Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

October 22, 2020

How to assess learning remotely—and reduce students’ temptation to cheat

Oral finals and frequent low-stakes assessments are just a few alternatives to in-person exams that Jenny Quinn uses to ensure student learning and success.

While it may seem impossible to assess student learning without an in-person exam, Jenny Quinn is one math educator who has been proving that otherwise.

picture of jenny quinn teaching online

Jenny Quinn teaches her students via Zoom.

Quinn, who teaches undergraduate mathematics courses at UW Tacoma’s Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences, has been experimenting with new approaches to testing. In spring 2020, she gave an oral final exam remotely in her Matrix Algebra course and used frequent, low-stakes mastery-based grading in her Precalculus class. In autumn, she’s organized her two Calculus II classes of 30 students each around a mixture of online and oral assessments, culminating in an individual oral final exam. With planning and TA support, these successful approaches could scale up to larger courses.

Spring 2020—Giving an oral final exam

Quinn was faced with a common problem: how to ensure her exam was testing student learning, rather than their ability to search online for solutions.

“It used to be you could ask students to show their work to be sure they understood the concepts. But now,” she explains, “there are computer algebra systems where you can enter any computational problem and it will be solved symbolically, giving all the intermediate steps.”

Instead, she asked students to meet with her briefly via Zoom to walk her through two of the questions on the test, “so they could show me they understood the concepts and not just procedure.” Even if students looked up the answer, which was allowed since they had the questions in advance, they had to demonstrate that they understood the solution.

Quinn’s inspiration for including an oral component was not solely to discourage cheating. A strong advocate of growth mindset, she has long been interested in mastery-based grading, in which learning competencies are shared up front and students can take assessments multiple times until they master each point.

“There’s no reason to cheat, but it’s more work for me to set up. That said, I’m not testing the right things if the exam has to be done in person.”

Quinn’s oral exams by the numbers:

  • 9 questions total—Students get questions in advance so they can prepare for all nine. “I tell students, ‘You can use any resources. Internet search? Working in teams? That’s OK.’ There was one question in which I asked them to take a proof that we didn’t do in class and either create their own or find one online, cite and critique it. My favorite question was to write five true/false questions for this exam and explain their choices. They had to not only think about the substance of the questions but also how each reflected the learning in the course.”
  • 20 minutes to answer 2 questions from the list of nine—Students choose one, the instructor the other. “If they picked a question from the first half of the quarter, I’d pick one from the second half. If they picked one with a lot of computation, then I’d give them a reflection/synthesis question. I tried to balance it out.”
  • 50 points each—This is the maximum value for each question, based on a holistic grading rubric. “Students are afraid about how they say things (especially if English is not their first language), so I make it clear it’s not about the right words. It’s about the concepts they express. This kind of rubric is subject to bias, so you have to be aware of that. I ask myself if I would rate this answer the same if it were a different student—one I liked more or less—and I go back to the rubric to counteract by own biases. There’s a lot of thinking that has to happen.”
  • -4 points to “pass” on a question—Students can elect to pass on a question up to a maximum of two times but lose four points each time they do.
  • Learn more about Quinn’s oral exam method, questions, rubric and lessons learned

    Community inspiration for new approaches to assessing math

    Because UW exams are offered later than at many other universities, Quinn learned from her peers in the larger community of mathematicians who were giving remote finals earlier in spring.

    She took particular insight from two items on a popular forum: Harvey Mudd’s Francis Su, who posted “7 exam questions for a pandemic (or any other time),” and Rick Cleary of Babson College, who based his final exam on Su’s approach.

    “Su has written a wonderful book called ‘Math for Human Flourishing’ and was trying to align exam practices with what students need to flourish as humans. That was the first trigger,” says Quinn. “Then Rick Cleary shared that he gave an oral final exam based on Su, and I thought ‘I can do this!’”

    Quinn next had to prepare her students for the new exam format so they wouldn’t be surprised.

    She communicates what she’s doing and lessons learned with others via her blog Math in the Time of Corona.

    “The UW pivoted to remote learning earlier than most academic institutions. As president-elect of the Mathematical Association of America, I felt it was important to share my hard-won knowledge with others making the same transition and to offer support by humanizing the experience.”

    Her piece on alternatives to standard exams was the most popular in spring garnering over 1300 views from 70 different countries. Others have joined Quinn in sharing their experiences. She recommends Robert Talbert from Grand Valley State, for example, for his “beautiful series on how he was thinking about his teaching and doing inquiry-based learning in a hybrid setting.”

    Autumn 2020—Scaffolding students’ ability to ‘speak math’

    This quarter, Quinn is continuing to refine her practice. She will give oral final exams again but plans to develop students’ comfort and competence ‘speaking mathematics’ throughout the quarter. She introduced group oral assessments beginning in the second week to help students practice and build community early on. Her revised rubric rewards both individual competence and group accountability. There are two more oral quizzes in weeks five and eight. In each assessment, the group size gets smaller until, by the end of the quarter, students are presenting individually.

    Students appreciate that classmates aren’t tempted or able to cheat

    Quinn has been pleasantly surprised by her students’ reactions. “Students truly appreciate it. They worry about the academic integrity of their fellow students, as much as we do.” Students recommended better scaffolding for learning so they would be even more prepared and familiar with the format of the assessment. In response, this autumn Quinn introduced group oral assessments throughout the quarter. She continues to share via her blog as she updates and refines her practice.

    How to scale this approach to larger classes

    Quinn teaches two classes of 30 students and admits that this might prove challenging—but not impossible—in larger classes. The approach could work if teaching assistants were trained on the rubric and given practice using it in norming sessions prior to assessments to ensure inter-rater reliability across sections.

    Quinn discusses in this short video how remote teaching prompted her to implement oral exams to encourage collaboration, leverage available resources, and maintains individual accountability:

    For additional examples of UW faculty alternatives to timed exams, see Teaching Everywhere faculty blog posts:

    Flexible finals in the pandemic by Holly Barker, Anthropology

    Online finals: Providing flexibility & opportunities for creativity by Ileana M. Rodríguez-Silva, History

    Teaching physics: Videos instead of midterms by Peter Selkin, School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, UW Tacoma.

    Other resources include:

    Teaching Remotely: Assessment page includes information on utilizing alternative assessments, why high-stakes exams don’t transfer well to remote learning, academic integrity, and grading practices for online learning.

    How to Talk to Your Students About Cheating video featuring Professor and Chair of Chemical Engineering Jim Pfaendtner. Learn how to talk to students about cheating — why they cheat and what to say on the first day of class to discourage cheating.

    Timed Exams & Alternatives Teaching Remotely Pop-up seminar video recording, featuring Jenny Quinn and Jennifer Doherty, Biology