Evaluation and Reflection

Lessons learned and looking forward: reflecting on online assessment in the IoPPN during the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the university cancelling all in-person examinations and offering alternative online exams. As a collaboration between the IoPPN and King’s Academy, we wanted to gain a snapshot of the impact these changes had on PGT students.  The focus at King’s is often on UG students and so we wanted to explore the views our PGT students across a number of programmes. As King’s considers a move towards more online submission and marking of coursework, the introduction of alternative assessments in a digital format and, of course, the use of online examinations software tools, we hope that this data on what students think and feel and think about the approaches taken during 2020 will help inform the best way forward. 

Between July and August 2020, 71 PGT students across the IoPPN responded to our short survey asking for feedback on the changes made to their assessments in exam period 27th April to 26th June.  Despite the relatively small number of respondents, the data in this report highlights student views on some key issues around online assessments and the approach taken by the IoPPN and the College. 

Coursework didn’t change expect for some deadline extensions, so the majority of our data focused on exams. Our results showed thatoverall, students were positive about online examsThey appreciated the increased flexibility around time and location, and the changes that were made to assessments that allowed them to demonstrate more than factual recall.  There were a lot of individual differences though, with some students saying they had spent longer on their exams because of the extended time limit, and some saying that the social isolation and home circumstances were causing stress and anxiety. Students reported increased pressure on their mental health, and although these were largely issues related to COVID-19 rather than online education and assessment, many did say that they missed the incampus peer support that they would normally have during an exam period.  

Some of our earlier findings indicate that:

  • Students appreciated support from the faculty, especially at the level of the department and module;
  • They felt support wasl less helpful at a college-wide level;
  • The wide variety of approaches to assessment changes across the faculty appeared to cause confusion and feelings of disparity;  
  • Students also expressed confusion about what was expected of them in online exams, and open book or 24 window exams in particular. Some felt that it wasn’t clear what constituted plagiarism or collusion for example, in relation to using the internet or talking to a friend;
  • Students were also unsure as to whether criteria had changed for some exams as they felt different abilities and skills were being assessed.

We asked students whether they felt online exams should be used in the future and there was a clear majority in favourThere was no clear response, however, to whether students felt online assessments to be more inclusive/accessible. Considerations of the inclusivity and accessibility of online assessment differed widely according to the students’ background, home environment and circumstances. 

We understand that ‘moving assessment online’ was an emergency  response to COVID-19 but we should learn from this experience, as this pandemic has undoubtedly change the face of assessment and feedback forever. From this small-scale study, we recommend that digital assessment, whether exams or coursework, be considered much more carefully in terms of a) assessment design and b) student support. We consider that: 

  • A consistent approach to student guidance is required around online assessments. This includes the differences between unseen and open book exams, timed windows, performance standards etc. This can be achieved through formative practice throughout the year rather than just guidance prior to the exam (Boud and Carless, 2018; Sambell and Brown, 2020).   
  • Online assessment advantages some students but disadvantages others. Considerations of inclusivity and accessibility need to be made for students from different backgrounds (spaces on campus to be reserved for those with poor home environments and less access to WiFi, for example).  
  • Although much of the social isolation reported was due to the circumstances of the pandemic, we recommend that more social, pastoral and peer support is required for online education in general. For example, online study groups, Teams drops in sessions or co-created student forums.   
  • A clearer communication strategy from the College is required around technology support, e.g. equipment that is availableResourcing for this level of support at the local faculty level should also be considered as this is often students’ first port of call. 

This survey was limited in the scale and did not distinguish between characteristics. Therefore, we plan to follow this up within the IoPPN over the coming academic year. We will ask students about their experiences in January using a simple survey and some focus groups, as well as explore differentiations for gender, ethnicity, domestic or international student status, and geographic location. If other faculties or departments are interested in conducting their own research or best practice when designing their own online assessments and would like some advice on how to go about this, please feel free to contact us.

Written by Brenda Williams & Jayne Pearson

Dr Brenda Williams is a Senior Lecturer in Neuroscience (Education) as well as Deputy HoD (Education), Programme Lead, Applied Neuroscience and Interim Programme Lead, Psychology and Neuroscience of Mental Health. Brenda is interested in online exams and assessment in her role as IoPPN Assessment and Feedback Lead. She is also a Senior Fellow of the HEA.

Dr Jayne Pearson is a Senior Teaching Fellow at King’s Academy and lead for the Learning and Teaching Programme. Her research interests are around all things assessment and feedback related. Jayne is also a Senior Fellow of the HEA.


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