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A better course with formative examination

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As long as we need to examine remotely, we will need to examine in partly new ways. There are no methods for "translating" an on-campus examination into an identical remote examination, but rather, different forms of examination cope with the transition to varying degrees.

Photo by pan xiaozhen on Unsplash

Exam hall and home examinations

Home examinations and essays are among the kinds of examinations that work just as well and sometimes better remotely. If a course contains pre-recorded lectures, the student can more easily refer to the material during the home exam, and in a tutorial situation it is easy to share screens and collaborate in the text via zoom. In this type of exam, we assume that the student has full access to course literature and other sources, and instead we focus on the work process and on plagiarism control via Urkund.

Exam hall examinations, which are a distinctive form of on-campus exam, are the opposite of this, and cannot be held fully remotely. We cannot carry out the degree of supervision that is carried out at an exam held in a hall on campus in each individual student's home. We have tools in Canvas and we have Inspera, which can be helpful, but neither can achieve a hall examination held remotely. It is important to familiarize oneself with the tools and understand what they do before deciding to use them, which is time-consuming for examining teachers.

Between these opposites, the home exam and the hall exam, there are many other forms of examination that can be used each by themselves or in combination to achieve the goals of the syllabus. These include open book exams, examination seminars, examination teamwork, duggas and oral examinations. With these a formative assessment can be achieved that permeates the course as a whole and leads the student towards the intended learning outcomes.

An example of automated formative examination with Canvas

An example of what this might look like can be found in the theory course I hold for students of history of art during their second semester. The goal of the entire semester is to teach students to write and talk about the subject using theory. The goal of this specific module is to train them in some basic theoretical approaches and for them to see how these are expressed in texts that they read.

The elements I need to teach them are basic understanding of some theories used in the subject matter, ability to speak in seminars, ability to handle parts of the craft of academic writing (footnotes, question formulation, source criticism, choice of source material). The exam for the module is carried out in two parts.

One part consists of five duggas that all relate to essay writing, these are very brief writing tasks (of the type "write a footnote to this text with proper formatting taken from this document") that are scheduled weekly and which I correct in an hour or so. I have the duggas ready in Canvas as assignments, open from Monday morning and due on Friday afternoon. Since each dugga aims to teach a skill, I let the students submit them again if I can't give their solution a pass. Canvas helps me keep track of both submissions and my feedback until it's time to assign comprehensive grades in relation to the module.

The second part relates to the lectures on the course where theories are first presented and the following day I go through texts written with the use of these theories and show how these are used by the author in the texts. At the same time, the students work in groups with a text that includes elements of all theories, and towards the end of the module they present how their text is structured in a seminar for their peers and teachers. The grouping is done in Canvas, all instructions are available there and the students are instructed to carry out the teamwork via the group pages in Canvas and Zoom.

The setup contains many elements and tasks that need to be assigned and collected regularly, but is easy to do this in Canvas, as it is better at keeping track of dates and times than I am. The students see from the beginning that there is time for all the work relating to the examination in the schedule, and they can focus on reading the course literature. The examination is distinctly formative, and the focus is on showing how all the elements lead to the student learning an academic craft. On this module, an ungraded assessment is given, but all skills will be tested again in a later module where they write their b-dissertation and are assigned a grade. So all the elements of this module clearly aim towards a final grade in relation to the full course.

As a teacher, I can build the entire examination in Canvas long before the course starts and need do no more with it than to assess the duggas continuously, and can concentrate on other parts of the teaching.

A great advantage of this scattered exam is that I can teach all five weeks of the course without having to set aside time for reading for the exam or for a home exam. When the module is over, all assignments are finished and assessed.

A better course with formative examination

A formative examination focuses on the work process in the course, I can focus on guiding my students while they learn to write academic text. It also means that I can include all the elements with a focus on the intended learning outcomes in the syllabus and make sure that I examine them all in a clear way. 

If you have mainly worked with summative examination (where you measure what has been learned at the end of a course with a hall or home exam), this may seem like more work, but it is not. The 15 days of intensive examination after the end of the course where you see that some students have achieved the intended learning outcomes and others not are replaced with a more paced, continuous work where you catch up and coach each individual student through the course.

In this process, Canvas is a tool where I plan all the specific steps to be completed during the course. In the planning, I can check that the course is clear and well structured, and when I let the students in, it is equally clear to them; with clear assignments and goals for each week and with a focus on learning to write with theory, as opposed to a final exam.