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Using computers in exams

November 4th, 2009 by Graham Attwell

Late yesterday afternoon I had a phone call from BBC Radio Wales asking of I would come on the morning news programme to talk about the use of computers in exams. According to the researcher / producer (?) this was a debate opened up by a reform in Denmark. A quick Google search came up with the following article from the Politiken newspaper.

“Danish ‘A’ level students are likely to be able to use the Internet in their written exams if a test run later this year proves successful.

The Ministry of Education says that pupils already use the Internet for tests.

“It’s a good way to get hold of historical facts or an article that can be useful, for example, in a written social sciences exam,” Ministry Education Consultant Søren Vagner tells MetroXpress.

Digital hand-in

In order to prevent students from cheating by downloading translation programmes or communicating using chats, the idea is that papers should be handed in digitally and that there should be random checks on sites that students visit during an exam”

So early in the morning (at least for me) I got in and skyped into the BBC Cardiff newsroom. I was on the programme to defend the use of computers, Chris Woodhead, the ex Chief Inspector of Schools, was the opponent. And we had five minutes of knock around fun. The BBC preceded the item with three or four vox pops with ‘A’ Level school students from Monmouth in East Wales, who rather predictably said what a bad idea it was as it would penalise those who had worked hard to remember all the facts.

I said I thought on the whole it was a good idea becuas eit would allow students to use teh technolgie savaible in the ral worlls to show their creativity and ability to develop ideas and knowledge, Chris siad it was a bad thing because they would waste tiem surfing and it would prevent them showing their creativity and grasp on knowledge and ideas. and thatw a sit.

In reality, I think the discussion is a much deeper one over the nature and purpose of assessment. The ‘A’ level exam in the UK is essentially used as a filter mechanism, to select students for university. As such their is little authenticity. Students are inevitably taught for the exam. I saw some research a time ago suggesting that ‘A” levels are a poor predicator for later success in university but cannot find a reference ot that at the moment. The problem is that the examinations do not really test the students learned, but their ability to apply what they have learnt to a particular series of formalised tests. neither do the exams serve to help the students in their learning, Other than, I suppose, motivating them to learn a lot of facts in the run up to the exam. I fear that little of what we call revision for exams actually involves reflection on learning. And if the use of computers were to herald a move away from learning facts, to reflecting on meanings, then it could only be a good thing. But at then end of the day, I can’t get excited – and certainly couldn’t so early in the morning. The big issue for me is how to use technology to support learning. And that is another thing.

8 Responses to “Using computers in exams”

  1. Doug Woods says:

    I’m generally with you on this. However, I wonder whether the ‘digital divide’ could become an issue here in that those who had more use of computers at home as well as at school might have an unfair advantage over those who did not?

  2. lizit says:

    Very much in agreement with you Graham. For many years, and not only because I was no good at exams, I’ve been of the view they favour those with good memories. In real life, knowing where to find information and knowing how to use it effectively is generally more important. Although not introduced at A level as far as I know, surely there has been same negativity about exams where students see papers in advance and open book exams – and the same arguments apply that those who have learned material during the course do well and those who haven’t have little or no benefit from having access to resource materials.

  3. Mark Childs says:

    I’m with you on this one too, not least because anything Chris Woodhead is against has got to be a good thing. I’m the opposite of Lizit – I got through A levels purely by having a good memory and really failed to actually understand anything, a tactic which let me down when I got to university. Since then I’ve never found it a useful life skill to be able to remember lots of facts (just as well since the memory’s gone now too).

    We should be assessing the skills which are useful, like can students reason. Allowing them access to the Internet will also test whether they can they focus on the task and not get distracted by surfing (a skill which I still haven’t acquired). And maybe it is fair to test where students are on this digital divide thing; won’t students need to be accomplished at using digital technologies to succeed later in their lives?

  4. Ilona Buchem says:

    I agree with you that there is a need for discussion over the nature and purpose of assessment in education. Assessment is generally too often applied as an instrument of selection. But besides assessment practices aiming at selection there are also assessment practices aiming at self-reflection and feedback for improvement within the learning process, also in formal educational settings. Once assessment is embedded in the learning process as an integral part of learning, it does support learning. I believe that different technologies can be used for different forms of assessment to support learning.

  5. Lyn Rees says:

    “I wonder whether the ‘digital divide’ could become an issue here in that those who had more use of computers at home as well as at school might have an unfair advantage over those who did not?”

    It shouldn’t. Ability with the tools at your disposal is as much a part of the assessment as anything else… Does the fact that you red more books give you an unfair advantage?


  1. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by GrahamAttwell: Just did BBC radio debate with Chris Woodhead on use of computers in exams. My thoughts in blog post

  2. […] questions about the redesign of education. This brings me back to another blog read this morning, Graham Attwell’s reflections on the use of computers in […]

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    News Bites

    Digital Literacy

    A National Survey fin Wales in 2017-18 showed that 15% of adults (aged 16 and over) in Wales do not regularly use the internet. However, this figure is much higher (26%) amongst people with a limiting long-standing illness, disability or infirmity.

    A new Welsh Government programme has been launched which will work with organisations across Wales, in order to help people increase their confidence using digital technology, with the aim of helping them improve and manage their health and well-being.

    Digital Communities Wales: Digital Confidence, Health and Well-being, follows on from the initial Digital Communities Wales (DCW) programme which enabled 62,500 people to reap the benefits of going online in the last two years.

    See here for more information

    Zero Hours Contracts

    Figures from the UK Higher Education Statistics Agency show that in total almost 11,500 people – both academics and support staff – working in universities on a standard basis were on a zero-hours contract in 2017-18, out of a total staff head count of about 430,000, reports the Times Higher Education.  Zero-hours contract means the employer is not obliged to provide any minimum working hours

    Separate figures that only look at the number of people who are employed on “atypical” academic contracts (such as people working on projects) show that 23 per cent of them, or just over 16,000, had a zero-hours contract.

    Resistance decreases over time

    Interesting research on student centered learning and student buy in, as picked up by an article in Inside Higher Ed. A new study published in PLOS ONE, called “Knowing Is Half the Battle: Assessments of Both Student Perception and Performance Are Necessary to Successfully Evaluate Curricular Transformation finds that student resistance to curriculum innovation decreases over time as it becomes the institutional norm, and that students increasingly link active learning to their learning gains over time

    Postgrad pressure

    Research published this year by Vitae and the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) and reported by the Guardian highlights the pressure on post graduate students.

    “They might suffer anxiety about whether they deserve their place at university,” says Sally Wilson, who led IES’s contribution to the research. “Postgraduates can feel as though they are in a vacuum. They don’t know how to structure their time. Many felt they didn’t get support from their supervisor.”

    Taught students tend to fare better than researchers – they enjoy more structure and contact, says Sian Duffin, student support manager at Arden University. But she believes anxiety is on the rise. “The pressure to gain distinction grades is immense,” she says. “Fear of failure can lead to perfectionism, anxiety and depression.”

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