Best Practices for Online Exams

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With the Fall 2015 semester at its midpoint, one thing is on the mind of students and faculty alike: “Midterm,” which means, “exams.” In the last week or so, I have set up a lot of Midterm exams in Sakai (our learning management system, LMS), and they all had one thing in common: “multiple choice.” Instructors rely heavily on multiple choice (MC) exams to evaluate student learning outcomes. This is understandable because multiple choice exams offer convenience, ease of grading, quick and easy feedback, among many others.

PS: Sakai can grade multiple choice, true/false and fill-in-the-blank questions automatically.

Whereas a good MC or online exam should be able to assess the key components of a course, in other words, measure the learning goals and objectives of the material(s) covered, it should also adhere to some e-Learning best practices.

Although there are lot of best practices in this regard, here are a few to keep in mind:

1. Be consistent

Decide early on how many answer choices to make available to students for each question, and stick to it. If, for instance, you offer A to D as answers in the test, stay consistent throughout. In “Multiple Choice Questions In eLearning: What eLearning Professionals Should Know,” Christopher Pappas, advises that “as a general rule, you should limit the number of variables to 4 or 5, as this decreases the chances of a learner correctly guessing the answer and prevents memory overload.” By doing so, you allow students the opportunity to process and retain information easily, and reduce the chance of them getting confused. This also allows them to quickly move through the test, especially if it is timed.

2. Discourage cheating

A good multiple choice assessment discourages cheating, not only in the way and manner the questions are created, but also in the way they are administered. Because it is easier for students to congregate in computer labs or form “study sessions” during the test, it is important to take measures to prevent such unethical behavior.

i. Time the assessment

Students are discouraged from overt cheating when they’re constrained by time. The fact that they don’t have infinite time to complete an assessment encourages them to concentrate on the task of completing the assessment within the allotted time.

ii. Randomize the answers

Randomizing the MC answers is a tried-and-true way to discourage cheating. Assuming that merely timing the test fails to discourage the “congregation,” then randomization becomes the gatekeeper. When I set up tests or quizzes, I not only randomize the questions, but I also randomize the answer choices as well.

iii. Randomize the questions

Sakai allows for the randomization of questions with the click of a button. In addition, we can also create question pools, where a pre-determined number of questions are randomly drawn for each student. Again, it wouldn’t hurt to randomize the answer choices too as an added measure.

3. Provide feedback

Endeavor to provide some feedback to the students beyond simply giving them the correct answer(s). A detailed feedback goes a long way to reinforce learning. Another great feature of Sakai allows for extensive feedback to be included for every question. The e-Learning Center (eLC) staff can help!

Dickinson, M. (2012, March 12). The Thing about Multiple-Choice Tests …. Retrieved July 29, 2015, from

Pappas, C. (2015, July 28). Multiple Choice Questions In eLearning: What eLearning Professionals Should Know. Retrieved July 29, 2015, from

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A resource from K-12: The Teaching Tolerance webinar series


I’m a big fan of mining the wealth of resources offered by and for K-12 practitioners in the area of teaching and learning, from simple teaching tips to whole movements, such as backward design. Last year, the keynote speaker at Fall Teaching & Learning Day was Ron Ritchhart of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, whose work on Thinking Routines in K-12 has tremendous applicability to college teaching in relation to critical thinking, peer learning, and classroom assessment.

A resource that I’ve been following this semester is a series of webinars on classroom climate put out by Teaching Tolerance, from the Southern Poverty Law Center. The session for this week is “Responding to Incidents of Hate and Bias,” and the webinars are archived for individuals who want to access the resources but cannot participate in the live sessions. I’ll be using a tool from a previous webinar, “Let’s Talk: Discussing Race, Racism, and Other Difficult Topics,” in an upcoming roundtable at UB’s Fall Teaching & Learning Day. My goal is to talk with faculty about their skill building needs in relation to classroom climate, in order to help shape future programming. I look forward to the conversation that ensues.

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Structured Assignments Can Help to Close the Achievement Gap


Yesterday in an opinion piece in the New York Times Annie Murphy Paul asked whether college lectures were unfair. She cited research that shows that “the lecture is not generic or neutral, but a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others, including women, minorities and low-income and first-generation college students.”  Why would this be? Researchers know that “we learn new material by anchoring it to knowledge we already possess.” First-generation college students, women and minorities might be less sure that they possess background knowledge that would be useful in understanding a lecture, so allowing them to show themselves what they actually know already primes them to acquire new knowledge in the classroom.

