The tricky questions for assessment to answer

Getting ready for the exams vibe shift

Assessment as we know it (Jim) is facing, or about to face, something of a perfect storm of crisis. Here are some of the factors bearing down on it.

Post pandemic shift to online – during the pandemic most HEIs shifted to online exams. These come in different formats: standard exam essays with anything from 24 hours to 3 weeks to complete; timed ‘real time’ exams over three hours or so; proctored online exams; multiple choice and other automatic assessment.

It turns out that students prefer this form of exam, and many HEIs have decided to stick with it going forward. In some research conducted at the OU, comparing the online versus the previous face to face exams, nearly all the indicators are positive: more students complete the exams, they are closer to their continual assessment scores (but not outrageously high), EDI participation is improved, etc. So the question then arises, why would you want to return to traditional exams, giving the damage they cause and the student preference? A week to complete essays using the internet and library resources is much more realistic a task than sitting in a sealed room and writing with a pen (for chrissakes).

So on the one hand there is this understandable push to largely do away with conventional face to face exams. But this brings the issue of cheating and plagiarism even more to the forefront. The exam has been viewed as the final check against this (even if it’s pretty bad at everything else). The essay format is in a plagiarism arms race with sites such as CourseHero and Chegg – it’s a race HEIs can’t win. We can also add to this the increasing ability of AI to generate pretty good essays, that are largely plagiarism detection proof (as highlighted by Mike Sharples in this Twitter thread:

What we have then is an increasing desire for online exams meeting an increasingly sophisticated market for plagiarism and cheating. It’s difficult to see how the conventional exam can survive this. The answer for some will be to revert back to face to face exams (be prepared for a lot of this in the popular press and from halfwit politicians), or horribly intrusive proctored online exams.

Assessment is one of the core functions of the higher education offering. It shapes a lot of what we do as HEIs. So any significant change to it has a big knock on effect. But the solution to this coming assessment crisis will have to be to change the nature of assessment. As Dave Cormier points out, the other solutions all make things more difficult for the student.

There are some who advocate for the removal of all assessment, or at least of grades, and I can see their argument but I don’t think it will get traction across the sector (which is not to say it’s not worth exploring). There are of course whole books and conferences on different forms of assessment, but it’s probably not as difficult as we think to move away from the default essay or exam (although in some disciplines the exam does make more sense). Some examples include:

  • e-portfolios – constructed from tasks over a course, and with a synoptic piece binding them together.
  • Project based – many of our OU courses have long moved away from an exam and use some form of project.
  • Group projects – with clearly defined roles
  • Focus on ill-structured problems with no right answer
  • Focus on process and reflection

None of these methods is plagiarism-proof if someone really wants to cheat, but then neither is the traditional exam. Most students don’t want to cheat (this seems to be news to some people), but some feel forced to when we make the system too difficult to negotiate or not flexible enough (and some do just want to cheat it has to be said, but a real minority). The system has to contain enough deterrent to prevent this, but also enough engagement to not want to do it in the first place. We tend to focus more on that deterrent part. What a lot of the methods above have in common is that through negotiation around questions and interaction over time an educator gets to know a student and can usually tell when their assessment is authentic.

Most institutions and academics are already engaging in this shift, but the effect of the online pivot accelerates the need for this change. And hey, it may be one of those good changes.


  • Tim Hunt

    Martin, your list of alternative forms of assessment has, for me, a notable gap.

    The one thing that face-to-face invigilated exams can do better than most other forms of assessment, is to verify that the person doing the work is the person to whom we will award the degree certificate. However, locking hundreds of people in a room for 3 hours, and getting the invigilator to check photo id is a pretty artificial way to do that.

    The best suggestion I have seen to tackle this in a no-toxic way is ‘Video-Enhanced Dialogic Assessment’, which I saw presented in the second half of A genuine academic engagement between student and teacher, in conjunction with other assessed tasks. I would love to see more trials of this idea.

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