Column: GW should permanently move final exams online

As final exams arrive, many students will be required to go to a classroom and test in person alongside fellow students. Even though testing has evolved rapidly in recent years to allow for innovative virtual options, some professors still insist on conducting exams the old-fashioned way – in person and on paper. Instead of utilizing technology and virtual innovation, this outdated practice is inconvenient for students and unnecessary in today’s world. GW should conduct all final exams online so students no longer have to work around needlessly stressful in-person paper tests and can instead take advantage of simpler, more efficient virtual options.

During remote learning last school year, professors tested their students virtually with options like take-home assessments and virtual exams conducted via Blackboard. The alternatives allowed students to choose which testing environment worked best for them, proving that exams were much more convenient online than in person. Since the return to in-person classes last fall, professors wisely retained some online testing elements that served to be just as effective at testing students’ learning and kept students and faculty from walking all the way to class. But some professors still insist on administering in-person paper exams even though they’re more difficult to attend, complete and grade. A student taking an exam on paper has to worry about handwriting, spelling mistakes, and estimating word count. Online tools can eliminate the hassle of worrying about these and other surface-level concerns so students can focus on demonstrating their knowledge of course material.

The pressure of time that in-person assessments induce creates a stressful environment, keeping students from demonstrating their knowledge to the best of their ability. Professors use paper materials like Scantrons for multiple-choice or bluebooks, small paper booklets with ruled pages, for short responses even though students have computers to work more quickly and efficiently. Paper exams require students to sit at a small desk, grab a pen and scribble down answers, facts, details and analyses onto a tiny sheet of paper as fast as they can. It is necessary to give tests time limits, but handwriting responses takes longer than typing, which creates undue stress. Typing up responses instead of writing them out can buy students some more time to come up with quality answers for essays and short answer questions.

Holding all exams on computers would also make grading easier once hard-to-read handwriting is no longer a concern. A professor once told me that if a written answer is illegible, they often grade it based on the students’ performance on the rest of the test. It isn’t fair for students to be punished with a bad grade for poor penmanship, especially when time-limited exams require you to write quickly. There is no excuse for inefficiencies like this when students and professors have the technological resources available to do better.

Cheating is arguably the top concern among faculty considering online exams. They worry that if students are left unsupervised, they will use outside resources like their notes or the internet for closed-book exams. While these concerns are valid, faculty can mitigate cheating in an online format. Time limits push students to rely only on their own knowledge without the same amount of time to consult unapproved materials, especially during tests where they must think critically about their answers instead of simply recalling facts from memory. To avoid cheating, professors should use the Lockdown browser, a software where they can conduct exams virtually while blocking access to other sites and applications during a test. These browsers are an easy-to-use way to stop students from using their computers to cheat during a test, and professors who are especially worried about cheating can proctor their exams using students’ webcams.

Amid the late April spike in COVID-19 cases, it is likely that several students will miss one or more final exams this semester due to the need to isolate, forcing them to take a course as an incomplete on the semester while they wait until the fall to make up for missed work. Starting a new semester is difficult enough without having to worry about last year’s courses, and unfortunately students in this predicament risk forgetting material that is vital to perform well on a delayed in-person exam.

Even if the pandemic subsides, students in special circumstances will still need to miss tests due to illness, injury and other personal issues. Allowing students to take their tests from home will eliminate most of these obstacles out of their control while making testing a less stressful ordeal for everyone else. Students infected with an illness can take virtual exams online without putting their classmates at risk, while those without severe symptoms can still have the option to do the same out of precaution, an option not currently available. Students should not need to miss their exams if they are called home during exam week for a personal event like a funeral.

As more technological innovations become available, there are fewer reasons for professors to require students to take tests that are held in person and conducted with outdated paper materials. With more efficient options on the table, professors should hold final exams virtually to eliminate antiquated testing methods and make everyone’s exam week a little easier while they’re at it.

Zachary Bestwick, a sophomore majoring in political science, is an opinions writer.

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