, so that students don’t have ample time to randomly search their books for the answers. In UM Learn, enforce the time limit (Restrictions tab in Quiz set up)
  • Write tough questions that use application and analysis so students have to show they understand the concepts, rather than basic information and memorization that can be easily Googled. 
  • If you have a large class, make questions all auto-gradable (no Long Answer) – multiple choice, true/false and multi-select type questions can all be auto-graded. Rather than spending time grading, spend the extra effort upfront to write good, tough questions with strong distractors. 
  • Consider randomizing your questions and/or using question pools to help vary the questions each student gets. This will limit opportunities for sharing questions and answers, especially if students will not all be taking the exam at the exact same time.
  • Provide clear instructions at the beginning of the exam (on the starting page) to reiterate what resources they can use, how long they have, how many questions will be asked, and what type of questions. This helps students manage their own time.

Here’s a really good resource, Exam Prep: Strategies for open book exams, to pass along to students, to help them be more successful when taking open book exams.

Adapted from: Higher Education, Lyndsay Duncan.

Key takeaways

With hard work, imagination and co-operation by students, it can be the case that alternatives are established in a short space of time that can certainly equal and may even improve on the current methodology. However, it is crucially important that decisions are based on sound pedagogic considerations and that they match the scale and level of the learning outcomes the program teams are committed to by the course documentation. It is also important to remember that both staff and students may be working outside their comfort zones, and that support be provided for those struggling with new approaches. As with all forms of assessment, account will need to be taken of reasonable adjustments for all students with temporary or long-term health conditions, disabilities and additional needs.

References and resources principally on assessment


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