Chemistry Department tests out new tools to manage common examinations
This past Monday, the Chemistry Department successfully proctored common examinations for close to 2,000 students using Canvas in combination with new proctoring tools offered at Clemson. The students knew their grades instantly and the grades were automatically mapped into each instructor’s gradebook. But while this sounds quite revolutionary and easy, nothing could be further from the truth. First of all, proctoring software has been around a while, and second, Clemson instructors had to invest hours to frontload their semester’s worth of quizzes and examinations to leverage the many benefits of the technology.
Despite all this, the old reliable scantron sheet might very well be a thing of the past for Clemson’s Chemistry Department.
Not quite as old as the Blue Book college exam, which is a century old this year, the scantron sheet was invented almost 50 years ago. What is remarkable is the scantron sheet is still widely used, and up until March of this year, scantrons were the Chemistry Department’s choice to administer its common exams eight times annually.
For years, scantrons worked well. Students received paper copies of the exams, took the examination in large halls using scantron sheets provided by the department and within days access the answer key posted and compare their answers to the correct ones. Instructors did data entry of exam results into their gradebooks.
And then a global pandemic hit.
Faced with the move to online instruction in March 2020 due to COVID-19, the team in Chemistry wondered how they were they going to have close to 1,500 students enrolled in general chemistry classes take their tests, quizzes and final exams.
Senior Lecturer Dennis Taylor of the Chemistry department laughed when asked if the faculty in Chemistry were technological pioneers determined to find a silver lining in the University’s need to quickly pivot to online instruction.
“No,” said Taylor, whose memory of the decision is all too vivid. “It was more like ‘We are standing at the edge of the abyss and THIS IS IT!’ We were forced to take that big leap, change, adapt and use new technology. Members of our team brought different levels of tech savviness and Canvas experience and we simply pooled our strengths.”
That team was comprised of Taylor plus MyCia Cox, Olt Geiculescu, Tom Hickman, Tania Houjeiry, Will McWhorter, Jacob Schroeder, Ashlyn Smith and Thao Tran and they knew half-century-old solutions would not solve the novel problem at hand.
To navigate the administration of proctoring common quizzes and exams, the Chemistry Department sought the expertise of two of the University’s shared services: Clemson Online and CCIT. They decided to leverage software tools such as Canvas, Respondus Lockdown Browser and Respondus Monitor. Today, the team recognizes their efforts represent a major sea change in technology. It’s been anything but easy, but the team is starting to expose some benefits.
While scantrons did offer some insights into trends, according to Taylor, Canvas offers more meaningful and real-time analytics.
“Right away, different instructors can view their specific class on the analytics and make real-time teaching adjustments,” said Taylor. Because courses using common examinations all too often cover material that builds on itself, it is critical for a student’s success that the student achieves proficiency on the material before the instructor moves on to more complex material. Using Canvas for student assessments allows instructors to shore up a student’s proficiency of building-block curriculum by identifying gaps so the instructors can potentially fill those gaps with added instruction — study guides, additional group study sessions and the like.
Using Canvas for examinations provides key benefits for the students too. Printed exams of old were in black and white, but now instructors can add graphs and illustrations to questions in full color — something Canvas supports. To Taylor and other chemistry instructors “adding colorized diagrams and illustrations and uploading full-color, crisp pictures is all possible in Canvas,” he said, “making the questions much clearer for students.”
Other important features for students are that they are provided their grade upon completion of the exam and can immediately assess whether the resulting grade matches the effort they extended in exam prep. This feature could potentially allow students an opportunity to make adjustments to their preparations to achieve a more desirable outcome, even before the next quiz days later. Plus, Canvas has the ability, should the instructor select this option, to show the correct answers after submission and why it is the correct answer — employing yet another teaching method.
Other important considerations were weighed by the team in Chemistry. How could you use Canvas while maintaining academic integrity? How could they ensure the technology would not fail? How would students access their instructors during a quiz or exam?
According to Taylor, there are distinct advantages to test writing and important work-arounds to exam administration using Canvas.
“There are different question types to give students, so for large common exams, instructors can ensure the questions are shuffled to maintain academic integrity. Each student is administered a unique exam. We are really learning more about this feature.”
When it comes to examination and quiz questions, that’s another feature of Canvas. The test-question repository evolves and grows through time. For instructors conducting routine quizzes, front loading the work one year pays off in future years. Using the question bank, instructors don’t have to recreate the wheel year after year.
For technical or instructor/student communication during an exam, the team of chemistry faculty just opened up and shared a Zoom meeting that ran in the background, and students contacted instructors using the chat function. During this past common exam, issues could have been counted on one hand. During the Spring semester there were many more, but Chemistry, Clemson Online and CCIT seems to have engineered out several problems over time.
With all the benefits to providing tests using new tools provided by Clemson, departments might think the investment too cost prohibitive, but this too is not the case. According to Taylor, the reality is the savings are significant and amount to tens of thousands of dollars. “When you consider the cost of printing thousands of exams and quizzes, the time that takes, providing each student sets of scantron sheets and the scantron readers, it starts to add up to a significant financial hit.”
Enterprise-wide, the savings might be much more significant. According to Clemson Online’s Anne Marie Rogers, Clemson makes an annual investment of under $13,000 for online testing tool subscriptions and this covers all academic departments across the university. Compare this to the tens of thousands of dollars previously invested by just the Chemistry department alone.
Rogers sees the potential for other courses across Clemson’s curriculum moving to adopt these proctoring tools, although she recognizes it takes significant planning and front loading of work for departments. Rogers recognizes common exams cannot be set up with just one week’s notice. Clemson Online created an Online Testing Module in the Faculty Resource Center so instructors could sign up to learn more about the full array of resources and support available to them.
Executive Director of CCIT Customer Services Nathan Long is supportive of other departments moving in a similar direction when it comes to administering common exams. “We’d need to collaborate with departments to make sure a schedule is addressed and we could provide technical support while scaling up. We exhort every effort to make sure the students have a superior testing experience.”
Taylor commends those providing support for their team’s adopting new testing tools. “Clemson Online and CCIT are so supportive. Assistance with the tools and the technical stuff is critical, and both these shared services helped significantly. Now we are at the point where we are almost self-sufficient.”
Should instructors and departments wish to schedule a common exam consultation with Clemson Online, contact ITHELP@clemson.edu.