Exams in post-covid education
Brend Hopman, chair of the student faction on the faculty council at the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences (BSS), raised the point with the faculty board a few weeks ago: there are too many multiple-choice exams being administered, especially at the psychology bachelor programme.
Not only is it really easy to cheat on these exams, he says, but they also fail to prepare students for master programmes and their future work. Tests during the master programme mainly involve open questions and essay questions.
‘Multiple-choice exams involve recognising answers’, says Hopman. ‘But the point is to be able to reproduce what we learned, to apply and evaluate it.’
The pandemic changed everything: suddenly, students were taking classes and exams from home. This led to new forms of testing, such as open-book exams and the use of essay questions.
‘It made a lot of people rethink things’, says BSS vice dean Klaas van Veen. ‘How do I test, and why?’ Exams should challenge students and match the objective of the programme, he feels. ‘If students should develop insights, testing should account for that.’
If you’re taking care of a client, you’ll also have time to consult the literature
Laurent Krook, testing expert
The Faculty of Law also experimented with different forms of testing. ‘We sort of did it our way’, says law lecturer Laurent Jensma, who coached his fellow lecturers in online testing. ‘We put questions in random order, asked the same question in various ways: we sort of learned on the job.’
The law faculty often went for open-book exams, since it turned out it was less easy to cheat on those. ‘I think this method is here to stay’, says Jensma. ‘The great thing about open-book exams is that it encourages students to really think. They have to find the relevant material to answer the questions.’
However, it looks like faculties will be returning to their old ways, BSS faculty council student member Marie-Cecile Hatzmann has noticed. ‘They’ve been doing things like this for decades and they have a whole store of multiple-choice questions.’ However, returning to how it was would ignore everything they’ve learned over the past year, she says. ‘We can’t just do away with that.’
The pandemic was a wake-up call for the university, says Laurent Krook, e-learning coordinator and testing expert at BSS. Before, lecturers would just keep basing their exams on the ones their predecessors had made, he says. ‘They also made choices based on student numbers rather than appropriate testing methods.’
The pandemic has made it clear there’s really no good reason to stop students from consulting their books during exams, says Krook. ‘If you’re taking care of a client, you’ll also have time to consult the literature or confer with colleagues.’
He feels it’s important to diversify the material and the way it is taught. One option is ‘authentic learning’, which involves scenarios and examples. Others are testing in groups, assignments halfway through the block, or weekly quizzes.
Marijke Leliveld, assistant professor at the Faculty of Economics and Business, realised during the pandemic that a combination of different testing methods works. She administers both multiple-choice exams and essay questions.
When a resit was postponed, one student said they’d forget everything they’d learned
Klaas van Veen, BSS vice dean
‘You have to figure out how to best test the learning goals, but first you need the basic knowledge to apply that.’ But the structure of the course is also important, she says. It shouldn’t be just about the exam.
Krook says we shouldn’t overreact and get rid of multiple-choice exams altogether. They are especially important during the first year of a programme. ‘They test the basic knowledge students need in order to reach higher levels of thinking.’
Van Veen warns that they shouldn’t take over, either. Studying for a multiple-choice test creates unwanted learning behaviour that’s aimed at only recognising the correct answer. He remembers when a resit was rescheduled a few years ago. ‘One student said they would forget everything and had to learn it all over again.’ Van Veen would like to prevent students from thinking that way. ‘I wouldn’t want someone like that as my psychologist.’
All these new insights are obviously great, but there are some practical issues: everything costs time and money.
During the first lockdown, Leliveld taught a course to 750 students. She had two weeks to grade 750 essays of a thousand words each. That’s a lot of work, even if you’re teaching a ‘smaller’ course to four or five hundred students, she says. ‘Do the maths on how many words that is. It’s basically impossible.’ She feels extra funds are needed to facilitate exams like these.
Krook says this is a matter of staff shortage, which could be resolved by hiring more student-assistants to help grade exams. They can also help with administrative tasks, since these also take up a lot of time.
If you have to grade three or four essay questions four hundred times, you’ll go crazy
Klaas van Veen, BSS vice dean
The ‘ideal’ way of testing would cost a lot of time and money, Van Veen confirms. ‘You’d have to look at a way to come up with assignments and exams that can realistically be graded in time. If you have to grade three or four essay questions four hundred times, you’ll go crazy, unless you have student-assistants to help out.’
His faculty has hired three testing experts to help out the lecturers: what type of exam is the best and won’t take forever to prepare and grade?
There are many options, Van Veen says. One is to let students determine what kind of grade they want. ‘If they want a six out of ten, there are a few criteria they have to meet. If they want a seven, they have to meet a few more.’
You can also have them judge each other’s presentations or lecturers can make exams that combine essay questions and multiple choice. ‘As long as there’s some diversity’, says Van Veen. ‘That’s important.’
Hatzmann knows lecturers don’t have a lot of time and that there isn’t enough support staff. ‘I can understand why some people return to the old ways’, she says, but she thinks it’s a mistake. ‘Students have been very positive about the exams we administered over the past eighteen months. We can’t just abandon these new methods.’
She says that funds are needed. ‘I always hear people saying that money should be spent on research, but I think education needs the money more. I think the last eighteen months have made that clear.’