18.667 examining with computers

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Sat, 26 Mar 2005 07:35:25 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 18, No. 667.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Sat, 26 Mar 2005 07:33:24 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: examining with computers

Cristina Perissinotto, in Humanist 18.622, asks for reflections on using
computers for examining students. At the Centre for Computing in the
Humanities, King's College London, we've been doing just that, quite
successfully, for longer than I have been here.

The practice certainly requires special preparations and management. The
greatest problem is, as one would expect, irretrevable loss of a student's
work due to human or machine error. With proper precautions this is in fact
rare, very rare, but the consequences are so serious that even with many
years' experience one must take all precautions and warn students
appropriately. People who are rattled are apt for trouble. A broken pencil
is easily fixed with no loss of previous work and little loss of time; a
suddenly blank screen or frozen machine may allow no response whatever,
with loss of everything to that point, other than to start again on a
different machine. (One must always have to hand more machines than
students for that reason.) If students are new to exams on machines, or new
to the subject, a mock exam is a good idea. We run students through last
year's exam under realistic conditions. Frequent backing-up is an obvious
move, but students need to be told to do it. Once the exam is over, saving
work must be carefully done, supervised and managed. For the last several
years we have had students upload their results via specially designed FTP
and save it on a floppy disc, and not rarely we find ourselves resorting to
the floppy to recover a file that somehow did not get uploaded. On a couple
of occasions I recall rushing back to the exam room to search the hard disc
of the machine used by a student to find a missing piece.

Invigilating the exam is likely to be somewhat more labour-intensive than
without the machines. You certainly do need someone there who is
technically adept, able to help students when they get into trouble and to
give them good advice on how to stay out of it (chiefly not to panic and
start pressing buttons). Then there's e-mail and the Web to account for. If
the exam is closed-Web as well as closed-book, an eagle's eye is needed;
few exams can be sensibly conducted if students are e-mailing each other
during them.

I would, in other words, recommend engaging the help of a technically
knowledgeable person in working through all the scenarios that one can
imagine. Someone who has conducted exams in physical science laboratories
could have many useful bits of advice to offer. So could a colleague in
computer science, where students can be very, very adept in breaking the rules.

I wish that as a student, esp a doctoral candidate writing my prelims, I
had written them on a computer, and I strongly suspect that my examiners
would have preferred laser-printed pages to the handwritten ones that they
got. And I had by that point years of training and practice in Italic
calligraphy. All this (except for my handwriting) is obvious. It's only to
say that however demanding the use of computers for exams may be, the
rewards are such that the effort is more than adequately compensated.


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Dr Willard McCarty | Senior Lecturer | Centre for Computing in the
Humanities | King's College London | Kay House, 7 Arundel Street | London
WC2R 3DX | U.K. | +44 (0)20 7848-2784 fax: -2980 ||
willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/wlm/
Received on Sat Mar 26 2005 - 02:35:54 EST

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