Rethinking examinations in higher education following the coronavirus outbreak

Young woman sits at desk in from of computer studying

By Mathias Bouckaert

Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

For decades, higher education institutions have relied on end-of-semester examinations to certify students’ learning after they took their courses. The coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, which led most institutions around the world to close their campuses and shift examinations on line, has raised a number of challenges for conducting such exams. Our new policy brief on remote examinations on line points out those challenges, but also to short-term and medium-term solutions to address them. The surveillance of test-takers has been a particularly debated issue: how do we reliably certify students’ learning when everyone is taking examinations from home and have more opportunities to cheat as compared to on-site supervised examining? While still central in the current concerns, other ways of thinking about assessment and examination may also emerge from the ongoing crisis.

Short-term solutions for remote exams

Over the last few months, institutions and educators have used several solutions to minimise the risk of cheating in remote online examinations. Some relied on online proctoring technologies to lock down students’ browsers and verify that they did not benefit from external help by recording them throughout the examination. Others adapted their examination methods, for instance by reducing the duration of tests to make cheating more difficult.

While such measures allow for a quick response to the sudden migration of examinations on line, they also pose additional challenges. Online proctoring raises issues in terms of students’ privacy and does not prevent test takers from using other devices to communicate or browse the Internet. Reducing time limits to take a test is likely to give a comparative advantage to students who have access to a high-speed Internet connection and a room of their own over those who are technologically ill equipped or who must share home space with relatives, possibly children. The speed in answering questions may also not be what one really wants to assess to ensure students master the required knowledge and skills.

Rethinking exam and assessment models

Another solution to overcome the surveillance challenge is to rethink the traditional model of examination in higher education altogether. On the one hand, high-stakes final examinations often come with high levels of pressure and stress among students and are known to lead to higher levels of cheating. On the other hand, digital and online environments offer numerous alternative possibilities to measure student learning.

Educators can organise assessment frameworks based on quizzes, discussions on forums, blog posts, portfolios, etc. In some institutions where admissions are highly selective, having high stakes exams is often unnecessary. But even in less selective places, many other solutions might be possible depending on the domain and the knowledge and skills that students should acquire. In the longer run, the scoring processes could also be facilitated using algorithms, AI-powered systems or even peer assessment. In contrast to single final examinations, these technologies allow diversifying measurement methods, assessing and certifying broader sets of knowledge and skills, providing regular feedback to students on their learning and multiplying the number of assessment instances during courses.

Restoring the role of assessment as a driver of learning

Taking advantage of the new online environment to build examination and assessment frameworks that rely on multiple measures to assess student knowledge is also an opportunity to reconcile the formative and summative roles of assessment. Beyond their certification function, examinations, and assessment more generally, are at the core of the teaching mission of higher education institutions as they are a powerful driver of learning. Assessment results provide students with useful feedback to reflect on their learning and, when provided regularly, adapt their learning strategies. In addition, assessment and examinations orient learning by signalling to students what to focus on in order to get a passing grade. What is not assessed is not valued, and therefore less likely to be learned.

Beyond their certification function, examinations, and assessment more generally, are at the core of the teaching mission of higher education institutions as they are a powerful driver of learning.

Rethinking examination models in higher education does not need to be a long-term objective. A recent webinar organised by the OECD Directorate for Education and Skills on remote online examinations in higher education highlighted the need to start thinking about assessment beyond final examinations and to relocate it within the education hierarchy.

Panelists noted that the knowledge, the tools and the expertise already exist within institutions. In particular, teaching and learning centres proved to be crucially important to empower instructors to shift their teaching on line in just a few weeks following campus closures. Now is the time to build instructors’ assessment literacy in higher education and, as Andreas Schleicher noted in concluding the webinar, to “reconcile assessment with learning”.

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