Testing | Feature

Moving Exams Out of the Classroom

The idea of moving exam-taking out of the classroom and into dedicated testing centers on campus is gaining currency. The approach frees up valuable class time, and allows for more frequent and varied testing approaches.

Despite these benefits, though, a number of challenges persist for on-campus testing centers, including providing sufficient seats during peak times such as midterms and finals, keeping student data secure, and finding good exam-building software.

Angela Linse is executive director and associate dean at the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence at Penn State, which includes a 160-seat dedicated testing center designed specifically for on-campus students. The center, open for five years now, is one of the largest of its kind and a model for other universities. Campus Technology spoke with Linse about what Penn State does to successfully navigate the challenges of on-campus testing centers.

CT: You've said that part of the function and purpose of the testing center is moving tests out of the classroom, thus giving faculty some class time back.

Angela Linse: Yes. Testing in the classroom, in the tradition of midterms and finals, is really a function of the need to have paper-and-pencil tests. Paper tests in general need to be given in a classroom. But because you can't take all of your class time to give tests, you consolidate tests into a few big, high-stakes tests--the midterms and the final. Thus, our testing style goes back to the need to preserve class time.

Removing the test from class time frees up time for more instruction; it also allows more frequent testing, which is really the best way to teach. Educational researchers have told us over and over again that frequent testing and mastery testing--which means taking the test until a proficiency score shows that you get it--are much better for students. They give more frequent feedback, which is a best practice of undergraduate education. And with computer-based testing, you can give more frequent feedback, because you're not spending all the faculty member's time grading, and all the classroom time testing. So it's this odd twist, where the low-tech form of testing we used forced us into high-stakes testing, which became the norm.

But with technology, we're been freed from that paper restriction?

Exactly. Computers allow us to implement those best practices.

With the testing center available, do you find that professors are testing more often?

Well, they are and they aren't. It's interesting. We have less innovation than we'd like to see, but that's partly a function of the testing software packages that are available. Another issue is the ability of those packages to interface with content management systems and learning management systems.

Why isn't there more innovation in testing software?

I think that because of the tradition of in-class, paper-based testing, which for efficiency turned into multiple-choice testing, testing software packages typically focus on multiple choice. With computer-based testing, they don't need to, but everyone is used to it. So moving to something a little more sophisticated has been a challenge, because the software tends to offer more traditional rather than innovative functions.

There are testing programs out there that do more innovative things, but they haven't been adapted for a college or university setting. They're in the corporate world, and they cost way too much for most universities. [They also tend to] require way too much IT support; in our experience, faculty can't just use these products on their own, even though it might be excellent software.

Ideally, what would a good testing software package let faculty do?

One function is adaptive testing, also known as branching questions. Basically, if you get an answer right, you go to a different question than if you get it wrong. It's more sophisticated way of addressing the material--if you give a particular answer, it might mean that you don't know the material, or it might just mean that you read the question wrong. So the program then asks you another question to see if you really do understand it.

Also--in my dream world--I'd like testing software to be able to create much more complex test questions. It should allow drag-and-drop questions, for example, that might include a map or diagram, and ask you to move labels to the correct part of the diagram. A super-sophisticated product might even have a diagram, and would then do a simulation based on the information you put in.

There are a few companies out there that do have more sophisticated software that is designed for colleges and universities. But an additional issue that any university and college has is security of student information. If you are using a test that resides on an outside company's servers, and your students come to the testing center and sign in...you are then sending student information to the outside company. They'll have access to student grades, for example, which brings in the student confidentiality of educational records. If a company is going to run tests from their servers, they have to be familiar with the specific security constraints of an educational institution.

You haven't found a product yet that has both the testing sophistication you're looking for, and addresses the security concerns adequately?

We think there are some out there but we have not explored them yet. It's something I hope we can do in the next year or so.

One method for preventing cheating is creating exams that pull from a bank of questions, so that different students in a course take somewhat different exams. Do the testing capabilities in Angel, your learning management system, enable creation of banks of exam questions?

Yes. Most LMS programs have that ability. The challenge is having enough questions, and enough varied questions, so that you pull appropriately from the hard question bank, medium bank, and easy bank. It takes faculty some time to build stratified testing for those test banks.

It can be complex. If the faculty member is converting a simple multiple choice question that they've used on scanning sheets in the past, they generally have an item analysis [function in the software] to help assess the difficulty range of the question. But if they haven't used the question, it can take multiple tests to know whether it's a difficult question or an easy one. You have to do this a number of times to figure out what the rating is.

How well-used is the testing center at Penn State?

It's very popular--we're operating close to capacity. We have to keep a few seats open in case there are computer problems and we have to shift somebody to a new terminal--which is very rare, actually. But the center is very popular--faculty constantly ask us when we're going to expand.

What I'd really like to see is faculty using the testing center to do more frequent testing, and to use different kinds of questions other than just multiple choice. If they just use multiple choice questions, it's not really that much of an advantage over old-style scan sheet testing.

But, you could never have enough testing terminals at Penn State to replace all of the testing--we do a million bubble sheets a semester, so we couldn't possibly replace it all. The purpose of the testing center, really, is to encourage innovative kinds of testing, not just to replace bubble sheet testing.

You started the center in 2007 and it's still quite cutting edge. So how do you handle the rush during midterms and finals week?

Yes, that was an interesting dilemma initially. When it came to finals, we had faculty clamoring to use the testing center, which makes perfect sense. They've been using it all semester, and then they have to give a paper-based final?

One thing we do is temporarily convert classrooms or computer labs into final exam testing centers. So it's not as secure--we don't have the ID swipe that we have in the testing center--but the exams can at least be computer-based.

So on one hand, we encourage faculty to do lots of testing and to use the testing center, but finals week is still finals week. We just cannot seat everybody.

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