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Giving Exams in an Online Chat Room

I’ve lately become aware that my expectations are often negative when confronted with something new. I’m not a negative person usually, but this was certainly the case when I confronted the idea of teaching my International Business course online. I committed to trying it once, but I admit I didn’t have high hopes. After all, I confided to friends, one of the rewards of teaching is being there to actually see the light go on in a student’s eyes.

We are now plunging into our fourth semester. And although online teaching has some drawbacks, it also has advantages over the classroom. One of these advantages is that you get to know your students and their educational needs much better because they communicate far more readily in threaded discussions than they do in the classroom. My negative expectations that online teaching lacked a social element failed to account for the social pressure that silences so many students in class. And I’ve discovered another unexpected reward in a chat room: I can use a kind of Socratic question-and-answer method that I achieve all too rarely in a classroom.

The final assessment in my online class takes place one-on-one, in a chat room. About a week before the first exam, I post times when I’ll be available, and students sign up on a first come, first served basis for half-hour time slots. In the same message, I include 10 to 12 potential questions. These are big, theoretical questions, such as assessing the pros and cons of China’s entry into the World Trade Organization.

I tell students they have the option of skipping one question, but that they should prepare to answer all the others. I stress that they should marshal their main points, because the half-hour will go more quickly than they think, but not to prepare entire answers word-for-word, because the assessment will be a dialogue. I also tell them to have a copy of the questions on hand when they come to the chat room, so I can refer to them by number.

When the big moment arrives, I try to get into the chat room a minute or two early and type in a greeting: “Hi, Daniel. I’m ready when you are.” When they get in and say they’re ready, I ask them to start with number 3, please. As they get started typing, I post another message, asking them to hit “enter” every two or three sentences, so I can ask questions or redirect.

Then, as they post, I can choose to wait until their meaning is clear, push for further clarity, or redirect if they’re off track. “In what specific situations would that be true?” “What do you mean by cultural barriers?” “Can you give me an example?” After about 27 minutes of this torture, I post a message to the effect that they’re off the hot seat and do they have any questions before we log off? Many are amazed that the time has gone so quickly, and they often write that it wasn’t nearly as bad as they had anticipated.

An online chat room final exam has its pitfalls, of course. Half an hour isn’t a very long time to evaluate a student’s understanding of a range of theoretical material. My experience, however, is that I can cover about three questions in that amount of time, which is usually the number I grade (“choose three out of four”) on a written final. We get to the nub of the matter more quickly in a chat room—no time for fluff.
One problem is that the students are more nervous than they are for a traditional written final, but test anxiety is present in any evaluation. This type of testing may favor those who can think on their feet. For the instructor, a problem is that the fabric of your chair imprints itself on your derrière if you do a number of these in a row.

Many teachers ask whether the half-hour I spend with each student d'esn’t become an overwhelming time requirement. My online class has 25 students, maximum, each semester, so I spend 12-and-a-half hours on the final. This is comparable to the time I spend giving a traditional exam, when you factor in the time to proctor and grade it. Even if it d'es take an hour or two more of my time, it is more than worth it to me because the work is more interesting.

Exams are a bunch of dead documents on my desk; as I grade them I often think that a student knew more than they wrote, or wish they hadn’t gotten off track. A chat room final, on the other hand, is an ongoing personal interaction, during which I can get answers to those kinds of questions. The situation also keeps my brain from switching into neutral.

Perhaps the most interesting thing I’m learning as I do more of these is that some students are energized by a “rapid-fire patter” approach. They post a sentence, or even a phrase, and jump right in with both feet when I redirect or ask for examples or clarification. But other students need to express an entire idea first, or they become confused and nervous. This is now the main thing I watch for when I start the exam and something that becomes clearer with practice.

The worst problem I’ve run into with this method is technical trouble, such as when a student gets kicked out of the chat room in the middle of a session for some mysterious reason. I’ve had to deal with these (about one or two each term) individually, but the problem is as broad as online education. One simply has to deal with occasional technical glitches.

In general, I’m quite pleased with my experience of giving online chat room exams. An educational medium about which I was doubtful has forced me to do something that is easy to neglect in a traditional setting—use multiple methods of evaluation.

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