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Exams during the Pandemic

How are exams being held despite Corona?

Teaching & Studies

Over one year has passed since the start of the pandemic: Some things have adapted fully and others are still a great challenge. Unis are facing big hurdles, especially towards the end of the semester: How is it possible to hold exams under corona-conform conditions? In a few exceptions, it is possible for face-to-face exams to take place but usually online exam formats are used. Jens Bücking from the center for Multimedia in Teaching (ZMML), Professor Ivo Mossig, and student Sascha Hebenbrock from the University of Bremen speak to us about their experience with exams in times of corona.

“We’ve carried out online exams with 400 people and everything went well. Not everything runs so smoothly in other digital exams,” tells us Jens Bücking from ZMML. In the area of e-assessment, Jens Bücking and his colleagues provide both media-didactical support, as well as technical help to teaching staff when they try to realize an exam. One of the virtual exam formats is the so-called open-book exam. The students take part in the exam digitally from home and must complete tasks within a specified period. In contrast to face-to-face exams, participants may us aids, such as books and information from the internet. However, they are not allowed to communicate with each other.

At the Institute of Geography, Professor Ivo Mossig created an open-book exam together with ZMML for the first time a few weeks ago. His experience was positive: “We needed to adjust a few things in order to adequately assess the students’ knowledge. It went well and the average grade is only slightly better.” One aspect on which the institute placed a lot of value during the exam organization was the involvement of students: “We received the feedback that students can engage well with online exams if they have planning security.”

Sascha Hebenbrock is of the same opinion. He is in the second semester of a degree in Information Systems and Management and wrote two open-book exams in the winter semester. “One went well – I was able to become familiar with the relevant platform a few days in advance. The other one wasn’t as well organized, as the switch to a digital assessment format was done at too short notice.”

One of the virtual exam formats is the so-called open-book exam. The students take part in the exam digitally from home and must complete tasks within a specified period.
© Hilka Baumann / Universität Bremen

Technology Is a hurdle

It is also sometimes the case that something doesn’t go quite right in terms of technology: internet connection breakdowns, automatic computer updates, or browser add-ons that block the exam system – the ZMML is continually learning more. In Sascha Hebenbrock’s case, everything ran smoothly but he’s heard different stories from fellow students: “Many experienced glitches and they had to log in again. That takes time and is stressful.” If something like that happens to students during an exam, they can take a screenshot and send it to ZMML or their lecturer, “We have a very good technical protocol, where we are able to see most of the glitches. However, some things cannot be tracked. If that applies, the approach of giving the benefit of the doubt to the “defendant” is usually applied.”

“Around 95 to 98 percent of open-book exams run smoothly”

In summary, Jens Bücking finds the outcome of complex online exams to be generally good: “Around 95 to 98 percent of open-book exams run smoothly.” However, the workload is not only enormous for teaching staff, who usually have to entirely rethink their exams. The exam system for open-books exams is very good and user-friendly, explains Jens Bücking. However, the editor for the digitalization of the questions is more difficult to use, which is why the ZMML currently enters all exam questions for teaching staff. This is in addition to consultations, feedback sessions with the teaching staff, test runs, and follow-up work if problems occur. “We have well-oiled work processes now. Yet it took a lot of work to get all of it up and running all of a sudden.”

Cheating in Different Ways

Online exams are not spared of cheating attempts. Yet, there are a few tricks, states Jens Bücking: “For example, it is possible to vary the order and choice of questions and answers so that the students do not have such an easy time communicating the answers.”

There are also a few ways of creating a work balance, as the students can look in their books during the exams. During his open-book exam, Professor Ivo Mossig applied shorter answer times as usual. “Revising is still necessary as looking for something in a book takes time,” explains Professor Ivo Mossig.

Student Sascha Hebenbrock also noticed that the aids don’t help much when time is short. The students also felt that the tasks in the open-books exams were more complex: “I believe that the level in online exams should stay the same as in face-to-face exams, otherwise previous years will have had an advantage. You can’t punish students for the pandemic.”

“Revising is still necessary as looking for something in a book takes time.”

Another pitfall that geography professor Ivo Mossig sees is the repeated use of exams for the next semester: “Questions can be photographed, archived, and passed on by students – I cannot use an online exam again. Each new exam requires a great deal of time and work and I am not able to infinitely vary all questions.”

Face-to-Face Exams as an Exception

However, not every exam can be digitalized. “Not all teaching staff can assess transfer work in their field, or do this without difficulty, as the knowledge of basics is also important,” explains Jens Bücking. That is why in some exceptions, face-to-face exams were able to take place at the uni in the winter semester. Thus, a selected few exams took place in the university test center with a comprehensive hygiene concept: One way systems for entrance and exit ways, ventilation systems, disinfecting of surfaces and equipment, social distancing rules, and the obligatory wearing of a mask, of course.

Will online exams replace face-to-face exams one day? Student Sascha Hebenbrock believes one particular problem to be the stability of internet connections: “My internet is disrupted for a few minutes nearly every single day. If that leads to a disadvantage in online exams then I’d rather take face-to-face ones.” Professor Ivo Mossig is also sure that face-to-face exams will also remain the first choice – as far as is possible in terms of the pandemic. “Other options have become available and paths have been cleared in order for more to be done digitally. That is a chance that we should continue to use – maybe in other areas more than in the field of exams.”

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