Assessment at a Distance

In the light of the Covid-19 restrictions currently in place, Maynooth University has issued updated guidance to students about the rest of the Semester.

Of particular concern to students is what will happen to their examinations, usually held in the second half of May.

Here the guidance begins:

The university examinations will not take place this semester in the usual format. The examinations will be replaced by remote assessments, including assignments, timed remote assessments and in some cases video interviews. As far as possible assessments will be completed by the scheduled dates. We plan to have resit examinations in August as usual.

There has been a lot of work and discussion going on behind the scenes to come up with ways of doing without the usual in situ examinations and the solutions proposed will no doubt vary considerably from discipline to discipline.

In the case of Theoretical Physics the vast majority of our examinations will be in the form of a timed assessment as mentioned above. What this means is that a test of similar format to the usual examinations will be made available in the form of a pdf file for students to download at home at a specific time. They must then scan and upload their answers, within a given time limit, extra time being added to formal duration of the assessment to allow for doing this.

There are two main potential difficulties with this approach.

One is that the students will not be invigilated and may cheat, either by referring to notes or other material (e.g. online) or by colluding with others. I believe the former risk can be mitigated (a) by the time limit and (b) by designing an assessment that emphasises problem-solving rather than rote learning (which, frankly, is what we should be doing anyway). Collusion is more difficult to deal with but we can at least require students to make a declaration that the submission is their own and reserve the right to interview afterwards.

The second (and, I believe more serious) source of difficulty is on the side of the student. This approach will require students to have somewhere at home where they can do the test, as well as access to the Internet and a scanning device of some sort. They will only have to download a relatively small pdf but the upload may cause problems. A scanned pdf would be easier to upload than, for example, pictures taken using a phone camera (which may be rather large files).

Still, given that there is a period of six weeks before these assessments are due to take place, I hope the vast majority of students will be able to put appropriate arrangements in place. We can also provide a dummy test so they can check that everything works satisfactorily.

These proposals are not ideal, but few things can be in the situation we are in. I do think this is a reasonable approach for our students because at least it means they can prepare using past examination papers knowing that the timed assessment will be similar in form. I think dumping an entirely new and unfamiliar kind of assessment on students now, at a time of already high stress, would have been grossly unfair.

8 Responses to “Assessment at a Distance”

  1. iainmacl Says:

    Doing the same here, too. Only our exams start in a couple of weeks! For the scanning, we’ve got this quickly produced info.

  2. John Peacock Says:

    Same with us, and I can’t say I’m happy. It seems inevitable that there will be collusion, and therefore taking the pdf scripts and marking them as usual will not be appropriate – but we will do it and everyone will pretend that the marks mean something. A better approach would be to grade the scripts more coarsely: fail/pass/merit – which is actually an approach that might make sense in normal times, as we often fail to acknowledge that our hyper-precise marks have a substantial measuring error.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    To preclude cheating, require that candidates be viewable on a live video feed at all times. No toilet breaks, sorry.

  4. […] Owing to the restrictions imposed by the Irish Government to deal with the Covid-19 emergency, exams in the Department of Theoretical Physics this year will be unsupervised timed assessments, similar to traditional exams but done by remotely by the students and then uploaded to our virtual learning environment, Moodle. I posted about this a few weeks ago here. […]

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