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Published November 17, 2020 | Biology

Remote Exams in Teams for an Inclusive, Honest, and Fair Evaluation

In my biology course, to limit plagiarism and cheating while listening to the needs of my students, I am currently experimenting with team exams. On Moodle, the students have 2 hours (in a 1 week period) to answer, as a team, 3 case study questions. I then interview each student to validate their individual demonstration of the competency. I am noticing that the results compare to that of a traditional in-class, supervised evaluation, but the risks of plagiarism or cheating are reduced and the students tell me that they are less stressed and understand the content better.

The trigger: plagiarism during remote evaluations

In the summer of 2020, I gave a distance course and was disappointed to notice that many students were cheating, namely by communicating with each other during evaluations that should have been done individually. I came to the following realisation: the traditional evaluation format does not work for online courses.

Since I had to revisit my evaluations, I decided to use an inclusive approach.

The idea of offering students to do their exam in teams looked promising. I figured that:

  • the evaluation would be less stressful for them
  • being able to discuss would allow them to reinforce and better integrate their learnings
  • the students would be less inclined to cheat

Since the evaluation is done as a team, the students collaborate and help one another, but I ask them demanding questions that require them to think and to confront their ideas. Analyzing, reasoning, demonstrating critical thinking skills: those are all competencies that you need to demonstrate in sciences!

Making the teams

At the start of the semester, the students of my Human Biology course (101-901-VA) did not know each other at all. I had them complete a questionnaire about their interests and hobbies. Based on the answers, I created teams of 4 students, grouping students who had similar interests. I do not know if it was the best way to proceed, but in about 80% of cases, it worked very well and created teams with interesting group dynamics.

The students worked with their teammates from the start of the semester. In fact, each team chose an experimental research project that spanned the semester. On the day of the exam, the teammates already knew each other well and were used to working together.

To be more inclusive, I offered to the students to do their exam (or research project) individually if they wanted to. My goal, by offering the students to do their exams in teams, was to reduce their stress. But, if a student is anxious or uncomfortable working with a team, it becomes counterproductive. I want to offer every student the opportunity to demonstrate their competencies in the best possible context.

Running the exam

The exam was accessible on Moodle for 1 week, but, once the students accessed it, they had 2 hours to complete it. I wanted to allow students to choose a good time to do the exam; a moment that would work for all the members of the team. The students completed one exam per team and wrote the names of all of the team members.

During the exam, the students had access to their computers and course notes, but could not consult other teams.

The exam had 3 essay questions. Since the students had access to all of their notes and the internet, I could not simply ask memorization questions where all the answers could be found in their course packs. I then decided to go for 3 case studies that required a deeper analysis and a longer answer.

I corrected the evaluations using a criterion-based correction grid.

Some teams worked well, others less so. Some teams did not obtain a passing grade. The average was 70%. Even if the evaluation is done as a team with access to all of their notes, success is not guaranteed. To obtain a passing grade, the students need to demonstrate that they truly understand the content.

The one-on-one interviews

After the exam, I had a quick one-on-one interview with each student. Essentially, I took one of the questions from the exam and asked the student to re-explain one of the answers their team had given. (“You answered this, can you re-explain me why?”) All of the students answered in a way that convinced me that they had indeed contributed to the team project.

If it had not been the case, I had some supplementary questions planned and a corresponding evaluation grid. I could have modified the grade of the students that did not deserve their team’s grade.

The students’ comments

I asked the students to give me their impressions of the formula and they were extremely positive.

Many mentioned that they had found this less stressful than a traditional evaluation.

A large number of them said that they found it efficient for their learning. They explained that by discussing among themselves, they understood better and remembered the concepts more. That is also what I noticed in the interviews!

Nobody complained about their teammates. It must be noted that I had warned the students right from the start: they knew that they all had to contribute (or else they would get 0) and that there would be an oral evaluation to confirm. And, the students who did not want to work in a team could do the exam alone anyway.

What’s next…

The next time I will teach remotely, I think I will do exactly the same thing, but I will build a bank of questions sufficiently large to ask different questions to each team of students. This semester, every team had the same questions. By asking different questions to each team, I could reduce the risks of plagiarism even more.

My colleague, Lissiene Nivea, adopted an approach very similar to mine, but chose to give the students a few days to answer the questions rather than limiting them to 2 hours (once the test is opened) as I did. It is an interesting variation as well!

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the switch to distance learning and it is very difficult for many students who feel isolated. By having them work in teams, I am allowing them to build relationships. I create small communities, small support groups. In these hard times, everything we can do to reduce the stress of our students and support them better is welcome.

About the Author

Neerusha Gokool Baurhoo is a biology teacher and pedagogical counsellor at Vanier CEGEP. She also taught various courses in the departments of animal science and integrated studies in education at McGill University.

Neerusha holds a Ph.D. in education from McGill University and was awarded the Governor General's Gold Medal for her innovative work regarding teaching and learning practices at the CEGEP level with a special focus on students with learning disabilities. Her research work on inclusive learning and teaching practices has been published in peer-reviewed journals. She also has a Masters in Animal Science from McGill University.

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    Robert Koffler wrote November 21, 2020 at 8:07 PM

    You did an enlightening experiment. I teach a variety of Marketing and Entrepreneurship courses. Projects are my "Daily Bread". I am interested in the way you used MS-Teams for your project and the individual questions. Did you open separate channels for each team, or by using another method.

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