The College’s COVID-19 restrictions have encouraged many professors to shift away from traditional, in-person midterms this semester.
After professors first implemented them during the Spring 2020 semester, online midterms have become commonplace across the College. Some professors have adopted synchronous or asynchronous exams, and others have chosen to assign essays instead of exams altogether. While one would expect online classes to include an online midterm, some in-person classes have also switched away from in-person testing.
Professor Arnout van der Meer is teaching his two fall courses, “Patterns and Processes in World History” and “Genocide and Globalization: 20th-Century World History,” on campus this semester.
Despite teaching his classes in-person, he chose to implement online midterms. In an email to The Colby Echo, Professor van der Meer explained his reasoning and motivations for implementing online exams. He believes that under the current circumstances, online exams offer some distinct advantages over traditional exams.
“My primary motivation for giving an online exam was to minimize physical proximity and interaction in the form of handing out printed materials, collecting exams, and returning graded materials in person. I have a strong preference for working with paper exams and assignments, but under the current circumstances did not feel comfortable with administering them,” he said.
While designing his exams, Professor van der Meer encountered a few unexpected challenges. Because online midterms present a new set of concerns, he found himself answering new and unexpected questions.
Specifically, he had to consider the location and format of the midterm. Should students take the exam in a classroom? Should they be allowed to use their notes? How will they ask questions when the professor is not physically present? How will typed exams differ from handwritten exams? How will accommodations be met?
“In short,” van der Meer said, “this experience quickly became more challenging than I expected.”
After careful consideration, Professor van der Meer chose to administer synchronous exams. While Moodle provided him with a variety of design options, he stuck with a familiar format.
“An intriguing option was to design the whole exam on Moodle itself, just like a short assignment or a quiz. While I have experience with creating those, a large midterm exam proved to be a significantly more difficult challenge. After beginning the work of designing such an exam, I opted for a more basic approach: to upload an adjusted version of my regular exam, have students download it during a particular time-slot, and require it to be submitted by a deadline,” he explained.
Although his experience proctoring the exams was different than in past semesters, Professor van der Meer thought that it went well.
“In the end, I am not too unhappy with the results. I opted to have students choose to make the exam in the classroom or in another location. This did mean I allowed the use of textbooks and notes, which I normally do not. However, as the exam was timed, I did not worry about this particular issue too much,” he said. “Students who chose to take the exam in our classroom had the benefit of being able to ask me questions directly, but I checked my email continuously for questions from students who took the exam elsewhere. In the end, proctoring an online exam meant being very attentive to my email!”
Professor van der Meer was pleased with the flexibility that online exams offered him and students, especially those with academic accommodations. He believes that he will continue to administer online exams in the near future.
“Overall, the experience was positive, but I will make some specific adjustments. For instance, it quickly became clear that writing on a computer encourages students to provide longer answers than I anticipated. In printed form, there is only so much space to fill out an answer, but on the computer – with no word limit set – it became easier to elaborate,” he said.
“I plan to address this by making the exam a bit shorter or by using world limits per answer. In addition, I do think that I prefer to have students take the exam in the classroom on their computer, with the exception of course for students with accommodations… I do think that all of these experiences will enrich my pedagogy as it forces me – and other professors – to experiment with new ways of teaching and examining student work, something that we otherwise might not have done.”
Students have generally expressed approval of online midterms. Like Professor van der Meer, Ryan Darby ’23 enjoys the flexibility of online exams. He took in-person exams for two of his classes but wrote an essay for his third.
“Personally, I like online essays better than tests because you have a lot more time to complete it.”
Darby also finds essays much more forgiving.
“Your grade doesn’t depend on just a two-hour test. You can reread it and take your time. There’s less chance of failing an essay. It’s harder to bomb an essay than a test,” Darby said.
In essay-style midterms, professors often assign a series of questions rather than one overarching prompt. Darby’s essay assignment fell into this category.
“We were given four separate questions based on previous readings. We had to write 500 words for each question. We had to type our essay on Word and send it as an attachment.”
While he likes essays, when it comes to online versus in-person midterms, Darby does not have a strong preference.
“I personally don’t care if it’s online or in-person. I think it’s pretty much the same,” he said.
While COVID-19 has negatively impacted many academic endeavors, testing does not seem to be one of them.
~Matt Rocha ‘23