4 Tips for Offering Online Exams

online exams
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The University of New England, Australia has offered correspondence courses since the early 1950s but until recently most students still had to take in-person exams. 

The university is a separate institution from the University of New England in the U.S., and has long had students spread out across Australia and the globe. UNE utilized a network of about 400 exam centers around the world where students could schedule their exams, but the process was often disrupted by world events. 

“We've dealt with wars, bushfires, floods, mail strikes, and riots,” says Kylie Day, UNE’s manager, exams and e-assessment. “We held exams in Fukushima, when the tsunami hit, and the nuclear power plant went off. We've had exam centers bombed the week before our exams were being held. So the logistics were massive, the disruption was routine.” 

In 2017, UNE began offering exams online with software designed to prevent student cheating. By the end of 2019, nearly half of the university’s exams were being offered online. Since the coronavirus pandemic began, 100 percent of the exams have been remote. 

“In the last 12 months, we've held 40,000 exams online,” Day says. 

Though there are privacy concerns around online exams, Day says the majority of UNE students enjoy the convenience, so the way the institution offers exams is being changed for the better. 

Day shared four tips for instructors considering proctoring exams this way. 

Rethink the Exam Structure  

Switching from paper to online exams is an opportunity for instructors to reexamine the exams themselves, Day says. “It requires you to question why you hold exams, why you hold exams when you do, and how you hold exams.” 

UNE administrators are considering doing away with an exam period because it initially was created for logistical purposes. “We needed to have all the exam venues booked, and the desks and chairs moved in, and the supervisors ready in the papers there,” Day says. “Now we are able to hold exams, anywhere, anytime, any day. So why do we need an exam period? It's allowing structural changes to the academic calendar, it gives us a few weeks per teaching period back for teaching, perhaps.” 

Day says you can also incorporate elements of video and website exploration into your exam, opening up both the type of questions you ask and the type of answers students can provide. 

Prioritize Student Convenience

When they switch to online exams, many instructors try to recreate a lecture hall exam by having everyone take the test at the same time. “A lot of institutions that I talked to think that it has to be done that way for academic integrity reasons,” Day says. She doesn't agree. She advises asking exam questions that require a deeper level of understanding so even if a student received an advance question from a classmate who has already taken the exam, it won’t matter. 

Remember, holding asynchronous exams really helps students juggle various aspects of their lives, Day says. “A student can choose to sit their exam at 10 o'clock at night at the kitchen table, after work and after the kids have gone to bed,” she says. 

UNE students have taken their exams from bed when they were unwell, on cruise ships during vacations, and while on military deployment. One student even took his law exam under a gum tree in a remote area of Australia. “We don't know why he needed to do that, but clearly, that worked for him on the day,” Day says. 

Remind Students Online Cheating is Often Less Successful 

Where there are tests, there is cheating. “Even in ancient China, one of the places where exams were first invented, the penalty for cheating was death. And people still cheated,” Day says. “The solution to cheating is, in my mind, much like a public health or public safety campaign -- you talk about behavior in terms of converting risk-taking behavior into help-seeking behavior.” 

For its exams, UNE works with the proctoring company ProctorU. Students can schedule exams 24 hours a day with a live proctor who confirms the student’s identity and watches the student with the help of AI technology, which flags unusual behavior such as typing speed variations, eye movements, etc., to the proctor. 

Day says this method can actually be more effective at preventing cheating than the in-person centers the university used to use. “When we had paper-based exams all over the world, an exam supervisor who might only supervise a couple of exams a year and had no real training, other than a brochure we sent them, would be supervising our exams. And it became clear to me that in many cases, they were checking that the student had an ID card, rather than that they looked like the photo on the ID cards,” she says. “They weren't particularly good at gathering evidence. They weren't particularly good at asserting themselves if they suspected cheating. In my mind, online, supervised exams are actually a lot better.” 

Remember There’s Still a Human Involved  

One common concern about online exams is privacy. “People say, ‘Oh, my God, that's weird. someone's watching me through a webcam, I don't think I like it, they will see stuff in my bedroom,’” Day says. “We say, ‘Just don't have your exam in your bedroom.’” 

The university understands this concern and allows students who express it to take an alternative exam. Recently, that has come in the form of a video-based exam. So far about 5 percent of students have chosen this option. 

Another worry is that AI or a proctor from a company outside of the institution will be deciding cheating cases. That’s not what happens. “We are notified by our proctoring partner if they see something strange,” Day says. “And then we, as humans, decide what to do about that. We have a video, we have the chat log, we have the log from the learning management system.” 

These recordings and logs are good for the student and the university. “We don't ever have to raise issues if we can see that it was just something strange that happened but it wasn't misconduct,” Day says. “Where we think that it could be misconduct, it's very clear cut -- ‘Here's the video, it's obvious.’ It doesn't turn into a drawn-out proceeding for the student or the institution.” 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.