Are electronic examinations the future?

Electronic examinations are exams that are carried out on computers or mobile devices rather than on paper. Paolo Oprandi shares his insights from the ‘Remaking Marking: Electronic Management of Assessment’ event in Reading on emerging practice in this area across the UK HE sector.

Why are universities considering electronic exams?

There are a number of reasons why institutions are looking at electronic exams. Arguably the main reason is that electronic examinations reduce, and in many case completely remove, the need for paper handling and as a result are usually far more efficient for passing around grades and moderating marking.

The other reason is that throughout their studies students use word processors, but one of the few times we expect them to hand write is under examination conditions. Therefore it is argued electronic examinations provide a more realistic environment. Furthermore, there are studies which indicate that students’ grades can be subject to handwriting bias and electronic examinations overcome this problem.

Brunel is a UK university that has taken the prospect of electronic examinations seriously. They have been piloting the use of electronic exams since 2015 when they ran four exams. In the years since then they have steadily increased the number they have run so that last year they ran twenty-five electronic examinations. This number is set to increase in future. They use a Danish product called Wiseflow for the management of these examinations.

Advantages and Disadvantages of electronic exams

There are a number of advantages to using electronic exams, including:

  • Versatility. You can mix and match the question styles on exams and include videos and audio to make them more interactive than paper exams.
  • Authenticity. Professionals are usually expected to write formal pieces of work using a computer so electronic exams more closely replicate real world conditions.
  • Efficiency. Typed responses are more easily read and grades can be quickly and easily transferred to the student record system as they are already in a digital format, thus reducing time and effort on the part of markers. Furthermore, for some types of question such as multiple choice, marking can be done without human intervention providing the student with the opportunity to receive immediate feedback and eliminating human error from the marking process.

Of course there are disadvantages as well, including:

  • Equity. Some students may not be as confident on computers as others.
  • Reliability. The computer has a higher propensity to fail than a pen. Furthermore, there are security issues – does the software adequately eliminate the ability to cheat?
  • Cost. It will cost money to change systems. There will also be set-up costs, support overheads and a cost to providing the computers for those students who do not have their own.

And there are context issues as well, such as disciplinary requirements. There may be barriers to using electronic examinations in some disciplines where complex diagrams are needed such as mathematics and chemistry. However this does not completely disclude these subjects from using them. There are still advantages and in many cases electronic examinations will better demonstrate required skills.

Are electronic examinations the future?

Electronic examinations is something actively on the radar at the University of Sussex where we have already established sophisticated workflows for the electronic submission, marking and provision of feedback on in-course assessment through integrations between our online study platform Canvas and our in-house student record system. 

At the EMA event Brunel shared the following statements they had collected:

Students say, “It’s much better to write exams on a laptop”.

Staff say, “It’s so nice to be able to read the scripts”.

Administrative staff say, “Processing exams is so much easier”.

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Posted in Marking and assessment
4 comments on “Are electronic examinations the future?
  1. Elaine Swan says:

    Hi there, there isn’t much of a pedagogical or education assessment of the pros/cons here.

    • Paolo Oprandi says:

      Fair comment, Elaine. This was a summary of a talk I attended at the UK HE Electronic Management of Assessment conference earlier in the month, but perhaps I will report in more detail at the pedagogical aspects of electronic examinations in a future post. If you’d like to share your own thoughts we would be interested to hear them.

  2. Tim Vincent says:

    Thanks for this helpful summary, Paolo. There is seismic shift underway in medical education as medical schools make the shift from optical-scanned paper mark sheets in knowledge tests (KTs) and clinical exams (OSCEs) to marking on tablet computers. The latter are particularly complex and it is no small task to make the switch, requiring:
    1. Large scale hardware (lots of iPads and reliable WiFi!)
    2. Dedicated software (BSMS currently use Practique by Fry IT (https://www.fry-it.com/practique) with whom we have been a Development Partner)
    3. Extremely robust administrative support
    4. Lots of courage to actually do it!

    Exams for the majority of other subjects and schools are unlikely be this complex.

    • Paolo Oprandi says:

      Tim, thanks for your comment. Interesting to hear about some of the challenges electronic examinations have introduced. I have heard you talk about Practique before, but it’d be good to have an update regarding the extent to which Brighton And Sussex Medical School has employed electronic exams and the rewards it has brought to your institution and your students.

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