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Taking exams online

Ever wondered what it would be like for a computer to mark exams for you? Strathallen College has been testing exam software that does just that and more, writes Matthew Humber.

There are wide ranging debates amongst educational institutions as to the validity of online examinations, the focus of which seems to be on the key skills needed by modern students as opposed to skills needed by past generations.

The ability to research and evaluate seems fundamental due to the vast array of information available on the Internet. The rare (bi-annual) and very formal method of examining knowledge in a silent, lengthy, hand-written test is very foreign to today’s students.

If we’re saying ‘we’re concerned about 21st Century skills and we’re concerned about whether students have the capacity to work with this technology in their profession’, then maybe we need to be more creative and productive around introducing it to assessments.

Right mix of teacher and assessment

In an effort to support that initiative, the first truly online examinations for ACG Strathallan College were developed last term. It was extremely important to get the right mix of teacher and assessment material to ensure that the process worked efficiently. Fortunately, music teacher Guinevere Ryan was courageous enough to pilot the endeavour. Working within Respondus, to create the assessment and then linking directly to our learning management system, Blackboard, meant that not only would the students sit the exam online but it would mark itself too.

“Creating the exam was very straight forward,” she explained. “You select the type of question (like multiple choice), type in the question and answer(s) and allocate the appropriate amount of points. We spent a bit of time trouble shooting how we could incorporate the audio into the exam so it ran efficiently for the students.

“The best part as a teacher was having the exam mark itself. You’re able to go through the answers and allocate more points if required. And once the marks are finalised the exam can be released to the students, so they too can view their exam.”

We did experience some issues dealing with a large volume of data being accessed at one time. We overcame this by running the audio through a shared server to ensure that the audio files did not slow the rate of access for the students.

Students pace themselves

The benefits, however, are enormous. For example, previously, should a student have misheard or misinterpreted an audio clip then they were unable to listen again due to the clips being played by an invigilator. This new system gave the students time and a chance to back track should they need to. Each student had their own headphones and could listen to the embedded audio as often as required before answering the question.

“The students enjoyed being able to pace themselves through the exam and enjoyed having an interactive format to work from,” said Guinevere. “They had spent some time answering Respondus questions in class so the basic format was not foreign to them.”

Questions relating to visual content were also easy to administer by attaching the images directly to the proposed question.

As for the future, Guinevere plans to use Respondus for all of her junior music exams and I have already been approached by numerous faculties who are keen to setup their assessments online as the benefits can clearly be seen. Many view it as wisely invested time to ensure a more efficient use of time at busy periods. The students also seemed pleased with the format and responded overwhelmingly in support of the new structure.

Matthew Humber is Director of ICT and co-ordinator of technology at Strathallan College.

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Categories: Article, Issue 30

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