What do we think of digital exams?

The age of digital testing

Digital tests have become increasingly common over the past few years. How do students and lecturers feel about it?
By Remco van Veluwen / Photo  by Reyer Boxem / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

Elvan Sonmez, a master student of biomedical sciences, has never taken a digital exam. ‘I’d like to try it before I graduate. Sometimes it feels like I’m living in the Stone Age. I’d probably get pretty stressed out, though, wondering if I submitted it right and everything.’

An increasing number of exams are becoming digital. Seven years ago, only fifteen exams were digital; this year, that number is closer to 1,300. In two years, it will probably be around two thousand. In order to manage the increase in digital testing, the RUG will have to expand the number of tables with computer access in the Aletta Jacobs hall from 600 to 1,200.

‘It’s faster, which is certainly nice’, says Shina Al Mizori, a business administration master student who has taken digital tests before. ‘When I can type faster, I can think faster. It’s also easier to switch between the questions. When I’m sitting an exam, I always write down the first thought that comes into my head. I can just return to the first question at the end and type out that thought coherently.’

Associate professor Marjolein van Offenbeek had her doubts at first. ‘I figured paper exams would provide richer information. I’d get more insight into whether they understood the material’, she says. Grading paper exams would also allow her to leave her computer. ‘I could sit down in the garden if I wanted to. It was better for my eyes and I got some fresh air.’


But now that she’s familiar with the concept, she’s convinced. ‘It’s much easier to spot patterns; you can find the variations in the answers to each question. It takes forever to do that on a paper exam, and I usually end up just checking the whole thing in one go.’

Assistant professor of HRM and Organizational Behavior Jessica de Bloom is also on board. ‘There are never any discussions about handwriting.’ And: ‘Grading goes so fast. I don’t have to schlep around stacks of paper; it’s so simple. My office is practically paperless these days.’

Because the open questions are so much easier to check, lecturers are more likely to opt for a digital exam’, says Rolf Klein Hegeman with the Testing Support Team at the Centre for Information Technology (CIT/ESI). ‘Students also get their marks back more quickly.’ It also becomes easier to grade exams for courses with many students.

But those aren’t the only advantages: ‘It leads to a more authentic way of testing’, says Klein Hegeman. ‘We can ask different types of questions that are more in line with the learning goals.’ Digital exams also allow lecturers to add things like audio clips, images, or sequence questions that require students to put a series of answers in the right order. Courses like statistics can also be tested digitally these days.

It’s so simple. My office is practically paperless these days

Shina: ‘What I love is the ability to format my answers. I can put text in bold, use bullet points. It’s easier to cut and paste things, organise my answers. The fact that it saves paper is also important to me.’

Military precision

A disadvantage to the technical development is that it’s easier to make mistakes than on a paper exam. Preparing and creating digital exams ‘takes military precision’, says Klein Hegeman.

‘If you accidentally hit the send button, you only get one warning’, says Shina. ‘I don’t really like the interface either; it can be a bit confusing sometimes. Fortunately, there are always three invigilators present in case something goes wrong.’

To prevent mistakes, every test is tested. ‘As soon as a lecturer finished the concept exam, we view it on a computer that’s completely similar to the computers at the Aletta Jacobs hall’, Klein Hegeman explains. They check the exam for layout and readability, make sure the audio and video works, and whether the instructions are clear. Next, the CIT/ESI also checks the settings on the exam.

At the beginning, there were growing pains. ‘We started our digital testing in Nestor, where students had to navigate to their exam after logging in. That was really stressful, so now we make sure that students are taken straight to the exam when they log in’, says Klein Hegeman.

No going back

Maurits Kruizinga, student of international relations & international organisation, has taken two digital exams so far, one of which was multiple choice. ‘It was good that the multiple choice one was on a screen. Once you’d answered a question, there was no going back. On paper, I’d always start second-guessing myself.’ He gets why not being able to go back can be a drawback, as well. ‘But I got a 9.1, so I’m good’, he says, laughing.

On paper, I’d always start second-guessing myself

Imke van der Meulen studies business economics and has taken three or four digital exams for her minor courses. ‘The multiple-choice tests were pretty chill. I’d know immediately whether I was right or wrong, which made me less uncertain. It’s just more efficient.

But all that typing around me just makes me nervous. On top of that, there is only limited space for each answer. ‘And I couldn’t underline things, which is what I usually like to do.’


That was also a drawback during Maurits’ exam, which included open questions. ‘It was more difficult to type the answers up. You never really know what they want from you, and you can’t just make a quick note in the margins.’ He thinks it’s a perfectly fine way to test material, as long as the students are informed beforehand. ‘The whole exam thing was new to me when I was a first-year anyway.’

‘Taking notes is fairly difficult’, De Bloom acknowledges, which is why she’s decided to allow students to take a paper pad with them for that purpose. She’d love it if the digital exams could have integrated dictionaries: ‘Wouldn’t it be great if students didn’t have to lug those around?’

Whether Elvan will be taking a digital exam any time soon is anyone’s guess. But she doesn’t mind sitting pen-and-paper exams, she says. ‘I’m in front of a screen all day long as it is.’


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