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Covid accelerates enhancements to student learning


The rapid pivot to online exams, although challenging organisationally, has made visible some limitations of exams and enabled enhancements to student learning that might otherwise have taken much longer to achieve, say researchers from the Centre for Online and Distance Education.  

CODE fellows Gwyneth Hughes and Stylianos Hatzipanagos presented a paper at the international ‘Assessment in Higher Education’ conference in Manchester. The paper ‘Using the disruption of the pandemic to enhance assessment design in distance learning programmes’ by Hughes, G., Hatzipanagos, S., Amrane-Cooper, L. and Tait, A., examined the impact of the pandemic and the rapid pivot to online exams.

The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in unprecedented disruption to assessment, particularly for timed unseen examinations completed in examination centres. With such assessments no longer possible, a rapid response was needed.  Universities had the possibilities of moving exams online or switching to alternative forms of assessment.

Research on assessment in distance learning environments including the relationship between students’ performance and preferences when using online and offline assessments demonstrates the benefits of alternatives such as open book examinations or coursework (Abrar & Mumtaz, 2017; Chase et al, 2017). Technology can also help by automating marking and feedback, consequently improving the student experience and freeing teacher time and expertise for potential learning enhancements (JISC, 2020). 

Every year, for the majority of the University of London (UoL) distance learning students, assessment is via unseen, paper-based, written exams, taken at a location near to where our students live. In spring 2020, 35,000 students were booked to take some 110,000 exams in 180 countries at 600 examination centres. Due to the pandemic, we moved 110,000 exams online and we have undertaken an extensive evaluation of this work in 2020 and 2021. This paper builds on current research to explore in detail the impact of the rapid pivot to online exams. 

As part of an evaluation, 21 programme directors were interviewed about the experience. These were from undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in a range of disciplines. The programme directors reported on short-term changes in assessment design when moving exams online such as open book exams, redesigning questions to discourage plagiarism, reducing reliance on rote learning, and the extra time for online exams that enabled students to correct errors and make use of external sources. There was clear evidence that staff were shifting from viewing exams as mainly a measurement of knowledge to seeing the potential of assessment for learning.