Paul does not advocate throwing out the lecture entirely. Instead, she encourages professors to introduce more structure into reading assignments outside of class that will help them engage more fully in a traditional lecture. Studies have found that when professors provide questions to students about the reading before they come to class, students are more likely to complete the reading, putting the entire class on a more even footing.

Some professors grade the answers to the homework questions, but others administer frequent in-class quizzes that incorporate them. I like this method, since I prefer to grade writing on paper instead of on-line.  In class I can ask students to connect the reading to a document they have not seen before or an image I show them for the first time. Last week my first-year students had read about Captain John Smith for homework. At the beginning of class, I asked students to fill in this Point of View graphic organizer to analyze his many layers in order to determine bias he might have brought to his record of his Chesapeake Bay explorations. When they had completed the graph, students could see right in front of them the knowledge they brought to the class, so they were ready to hear more about John Smith in a lecture. This type of structure is relatively easy to incorporate in your teaching. In fact you already might be doing it.


Paul writes, “In the structured course, all demographic groups reported completing the readings more frequently and spending more time studying; all groups also achieved higher final grades than did students in the lecture course. At the same time, the active-learning approach worked disproportionately well for black students — halving the black-white achievement gap evident in the lecture course — and for first-generation college students, closing the gap between them and students from families with a history of college attendance.”

Students spend a good deal of energy trying to figure out “what the professor wants.” Structured reading assignments make homework expectations explicit. When they know the answers to reading questions, students can feel certain they are reading in the right way. When they can connect their homework to new experiences in class, they gain a sense of mastery. When a professor tells them every week that they are on the right track, they come to understand that they are in the right place.

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Difficult Online students


Dealing with difficult students in an online class presents some unique challenges. Certainly, faculty are aware that there is a line of abusive language that must be dealt with directly and in conjunction with others at the University (remember the Dean of Students can be your greatest resources in such situations).  But what about the disruption that is less hostile – the discussion post that is critical of the course organization, the complaints that go to other students instead of you, or the message dripping with sarcasm?

angry studentTeaching online is more time consuming than teaching face-to-face and the prep time is probably double. It is that preparation that can make
the difference in heading off the critics. Good course design and a comprehensive syllabus are the foundation of a successful course and fewer jabs from the disgruntled student.

Sometimes the difficult student is venting and needs just to be heard. Courses can be daunting and both personal and work demands can take a student to the edge. Dr. Alan Lyles at the University of Baltimore describes his approach as one of “compassionate rigor.”  Can we address the disruptive student’s behavior with compassion without bowing to a lessening of standards or course expectations?

In his paper on Dealing with Problem Students and Faculty Thomas Tobin reminds us that we all know at least one faculty member who is disorganized (I’d respectfully add thorny and/or cantankerous). The breakdown in organization and communications can often be the source of complaints.  Are you are willing to examine the causes of difficult students or only make it a student issue?

In a face-to-face environment we might use non-verbal to address a difficult student. Giving a student “the eye” or standing a little closer to their desk as you continue teaching are strategies that can’t be reproduced online. You can however try a few of these techniques:

  • acknowledge the difficulty of the assignment, provide additional instruction( if necessary), and encourage the student
  • allow a draft submission or create an environment where it is okay to make mistakes
  • make your learning objectives realistic and achievable
  • build relationships with your students that allow for both your praise and critic
  • keep it simple. Make your instruction as clear and yet comprehensive as possible.
  • provide timelines not just deadlines
  • ask students to contact you with questions
  • set firm rules for decorum and interaction (between students and with you)
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First Faculty Meeting Bingo



















Passed along from our former colleague Brian Etheridge

Original source – 

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What the plagiarism detection software isn’t detecting

image of cheat sheet cupped in a hand

wikimedia commons – labeled for reuse

Our University is revising an outdated Plagiarism Awareness Tutorial that does little to prevent plagiarism but does provide the “we told you so” necessary when a student actually gets caught. Like many universities, we are users of originality detection software that can review word use, phrasing, and citation with an immense database of journals, internet sources, and previously submitted work.

What these tools are missing is the student who uses a piece of work not for lifting text but for copying structure. If I want to make a case for electric cars and find a great article that lays out an ideal argument and then use the organization of that article to write my piece, I have plagiarized.

Thomas J. Tobin, at Northeastern Illinois University’s Center for Teaching and Learning, recently co-authored “Evaluating Online Teaching: Implementing Best Practices.” Last year Tobin wrote a piece in Faculty Focus that explored originality on three levels – content, design, and method. Including structure in a university definition of academic honesty and showing students how to avoid this aspect of plagiarism is as vital as any tool. Tobin encourages the use of originality software but also encourages faculty to get to know their students, to discuss issues among faculty, and to model processes and content for students.

