Will the corona virus improve university assessments (in the long term)?

A sixth form teacher, Niamh Sweeney has an interesting and passionate call for schools and colleges to use the impetus provided by the sudden corona-virus-imposed changes, for good. It is in today’s The Guardian. I teach the products of these schools. I get frustrated by some attitudes I see in students that they may have learnt in the “testing hamster wheel” she refers to. So I hope that the impetus does get used for good in the UK’s schools and colleges.

At universities, we too have had to implement a lot of changes at great speed. In terms of learning, the corona virus has not been kind, labs are closed and face-to-face teaching is very effective but now not possible. Assessments have also had to change, as exams held in exam halls are not going to be possible. In the short term this is not great for students, or the staff who have to come with new assessments in no time.

But in the spirit of Niamh Sweeney’s article, maybe in the longer term, some good will come, especially in terms of how we assess students. Two thoughts come to mind, the second one a long shot.

Our exams are being replaced by assessments students do at home. These assessments are open book — we have no choice here as students are doing the assessments online and so have access to the whole internet. Traditionally, our exams have some marks that are little more than some recall of material in the lecture, to help students get going in the exam.

In the age of Google where facts are at our finger tips, then we only really need to keep in memory a relatively small number of key facts and numbers*, so maybe the enforced deletion of this sort of question is a good thing. I am not sure all students will see it this way. But I can see an argument that assessing the students with only minimal tests of recall is a better way of preparing them for the world post-graduation.

The second thought is that prospective employers will know that the final assessments sat by our students, were not done in ideal conditions. This is unfair on the cohort graduating this year, and we staff are doing our best to minimise this problem. But the perception will be there, and in the short term that is bad. But if it encourages employers to look more at the transcript of all a graduate’s assessments**, and less at whether the student is a first-class student, upper-second, …, then that would be good. The current degree classification system has a lot of inertia behind it, but is a bit harsh on students who get say 69.3 % and so get an upper second, while those with 70.1% get a first. If we had a blank canvas to start from, we would never select the current degree classification.

* To solve problems as a physicist you do need some numbers in your head, so you can work things out, but really I think a working physicist just needs maybe 20 or 30 numbers, mostly just to one or two significant figures.

** I appreciate many employers do this already, so maybe I mean some employers and those parts of society that get hung up over the number of first class degrees, etc.

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