Saturday, October 11, 2014

Musings on tablet-based exams

A few days ago, my syllabus indicated that an exam was to be given in my two sections of genetics (one traditional lecture, one tablet-based). The educator in me wanted to give different versions of the exam, so that the tablet students could have an exam that harnessed the full potential of having tablets in class. However, the scientist in me was too curious to see whether there might be a difference in learning by this point in the course, so I gave both sections the same version of this exam.

Distributing the exam
In the traditional section, I provided the exam in paper and students turned it in to me at the end of fifty minutes. In the tablet section, I uploaded a PDF of the exam into our course management system, and at the top of the hour, it became available to the registered students. Having already spent time doing PDF annotation in previous class periods with my students, I was confident that they wouldn't encounter any technological issues completing an exam in this fashion.

However, just in case, I had paper copies of the exam on hand. You know: in case the internet went down. It could happen. I had comforted by students with this information in advance, so they knew paper copies would be available; five of my thirty students opted to take the exam on paper instead of by PDF annotation. Unfortunately, this nullified my earlier claim that tablet courses would be "green" because we wouldn't need to bring paper into the classroom. I am happy to report, though, that for lower-importance assessments (in-class activities and low-point quizzes), I have been using an entirely digital workflow and loving it!

Collecting the exam
At the end of the hour, the link to the exam PDF turned off (although, as noted below, this precaution probably isn't necessary as every student, even ones with excused absences who would be taking make-up exams days later, had access to the exam and the ability to download it during the hour). Students e-mailed their annotated PDFs to me as attachments; my inbox filled up with PDFs. I told the students I would stick around after class for a few minutes if they wanted to verify that I received their e-mail attachments before shutting down their tablets.

As soon as I got back to my office after class, I downloaded each PDF and renamed each file with the last name and first initial of each student. This was partly for record-keeping purposes and mostly because many of the generic filenames given to the PDF by the tablet-based e-mail attachment process were identical. Last, I noticed that some students did not fill in their name at the top of the first page - they might have assumed that because it would be arriving from their e-mail account, they didn't need to. As soon as I downloaded the exam, I opened it to ensure that the PDF wasn't completely void of student entries; I then replied to the student's e-mail to tell them that I had received their exam. This is to alleviate student fears about whether the e-mail attachment and submission process worked.

The following class meeting, one student inquired about how I intended to pass the exams back. I admitted that I hadn't yet considered that aspect of the workflow. By now, I have. Here's what wound up happening and why I am definitely a convert to administering digital exams.

I rarely provide individual feedback on exams, because I provide an answer key and expect students to take the initiative to pursue with me any questions they have about their performance. So, having digital files instead of paper didn't help or hinder me at this point. I opted to use PDF annotation to provide the score each student received on each question. I added each question's score as a "sticky note" annotation and saved the PDF. At this point, I have not yet returned the exams (those students with excused absences have yet to take the make-up exam). However, I have already replied (again) to each of the student submission e-mails and attached the graded version of their exam - these were saved as draft e-mails. Right before the class period where I'll digitally "pass the exams back," I'll go through my Drafts box and send all of the e-mails.

As far as whether the tablet class fared better or worse than their traditional lecture counterparts: those data still need to be crunched.

Now for my Pros and Cons of digital exams.


  • It is better for the environment than using print exams
  • They're lighter to carry than a stack of print exams
  • You can edit the exam up until you administer it (as opposed to having to have a print copy to photocopy at some point prior to the start of the exam)
  • Students don't need to bring a calculator, or a pen, or a bubble sheet and pencil
  • Most importantly, perhaps: exam responses are neater. Students have the ability to type out written responses, which makes it much easier to read; it is also easier for students to edit their written responses as they write, and they never run out of room. I didn't have to read any tiny writing meandering down the right margin, past all of the other questions on the page and then flipping over to the back of the page
  • A big plus for the instructor: you have a digital copy of the student's work as it appeared when they turned it in. There have been many past circumstances where I've wished (after I returned them to students) that I had copies of student exams. That wish has been granted!


  • There have been rare instances of some types of student PDF annotations not "taking" when PDFs are attached to e-mails. Only a couple of students had had issues with this during normal class periods; I've only had one student complain (days after the exam - I'm skeptical) about this.
  • Tablet students accessing a PDF of the exam can distribute the exam to anybody (especially students in other sections of the same course that might not have taken the exam yet)
  • Speaking of the potential for cheating…what about cheating?

I fully realize that opportunities for cheating are rampant when students have access to the internet (Wikipedia. Their class notes. Chat with other students in the class!) And I have little power to detect it. So I gave them The Talk. We're all adults, and my perspective is that they get out of the class what they put into it. It is their responsibility to take advantage of the opportunity they have to demonstrate that they've learned the material. They're cheating themselves if they decide to cheat. Plus, because I don't grade on a curve, the only person that a cheater is impacting by cheating is her/himself.

Future Refinement
What will I do in the future to improve my tablet-based exams?

  • Possibly using Qualtrics (web-based survey design tool) to write and administer exams, with the potential benefit that it isn't a PDF and can't be copied/saved/distributed to others easily, but with the drawback that question types are limited to the types of things you usually see in surveys (matching, multiple-choice, written response, ranking, etc.) When annotation becomes a reality, I'll definitely be on board.
  • To address the potential for cheating, I certainly plan not to let the scientist in me continue to run the show. Instead of administering the traditional exam to the tablet class, my goal is to write tablet exams that obviate the potential for cheating. After all, I'm teaching an upper-division genetics class, and one of my goals for the course is to give students authentic experiences in genetics analysis. As I've told them, geneticists don't (all) work by themselves and certainly not without access to resources (manuscripts, colleagues, the internet, Wikipedia!) So why should I forbid access to notes, or Wikipedia, or fellow students, during an exam? What is required is development of an exam that is cheat-proof: an exam where there is not a single answer to the question; an exam where I could reasonably expect each student to provide a unique response regardless of whether a secret chat session is occurring in the background. Heck, letting students "cheat" in these ways might actually improve student learning and retention! I can proudly boast that I haven't cheated in years, because it is only where grades are involved that cheating normally exists; otherwise, it is called something like "making efficient use of resources." Let's develop exams that would make Woodrow Wilson proud of his famous quote, "I not only use all the brains that I have, but all I can borrow!" Let's make exams that help students synthesize and integrate information and demonstrate the depth of their understanding, rather than exams that can be cheated: ones that test memory and recall. I'll keep you informed of progress along this front as it is made!

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