During our move to remote learning during COVID, many instructors are struggling with how to assess students online while maintaining academic integrity. For many instructors, that has led to the use of online proctoring tools like Respondus Monitor or Examity. These technologies, however, rely on a surveillance model that presents a variety of challenges for equity and student learning. This post provides an alternative approach to assessment from Professor Caty Pilachowski in the IUB Department of Astronomy.
Instead of giving traditional large-scale exams, Professor Pilachowski moved to low stakes quizzes for her 150-student general education astronomy course. Quizzes consist of ten multiple choice questions with 20 minutes for answering. They are “open book, open note, open web, open friend”—her course mantra that reassures students that learning together is the goal. In the Canvas Quizzes tool, a quiz can draw random sets of questions from question banks so that each student gets a different set of questions. Even if students are taking the quizzes together, they get different questions, so quizzes become a learning opportunity for all. Collaborative quiz-taking encourages trust without monitoring, which can be stressful to students. To learn how Pilachowski writes good questions, read more below or watch this video excerpt.
Writing good questions. A few strategies are important when writing questions for these quiz banks. The first of the strategies is to limit the vocabulary in the question stem so a student can’t just type in the question to Google and find an answer; instead, the key terms and concepts are in the multiple choice answers. The second is to focus on application questions with situations that are different than ones addressed in course materials. Here’s a concrete example: Instead of asking, “What is light travel time?” The questions states: “We get light from this star that’s 50 light years away. Which of these things were going on at Earth when the light left that star?” It’s not a question they can Google, but they have to apply the coursework and learning to answer it.
Homework. In addition to quizzes (and to avoid the stress of quizzes), the class has weekly homework where students practice course analysis such as graphing from a data set. They have to do some graphing and interpret and read information off of the graph. In a sense, they have to “show their work,” by showing their analysis. However, to make it easier for graders to grade, they take the answers from their analysis and place them on a fill-in-the-blanks worksheet. The frequent quizzes and the weekly homework help the students keep up with the coursework.
Cheating. Pilachowski doesn’t worry about cheating because she feels 95% of the students in the course are honest and they are trying their best to play by the rules. She’s not going to subject that 95% of the students to extreme measures and give herself a lot of work up just because 5% are likely to cheat. But she’s also designed the quizzes so that it’s really not that easy to cheat. She trusts students and expects trust from them.