If you’re under pressure to reconfigure quizzes, tests, exams and other assignments because of time pressure or or lack of access to physical settings (such as during a pandemic), this is a good opportunity to revisit principles and practices that might help you through this situation.

As always, the focus should be on supporting students to have a good learning experience over the duration of any semester, and when it comes to assessment, considering the assessment formats that will really provide evidence of student learning.  Online exams are clearly not the only answer…

1. In the digital age, an online test is, de facto, open book or collaborative.

Students have smart phones and are in contact with peers all the time, so this is not something you’ll be able to “control” with any confidence.

It’s true that you can use the tools of VIULearn to limit test time with the goal of making it more difficult for students to cheat, but it’s a slippery slope. Be careful that prevention of cheating does not become the driver of your on-line quizzes and tests. Also, adding time constraints will put certain students at a great disadvantage, and will falsify the results. If you’re worried about cheating, look for alternative ways to assess learning.

2. Invigilation is not needed if the test is well-conceived.

The need for invigilation usually occurs when the test format (e.g., multiple choice, short answer) creates an increased risk of copying among students. This is often accompanied by the issue of low-level testing, in which students are lured into simply finding a correct answer—with any means available—rather than having to think for themselves to respond to a specific situation.

When invigilation is not an option (as in online courses) consider asking questions where students have to reason for themselves, and then use fewer questions. These can be open-ended questions, but they don’t necessarily need to require page-long answers. A couple of sentences or a short paragraph might be enough, if the prompt is well crafted, for you to measure the quality of their thinking.

3. Short tests are fine—and often superior to long tests.

A test is at best a sampling of evidence for learning, not full-blown, irrefutable proof. While a long, comprehensive test covering every nook and cranny of content might feel more valid than a short one, it’s probably not. Students who have prepared sufficiently tend to do consistently well on all questions. Giving them fewer questions does not tell you any less about their learning, as long as the fewer questions are truly representative of the types of learning you want to test.

4. Adopt alternative, digital-friendly formats for more authentic assessment.

If you accept that an invigilated exam using short answer questions is no longer practical in the Age of the Coronavirus, what are your options? Short essays are always reliable. Asking students to create graphic representations, or make short videos to demonstrate their learning can be energizing for students, and allow them to exercise their creativity. Blogs and Digital Portfolios containing an organized collection of evidence are often more effective ways to measure student learning than traditional tests.

It’s time to think hard about anything students could do, self-directed, to show you that they have met the goals of the course.

4. Consider real-time tests.

If you have a small number of students, why not test students briefly, one-by-one, over the phone, or using a chat or Zoom? This can be done in as little as 5-10 minutes per student—although you have the option of spending more time with each student if your roster is small and you want to use the test to probe student thinking more fully.

You can also give students the option of responding to question prompts in the medium of their choice. Some will prefer to respond by an email; others will prefer to have a face-to-face meeting; others might be OK with a phone call.

5. It’s the type of question that establishes the validity of a test, not the number of questions.

A 50- or 100-question test of low-level learning (e.g., recognition, recall of definitions, simple re-statements of information) is likely to be less valid for a post-secondary course than a single question that aims at students’ ability to put certain concepts to use in situational thinking. Especially at the end of the course, a small number of well-conceived questions might be sufficient—if those questions require students to think analytically and critically while using course content.

If you have no choice but to use on-line testing, the following three suggestions apply. Additional information on creating and managing online assessments can be found in CIEL’s help pages for VIULearn

7. Distribute different questions to different students, to reduce likelihood of cheating.

VIULearn allows you to create banks of questions, and then to strategically randomize the set that each student will be asked to answer. For example, you can set up banks of questions on different subject areas or levels of difficulty, and ensure that each student receives a fair mix.

8. Randomize the order of test questions and/or the order of answers, if the format is multiple choice.

If you have no choice but to administer the same test questions to all students, VIULearn allows you to take the same questions and distribute them in different sequences to each student. You can also use the system to randomize the order in which multiple choice options appear, so that students will have a slightly different view of each question.

9. Consider reducing the weight of exams that have to be administered online.

Rather than try to control student behaviour in a situation that is impossible to monitor, consider changing the function of the online assessment from summative to formative. Turn online tests and quizzes into “practice,” while placing more weight on other assignments, where it is easier to ensure that students are responsible for their own work.