Educational scientist Jeroen Janssen is calling for a different way of testing. Photo: Lize Crane

‘Universities aren’t just experiencing a corona crisis, but an exam crisis too’


Controversial software for preventing fraud, stress among teachers and exam schedule makers, and uncertainty among students. Educational scientist Jeroen Janssen says the Corona crisis proves that universities have gone too far in their urge to issue exams. “The energy we’re putting in giving grades and checking whether students have studied, would be much better spent on the development of our students.”

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Since the start of the Corona crisis, many students haven’t been taking their exams the way they were used to. A lot is being done online now. At first, large-scale exams took place in physical locations such as the Jaarbeurs, but an additional measure imposed by the UU Board will exclude this option as well, forcing students and teachers to adapt once more.

Jeroen Janssen, Associate Professor and Director of Training in the Department of Pedagogical and Educational Sciences, says it’s high time for reflection. Utrecht University organised more than six hundred exams in the first semester. Were all those tests and grades really necessary?

After speaking of an ‘exam crisis’ on Twitter, Janssen published an article qon news site Science Guide alongside other UU-based educational specialists. They called for reflection on the lessons to learn from the issues caused by the crisis.

What is this exam crisis you’re seeing?
“In these Corona times, universities are finding themselves stuck because of their testing methods. Nearly all study programmes aim to check whether students have mastered all the material for every single course, which requires them to apply multiple tests per course. Now that students can’t be tested the way we’re used to, we’ve got to take all sorts of draconian measures.

“For example: programmes as a whole are using surveillance software such as proctoring, which I think is a terrible tool. It’s quite something to force students to install software that they’re not entirely sure what it does, not to mention what it does to students, mentally, to know that they’re being constantly watched during an exam. Open-book exams are an alternative, but they’re extremely laborious to grade, leading to an even higher workload for teachers.

“So, study programmes benefit from being able to have their exams taken at the university. Personally, I tried to do this in my programme too, because that would mean we wouldn’t have to change anything. However, that generates enormous stress for the scheduling officers, who have to make sure everyone follows the social distancing rules. It also takes up space that could be used for education instead. Apparently, we can’t break free from this mentality of ‘we have to them’.”

Why do universities test so much?
“This is mostly related to the urge to control: the quality of higher education needs to be guaranteed. Some study programmes received negative assessments from the inspection committees that assess whether they meet the standards. The value of the diplomas given by Universities of Applied Sciences has also been called into question. That means testing is being put under a magnifying glass. It’s often the top priority for inspection committees and exam committees.

“Moreover, testing is seen as a way to engage students. You learn from working. So, with testing, we ensure that students get to work: after all, they have to pass the tests to complete their degree. That’s true, but, in my view, we’ve gone too far and this is the moment to do something about it.”

Less testing, how do you go about that?
“I wonder whether it’s really necessary to give students a grade for every course, and to establish for every test whether a student has passed it or not. You see more and more study programmes experimenting with what we call ‘programmatic assessment’. Veterinary Medicine at the Utrecht School of Applied Sciences is an example of a programme doing that. You do make the students take tests, but it’s not necessary to always give them a grade. At the end of the year, the programme decides, based on a portfolio, whether the student has progressed enough.

“Such a system has all sorts of benefits, in my view. First, it isn’t nearly as bad if a test must be cancelled, or if you have to use a different test form at some point. In addition, it enables teachers to pay so much more attention to students’ development processes.

“At the moment, we’re spending a lot of time justifying why students received the grade they did. And we try to be really precise in this, sometimes up to two decimal points. Students often don’t do much with the feedback they’re given about an exam. After all, they’ve passed the course and that’s what matters.

“I would prefer to direct those teachers’ energy somewhere else, so that they have more time for feedback during the course, and actually be able to analyse what each individual student needs. I also believe that this change would be more educational for students, as it relieves a lot of stress. They would receive better guidance, which would help them to pass the course.

“This way of thinking is miles away from the way we’re currently dealing with tests at the University – actually, at all universities, including my own study programme, to be fair. Still, I think it’s possible to make that switch. The most important thing is to develop a vision on education and testing that shows how the two are connected. If you can show that students can master the material by the end of the study programme even with less tests, then there shouldn’t be any issue. Not even for the inspection committee.”

In your article on ScienceGuide, you write that this is the ultimate moment to push for change.
“Because of Corona, everyone’s now seeing the problems that arise from the current way of testing. After the crisis passes, we can either go back to what we were doing before, or we could take the opportunity to change things. I have the feeling that that idea is starting to grow.

“This is happening in my own programme: we’re now critically evaluating our testing plan. We want to focus less on summative testing, which mainly checks whether a student has learnt what needed to be learned, and move towards formative testing, where the learning process is at the centre. You’re always going to need some summative testing, but we slowly want to start making other choices. Still, this isn’t a change you can achieve by yourself as a single study programme. That’s something we need to choose as a university.

“Within the group of senior fellows, the teachers with a lot of educational expertise who are also responsible for the piece on ScienceGuide, I’ve suggested that the UU should reflect on its own educational model. That’s where it starts, really. With the vision of how you want to teach as a university, and how testing fits in with that vision.”

How do you think students would feel about being tested on their progress instead of on their grades?
“It requires a different mindset from students as well. They’re completely focused on passing their tests now. That mindset isn’t easy to change, as they’re already used to it from secondary school. But if you explain that they’ll receive better guidance and that it’s not about veiled budget cuts, they’ll see the value of it.

“One objection students voice is that the admission procedures for Master’s programmes have become more and more selective. They want to be able to show that they’re suited for the programme with a high grade point average (GPA). That is, of course, a justified concern.”

The current exam crisis also affects students, right?
“Of course. My mind was blown when students from the Erasmus University in Rotterdam had to return their diplomas because the Internet connection failed briefly during their final exam and they were unable to prove that they hadn’t committed fraud. That was so incredibly draconian.

“Since then, the university has reversed that decision, but I think that is the ultimate proof that we’re stuck in a paradigm that defines how we feel about testing, and that simply has to change.”

Testing during a crisis

Janssen: “For now, we can’t do anything but execute our exam regulations the best we can, and do what we promised. We don’t want students to get a study delay, of course. You can see everywhere that everyone’s doing their best.

“The downside is that we have to choose solutions that we wouldn’t have chosen otherwise. Programmes are using proctoring more and more often, for example. I don’t do this in my own programme, but it’s easy for me to say because I don’t have courses with 1,200 students. Our teachers have to come up with different ways of testing, in which we try to limit fraud by reducing the time exams take, and by using plagiarism software.”

We’re hearing complaints from students about proctoring, less time for exams, or exams where you can’t return to previous questions. That must have an impact on their education…
“Study programmes need carefully watch whether they’re measuring what they want to measure. You want to know whether a student masters the material, but perhaps you’re simultaneously measuring whether they can handle pressure. If the latter interferes with the former, the validity of the exam is in danger. You don’t want that to happen, and it’s not fair to your students either. But it’s a tricky balance between eliminating fraud and testing well, and I wouldn’t dare saying that there are courses where the scales have tipped the wrong way. I simply don’t have that overview.”

In any case, the exam results aren’t that different from pre-Corona times, the study programmes say.
“You could call that comforting, but there are so many unknown variables. Students are taking the test in a different setting, the form of the test is different, the conditions are different. Perhaps we’ve started to offer easier tests, and that’s what’s compensating for the stress students experience. I don’t know, and the tricky thing about the past few months is that we can’t study it either, as there was no control group.”


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