Help students succeed with online testing

Think about exams from the students’ point of view to anticipate possible issues.
By Anita Dennis

When Catherine Lowry, CPA, a senior lecturer II in accounting at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, faced going digital for her fall financial and management accounting classes, which had traditionally been in-person, she experienced “a mad rush to prepare over the summer.”

Collaboration was the solution. A faculty fellows group helped Lowry determine how to convert classes to remote learning by identifying the most useful software and best practices. She and a colleague who taught the same courses spent at least 100 hours learning the new software they would need to use, including online meeting platforms and testing tools, and adapting them for online courses.

Like Lowry, many faculty members have had to adjust their in-person courses to remote ones in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. One challenge for many has been online testing. They have had to use new tools and to create workable and meaningful exams while safeguarding academic integrity and have also had to help their students navigate the new testing methodology. Faculty share their best advice for evaluating student knowledge in a remote environment:

Keep an eye on academic integrity. Schools’ online monitoring systems allow faculty to review webcam videos and spot any unethical behavior. Give students “very clear guidance on the webcam,” advised Jan Taylor Morris, CPA, Ph.D., associate professor of accounting at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. She has had to make clear that students must keep their webcams aimed straight at their faces to ensure that they don’t shift the webcam away and has reminded them that the background must be visible and not in darkness.

Brent White, assistant professor of accounting at Brigham Young University–Hawaii, asks students to scan the room they are in with their cameras to establish that they don’t have textbooks or other prohibited materials around.

If there are any doubts about testing integrity, Morris asks her students to do a verbal exam with her to establish that they can arrive at the answers without help.

Faculty are also mixing up exam content to make it less likely students can get answers in advance or from another student. When Lowry uses multiple-choice questions, she develops a pool of 50 to 75, then randomly populates 25 for each student. For open-ended questions, she uses software called Turnitin that alerts her when more than one student uses the same wording or when there is an indication that students are working together.

Anticipate unnecessary stresses. At White’s school, the testing system controls the students’ desktops to prevent them from opening other programs or printing anything, and those who leave the test cannot return to it. Unfortunately, students can get kicked out of the test due to system glitches or simple misunderstandings. “That’s very stressful for students,” White said. He has worked with the school to make it easier for students to get back into tests if they are shut out erroneously. He’s also chosen not to use the monitoring for quizzes, putting students on the honor system instead, to reduce their anxieties about testing. 

It’s also possible to find ways to minimize any temptation to cut corners. Lowry believes that students may feel more pressure to cheat when the exam is a large part of their grade. One solution is to give the exam less weight in their grade and shift more credit to other options, such as live in-class interactions or in-class work with polling questions.

Get creative. In some cases, the limitations of the testing technology have forced faculty to come up with workarounds. In her spring advanced accounting course, Morris wanted to create an exam in which she could ask students to put together a consolidated worksheet, but her spreadsheet software wasn’t compatible with the school’s Blackboard learning management system. She solved the problem by using the snipping tool to paste an image of a spreadsheet containing basic data to be used on the test into the system and asking students to use that data to answer a series of exam questions. “It worked wonderfully,” she said. She is using the same approach to test intermediate students on journal entries this fall.

Focus on the goal

By collaborating and innovating, faculty members are successfully adapting to new ways of testing. Their own creativity has helped them maintain testing standards and judge students’ knowledge in a remote environment.

— Anita Dennis is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact senior editor Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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