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My father worked in a steel mill most of his life, did a tour in the Army, and was raised on a farm in western Ireland. Brilliant mind in a tough-guy wrapper. Much to our surprise growing up, my siblings and I learned he didn’t do well with the sight of blood. I am not sure if it was related to a particular incident in his past but it was a trigger that left him squeamish and light headed.

Image showing a small drop of blood on a fingertip Image labeled for Reuse

There is discussion in Higher Ed about whether it is good practice to give our students a heads-up about the content of our coursework that may trigger in them a negative or even a traumatic response.

In one of my recent classes I asked how many students had heard gunfire in the last month. I also asked how many knew someone who’d been shot. To both questions I was surprised by the high number of hands in the air.

Can reading the books and articles in my class elicit a PTSD response? Should I be censoring or providing an alert prior to showing my students certain movies or images? What if the image isn’t related to violence but affronts a student’s values instead, where is the line? There are many who’d consider any trigger warning requirement a challenge to academic freedom. A recent American Association of University Professors (AAUP) report by a committee looking at  academic freedom and tenure included, “The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual.”

Each professor will have to decide what stance they wish to take on providing guidance or warnings associated with their materials. Professor Ari Kohen, University of Nebraska in Lincoln, was quoted on WNYC Radio and Public Radio International (source) to say that “In my human rights classes, I’ve always told students from the first one that the material is potentially very upsetting because we’re dealing with torture, genocide, and sexual violence. The potential there, I think, is quite real to be not simply disturbing.” Kohen went on to provide a few tips for how students should approach difficult material (note – “approach” not avoid) so that they’d be prepared to come to class ready to discuss the material.

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Improving Teaching Online – Comparing Apples and Oranges?

Creative Commons image of apples and oranges from

Creative Commons image

Is there a fundamental difference between how a liberal-arts course is presented online and how online courses from other majors/programs or from research institutions are constructed or evaluated?

In a recent post on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Wired Campus blog, Jeffrey Young shared information on a new consortium of liberal-arts colleges looking at pooling resources in support of online offerings. This consortium has membership overlap with edX, the  MOOC provider.

I recognize that there is a difference in teaching style between colleges and that that style translates to differences online particularly when it comes to specific tool usage and approaches within an LMS. I also see that goals for moving online at all may be different between liberal-arts and research institutions. I question, however, whether that difference is big enough to warrant a consortium that in its structure may miss the opportunity to see how other institutions and programs are utilizing tools and methods for student success online.

While a driver here is not reinventing the wheel (of support and resources) for consortial members, I wonder if there isn’t already a wheel in place – or a tire store. OLC (formerly Sloan-C), Quality Matters, and Educause all have a wealth of resources targeting online course support. Liberal-arts schools may have lagged behind in moving online but why would liberal-arts schools, who embrace learning across the curriculum as a part of their nature, want to form a club that could potentially exclude lessons learned from the last two decades?

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Recreating Ancient Greek Ceramics



In the spring of 2015 Johns Hopkins University teamed up with Baltimore Clayworks to provide students with an experiential learning course that focused on researching and recreating ancient Greek ceramics. The course set out to put theory into practice. In the first few weeks of the course students learned about the historic significance of drinking cups to ancient Greek symposiums.   As the course developed students began working with clay while also observing the science that is involved in creating ancient ceramics. And finally, the students were asked to provide a finished product that replicated ancient works of art.   The only word that comes to mind as I explore the website documenting the students journey is WOW. This is truly an exciting example of experiential learning that needs to be shared and promoted.


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Renovated Classrooms Lead to Innovative Learning



In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, librarian Brian Mathews wrote about the ways that new classroom designs are allowing his library to become a pedagogical incubator. Instead of setting up traditional rows of desks and computers, his institution invested in classroom furniture that is flexible: tables that can be configured in a variety of ways, rolling individual desks that can be grouped easily for team projects, flat screens and mobile tables that can be configured as a media lab, pictured above.

When students walk into a classroom environment that does not look the way that classrooms have looked for the past 150 years, they know that they are going to be doing something that goes beyond lectures and tests. The physical environment influences the activity that goes on within it. Innovative learning spaces should exist outside of library incubators. Our students deserve to learn in environments that encourage the best pedagogical practices.

Universities should recognize that students rarely see the interior of administrative offices. They might spend an evening in an auditorium, and the truly committed hang out at the library. The college spaces that influence them the most are the classrooms, and every university should invest in learning spaces that reflect their educational mission and encourage innovation.

Take a look at the animation for Verb classroom.

And here is the Node Classroom


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