Examining Exams

Here is a CFI Teaching Toolbox email on final exams in these COVIDious times, co-authored by my colleague Emily Gravett and me.

Special Edition Teaching Toolbox:

Examining Final Exams

by Andreas Broscheid and Emily O. Gravett

One of the main concerns we’ve heard from colleagues about online teaching is connected to the integrity of grades. Online exams and other assignments give new opportunities for cheating: Students can use Google to look up answers without actually having learned the material; they can email and text each other during exams; they can take photos of test questions and distribute them widely; they can outsource their work to others who are more knowledgeable and more than happy to be paid. After all, on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.

Common responses to such concerns include timed tests that make it difficult for students to cheat, as cheating takes time, and various forms of online proctoring, for example, through video conferencing systems monitored by professional services. Yet these approaches can be problematic. Timed tests are not only a barrier for some students with disabilities (who theoretically can get extended time through an ODS access plan, though not all students have the economic resources to get the required medical tests to receive such accommodations in the first place), but also for students who do not have the economic resources for fast or reliable internet connections. (Try taking a timed exam from a McDonalds parking lot!) And forced video proctoring violates student privacy, as we—or the proctoring services—spy into their living spaces that now double as work spaces, and data security, as their movements are tracked and sold to third parties. (For more about problems with video proctoring, see this recent Washington Post article.)

Some disciplines and programs may nevertheless force instructors to use such “brute force” strategies against cheating, even if these strategies discriminate against otherwise already disadvantaged students and do not fully prevent the problem. We hope that the current crisis leads to a reconsideration of such policies, but faculty may have no choice but to follow suit in such circumstances. For those who have the academic freedom to avoid timed and proctored exams, we offer the following suggestions and considerations, in addition to those from JMU Libraries:

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More on jigsaws and video lectures

In my post from March 31, I mentioned an assignment in which students in my US Judiciary class were asked to create mini online lectures on aspects of the Supreme Court process. I think it was a smashing success: Six of the seven student teams have created their videos, and a seventh is on the way. Not only that: the other students are busy watching and commenting. I uploaded the videos into TechSmith Relay, since this has two advantages: First, the videos can be restricted to the class only, so that student privacy can be guaranteed and FERPA won’t come knocking on my door. Second, there is a feature that lets students comment and ask questions about a specific point in the video. Neat! I can see video views, and there now in the high 70s and 80s. Not bad for 29 students. (OK, some of those views must have been me, but still.)

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Beyond “One Post and two Responses”

Here is the final draft of an essay that I wrote for this week’s installment of the CFI Teaching Toolbox. I thank my colleague Emily Gravett for feedback and edits.

Discussions are great teaching tools. They can help students achieve a wide range of learning objectives: better understand course concepts, apply content to real-world examples, explore different sides of a question or controversy, analyze an important question based on the class readings, and more. Going beyond the traditional learning objectives of Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive learning, class discussion can enable students to make connections with fellow students, learn how to deal with different opinions and emotional reactions, and build community. Finley (2013) notes outcomes such as “increased perspective-taking, understanding, empathy, and higher-order thinking, and more.”

Class discussion is an activity well-suited for online learning environments; in fact, participation online tends to be higher than in face-to-face discussions (Orlando 2017). An Edutopia resource guide notes that online discussions can foster community building, reflection, consensus building, critical thinking, and student leadership (2009).

Online class discussion typically takes the form of a discussion board. Watch a video lecture, take a quiz, participate in a discussion board: this is the common trifecta of online classes. The discussion board typically asks students to post a response to a question posed by the instructor and to respond to at least two other student posts. The instructor hopes that this assignment will spark sustained online interactions among students, but often this is not what happens: students do the bare minimum, and that’s that.

This state of affairs is sad, considering the promise that online discussion offers. Even in our current situation, where we have to create online learning experiences on the fly and with little preparation, well-designed discussion boards can offer students and faculty some of the personal interaction that for many of us is at the center of our work as educators. So, how can we create and facilitate discussion boards that are effective, engage students, and help achieve the outcomes promised in the literature? It’s not easy, and it doesn’t always work, but here are some suggestions:

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Online Jigsaw!

Today started with another oops moment. Yesterday, I spent several hours creating class activities, a feedback survey about the first week, and another short video lecture. I posted everything in a Canvas module—and then forgot to make the module available. One missing click! and the students couldn’t access the materials. Welcome to LMS land!

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Going Online

The following is a preliminary version of an article (or advice email, or whatever it’ll be) that in a couple of days will probably go out through JMU’s Center for Faculty Innovation, my employer. But until then it’ll go through a couple of checks and revisions, and I thought I should circulate this draft a bit sooner, in case people who are currently working on transitioning their in-person classes to online formats. This means I should add the following disclaimer: this version represents my own viewpoint and not that of James Madison University. In particular, the introduction will probably be replaced with something more, ahem, sober. I hope you’ll enjoy it nevertheless.

Oh, and I should mention the amazing and intrepid work of the JMU Libraries, who are creating the backbones support structure to get JMU faculty up to speed about online learning, particularly Christie Liu, Eric Stauffer, and Elaine Kaye. Elaine and my colleague Emily Gravett provided valuable feedback on the piece, (though all errors and foolishnesses are my own fault).

All comments will be appreciated!


So you’ve bought all the toilet paper, hand sanitizer, wet wipes, rice, cheesy novels, and gummy bears that you could find and afford and are ready to face any hurricane, snow storm, campaign rally, Justin Bieber concert, or space invasion that may come your way. Oh, and that pandemic.

Gulp. I know. Nothing like reading the news from Italy to get a reminder of your own mortality. A quick check of the calendar and, yup, you are now in the age range in which COVID-19 may create some actual damage.

And like at other institutions, your employer moved basically all classes online. Within one week. That’s the right decision, but also a major stress on top of an already stressful situation. What should you do? Here are some suggestions:

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