Leaving Exams in 2019
During the summer of 2020, as the pandemic made it obvious we weren’t going back to “normal life” any time soon, my curriculum needed to reflect the massive changes that were happening in our society. Using the traditional STEM assessment style of short answer or multiple choice exams would not function well within this online learning environment. I could continue to give traditional exams, but would they actually be a valid measure of student knowledge? And, more broadly, would these exams serve my students in helping them to develop skills necessary to be successful beyond my class?
Additionally, if I were to continue to use traditional assessments I would need to employ an online proctoring tool. This tool would help me maintain academic integrity, to an extent. However, these proctoring tools have significant implications for student equity. Knowing this, I could not, in good conscience, use one.
In 2019, I made the decision to leave my exams and not use an online proctoring tool. But this left me in a tough spot. How would I measure a student’s knowledge without using exams?
Switching Assessment Styles
As an undergraduate STEM student and a STEM instructor, exams are the only type of assessment I have ever known. As I made this change, I began to realize that it would be important to switch to assessments that enabled my students to demonstrate their knowledge and develop new skills that could be used in other classes, as well as in life beyond higher education. With access to an abundance of human knowledge at our fingertips via the internet, the ability to research, synthesize, and communicate ideas is of more value to my students’ future than memorizing all the steps of photosynthesis for an exam. With this shift, I was able to move from assessing rote memorization to critical thinking skills – isn’t that what we all should be striving to do? I was also able to connect abstract concepts to current events or students’ daily lives, making them more meaningful and memorable.
Through this process, I developed a set of projects that draw on the principles of authentic assessments to assess student learning. I provide the basic structure of what needs to be included in the project so I can assess my students’ comprehension of the concepts, but the format of the project is generally open-ended, and multimedia projects are encouraged.
One example is a role-play scenario where students step into the role of interns for a state government committee on health and human safety. Their goal is to brief the state representative for whom they work about the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria. This project was inspired by the Performance Assessment Resource Bank. In the brief, students must include the following:
- A discussion of what makes bacteria different from other forms of life
- An explanation of how bacteria become resistant to antibiotics, in evolutionary terms
- A description of environmental conditions that select for antibiotic resistant mutations
- A discussion of potential state-wide solutions that can be implemented to slow the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria
Within this one project, I was able to assess students’ comprehension of several learning goals: their ability to distinguish between prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells, as well as natural selection and evolution. This project also required students to demonstrate their ability to apply their knowledge of the evolutionary process to evaluate large-scale solutions to combat this issue. The form of the final product was entirely up to the students. One student, who was studying digital marketing, built a website. Another held a mock webinar. Some typed their project into a traditional research essay. Even though their final projects took many forms, grading and assessing their work was not as challenging as I expected because I provided a clearly defined rubric.
Here is a 3-minute video explanation I provide for my students about this project:
Reactions to a New Assessment Style in a STEM Course
During the week leading up to the start of the semester as students were exploring our syllabus and Canvas course, I had several inquiries about exams. Students asked, “When are the exams?” and “Will we need to use [proctoring service] to take exams in this class?” After fielding several variations of these questions, I explicitly explained to my students my philosophy for adopting this new assessment strategy and why we would not have any exams. The idea of being able to show their knowledge outside of an exam in a science class was, at first, mysterious to students. However, they quickly acclimated to this new style of assessment as I promptly answered their questions.
Student feedback about this new assessment strategy was very positive. In an anonymous course evaluation, 97% of students rated the class as “always or almost always having assessments that are related to course material.” In another metric, 100% of students rated the class as “always or almost always having activities and projects which are useful for learning and understanding.” Students reported the projects as “fun and interesting” and said they “helped [to]… understand this subject better.” One student stated these projects helped them “gain a better understanding of the topic when applying it to real life,” which was my intent when making this shift.
In making this change to my assessments, I was met with some skepticism and backlash from colleagues, which resulted in me being reluctant to speak out about equity and assessments in online learning. When I did speak out, I received push back from colleagues saying “Students will have to get used to exams,” as well as, “There’s just no other way to assess learning in my class” except through exams. I even had a colleague claim I was calling anyone who used proctoring tools and exams “racist.” I see now that this reaction is tied to a larger, systemic issue about power and privilege in White dominant culture but I also know it made me hesitate to discuss the topic of assessments and proctoring tools again.
In Fall of 2020 I was due to be evaluated, and as a part-time faculty member I was incredibly nervous that this different assessment style would be seen as inferior, and thus my employment status and income would be impacted as a result. Luckily, despite the backlash I had received, I had many other colleagues, including my evaluators, who were curious and encouraged by these efforts to adopt different assessment styles. Out of this discussion about assessment and proctoring tools that was met with backlash, I was able to open a conversation about rethinking how we assess learning in STEM. Yes, this is currently an uncommon way to approach assessment for many STEM classes, and can be a challenging pivot to make. But, if we’re truly dedicated to closing opportunity gaps then we must make STEM courses more equitable for diverse learners.
Van Meter, F. (2020, Sept 11). “Online Proctoring – Impact on Student Equity.” Online Network of Educators.
Authentic Assessment PocketPD Guide. (2020, June 17). Online Network of Educators
Brookhart, S. M. (2018). Appropriate criteria: Key to effective rubrics. Frontiers in Education, (3)10. doi:https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/feduc.2018.00022 .