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University Instruction in the Time of COVID-19 (Part 4):


By Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng, Nyissia Spruill, Lilly Padía, and Pamela D’Andrea Martínez

In the prior two entries of our blog series, we discussed elements of the classroom–specifically how instructors conceptualize student participation and their relationships with students, which can be re-envisioned to foster, rather than challenge, equity. Our final entry is about another common characteristic of many courses: examinations. Two aspects of examinations that are particularly relevant for equity are whether the test is taken within a short and specified time window (synchronous) and whether students are allowed to consult outside material such as notes/web searches (open-book). Before we examine the details, it is worth reflecting on the pedagogical purpose of a common form of assessment: timed and closed-book tests. Many reasons, although not all, focus on being able to monitor students while they take the test to ensure students do not cheat. And as tests are used to assess knowledge, it is important to consider the balance between ensuring students do not cheat–typically a small percentage–and creating testing conditions that are unideal for some (who may already be further marginalized by online teaching). 

Many of the same reasons that home environments shape how students participate and interact online with instructors–whether students can find a space in which they can concentrate, have access to stable and high-speed internet, etc.–can also influence how students experience assessments. For example, a student who is responsible for caregiving may not have access to a physical space where they can focus on a timed exam for a short amount of time. Students without stable and high-speed internet may not be able to finish exams, and even if examination software allows for frequent saves, at the very least these students will experience great amounts of stress. It is also important that many of these students who fall into these scenarios are also likely overlooked by other structures in higher education. Having access to notes or web searches during exams can also help reduce stress and in many ways mirror real-life working scenarios, and can also allow for assessments that can reveal the thought processes of test-takers.

Takeaways and suggestions:

  1. Given that timed and closed-book tests, which were common in classrooms before the shift online during the pandemic, require spaces and access to high-speed internet that may not be accessible to all, consider replacing exams with other forms of assessment, such as problem sets and/or group projects.
  2. If online tests will still be used, consider allowing students more time and access to notes. To better understand student thought processes and mitigate cheating (which typically is only a small percentage of students to begin with), instructors can create test questions that ask students to explain in writing their thinking rather than just a short answer. For example, rather than have students complete five questions with short “correct” answers, instructors can create one longer question that asks students how they navigate different steps. Instructors can also create different versions of the question and randomly distribute tests across their students. 

The suggestions we offer in this blog series are just that–suggestions. With the unfolding times, it is critical that instructors engage many tools to be responsive to the needs of an international and diverse student population. Online instruction, as an innovative learning tool, opens us up to the possibility of reimagining and recreating the learning space–one that would ideally be inclusive and considerate to all student needs. While such changes may seem overwhelming, online instruction can offer the opportunity to contribute to a more just world where all students regardless of the situations in which they are learning can have access to a responsive quality education.

University Instruction in the Time of COVID-19 (Part 1): Equitable Online Teaching
University Instruction in the Time of COVID-19  (Part 2): Reconceptualizing Participation
University Instruction in the Time of COVID-19 (Part 3): Instructor-Student Relationships

Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng

Associate Professor of International Education (On Sabbatical Leave 2020-2021)

Pamela D'Andrea Martínez (she/her/ella)

NYU Metro Center Graduate Researcher and Adjunct Professor