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In an unprecedented exam week next week, Drexel Dragons will not be picking up their pens and pencils, sitting down in a classroom desk or auditorium seat, and fanning out all across campus to take the tests that culminate 10 weeks of learning. Instead, they will be picking up their laptop and computer mouse, closing their bedroom doors and taking those exams online from all across the country and the world.
So, with all of the changes to the way Drexel students must approach this coming exam week, what should also change about the way they prepare? What should stay the same? DrexelNow spoke with Lindsay Matias, assistant director of the Center for Learning and Academic Success Services (CLASS), about her online test taking preparation tips and strategies, as well as how taking time for reflection and to consider the variables can help ensure exam-week success.
Q: How might students be feeling going into this term’s exam week as opposed to the chaos of last term?
A: I think the end of last term was a real challenge for obviously everyone at the University and the world at large. But it was so fast and students were taking exams in a format different than what they had prepared for. … I think that meant that tensions were really high. There were a lot of external stressors. There were a lot of stressors around potentially students taking finals as their very first online test in some cases. Some of our students hadn’t had any online classes to that point or had maybe hybrid classes that didn’t involve online test taking.
It also feels really important for me to acknowledge that there are some students who are taking their first online finals this term, including students who were on fall/winter co-ops, along with transfer students, and other scenarios wherein students maybe didn’t have finals last term and do have finals this term.
So, I think there’s still a lot of tension around sort of the online test taking format. It’s decreased as students have become increasingly familiar. But I think ultimately, because it is still so much less familiar than the in-person, face-to-face test taking experience, tensions and stresses are still running high for a lot of students.
Q: How might the spring term of fully online classes have prepared them for virtual exam taking?
A: I think some of the things that the current online classes have provided that have helped students prepare for this round of online finals are just clarity around expectations.
For undergraduates, when they started spring term, they knew classes will be online throughout. And so, they knew that they would be preparing for ultimately an online final in courses where there were finals. And that means that they’ve had the opportunity to get clarity from their instructors, in most cases, where there is an online final, because there have also been online exams throughout the term or at least an online midterm. And so that means students are probably a lot more familiar with the online test-taking format or software or methodology that their instructors are using.
Q: What are the biggest differences between in-person and online test taking? What are the biggest concerns you’ve heard from students about these differences?
A: I think obviously there are a lot of similarities between online and in-person exams in that they are both exams and both are the sorts of tasks that require a lot of preparation, a lot of organization and a lot of information-gathering beforehand.
Ultimately, we’ve seen a lot of students come to us who do feel stressed or even anxious about taking tests online because, again, it’s something they have less experience with. And one of the things that certainly I’ve been encouraging students that I work with to do is gather information about their exams, about their finals as they can, and use that to plan. The idea of having a concrete strategy, knowing not only what information is going to be on the final, but how are you going to access the final? What is the format of the final? Can you annotate in that setting? Can you highlight, when you are reading, all the various things that might help them know how to study?
And again, that isn’t different than taking an exam in person. You always want to know what the format is because that’s always going to help you decide how best to prepare. But I think with online testing, sometimes the format is different, the expectations are different, and the actual way of working through an exam might be different.
Q: How can students prepare for the different variables that can arise while test-taking in an online format that aren’t really a consideration in person?
A: One of the things we see a lot with online exams is often students have a block of time where they are able to access that test. That might be over a single day. It might be within a few-hour period. In some cases, it’s potentially a whole week where the exam is available and they can access it and their time begins when they access that exam.
So, what I always encourage students to do is not wait until the last minute. And it’s a real temptation to say, “Well, I have until Friday of finals week to take this on my final. I want to wait until Friday because that will give me the most time to prepare.” But if on Friday your Internet goes out or something like that, that becomes a real challenge. Giving yourself adequate time to prepare, and also not waiting until the last minute so that if there is a problem, it can be resolved, you can work with tech support, you can work with your instructor — I think that’s really important.
And, that organization factor is important. Knowing, “When are my tests? When can I access them? How long will they take? Who do I need to talk to in my household to say, ‘Hey, if you could not schedule an online video conference during this time, because I really need good bandwidth to get through my exam.’” Or, “I’m going to need a pretty quiet environment. What is my household like? When is the right time to schedule that exam based on the ebb and flow of the people around me?”
So, though you definitely can’t be prepared for all contingencies, there are ways to plan ahead for foreseeable challenges and hopefully eliminate, or at least decrease, those.
Q: Are there any specific test-taking strategies you would recommend? Do they change based on the format of the test, so say an open note exam vs. an essay exam vs. multiple choice?
A: Some classes are giving open book, open note exams, but in some cases those are so long that if a student did indeed need to look up every answer, they’d definitely run out of time. Open book, open note doesn’t mean easy. So certainly, there is always a concern around making sure students know, “Even if I do have access to all of my tools and information from this course, I still need to prepare well. I still need to be very organized. I still need to have studied because I want those open notes to be something that helps me when I get stuck as opposed to the thing I’m looking to constantly.”
You have to know what information you’re looking for and where to find facts. So preparation and studying is still incredibly important, and those exams still deserve the same amount of time and preparation and are designed to require and reward the same amount of time and preparation and studying as a face-to-face, closed book exam would.
Q: Would you say there are any benefits to doing online testing, even for certain students?
A: I’ve obviously talked to a lot of students about this and some of the things that students have reported that they appreciate about online test taking is being able to control their own environments. So, some students can get really distracted or concerned if other people say finish an exam before them and are getting up and leaving the classroom. So, this allows them to be really focused just on their own progress, which is great for limiting of distraction and anxiety.
Also, when we’re teaching classes in-person on campus, some classes have sort of block scheduled exams and those tend to be very early in the morning. That’s not a preferred schedule for a lot of our students, and so being able to self-schedule some of their tests lets students be really strategic and really thoughtful about what their ideal schedule is — when they are most focused, when their environment allows them the best focus and Internet access — but also just when they feel like their mind is most sharp. For some folks, that’s early in the morning. For others, that’s afternoon or later at night. When students have the flexibility, they can really find a way to, you know, work to their strengths and also balance different exams. If they can self-schedule, they might choose to space their exams in different classes over the course of a week rather than having, say, two exams on the same day.
Of course, not all online exams are self-scheduled. Sometimes they happen at a decided-upon time during the course block. And then again, you simply have to have to adjust to those course requirements.
Q: How can students best simulate in-person preparatory steps that they’ve taken in the past, like study groups or coming to one of the CLASS workshops?
A: I think one of the things the Drexel worked really hard to do as the University was transitioning online was make as many resources as possible available online. And that meant that many of the tutoring centers, even those that didn’t do online work before, now do offer online appointments.
I think one of the other things that’s really important is trying to connect with faculty one-on-one, whether that’s by e-mail or during office hours, because so often students really do benefit from the time to freely ask questions and reflect and build their knowledge. And that sometimes happens really organically during in-person classes, either before class, if they arrive a little early and their faculty member is there, or after class, if the faculty member is kind of picking up their materials at the front of the classroom, a student might swing by and ask a question. Online courses don’t always offer that sort of natural interaction, but the faculty are still available.
So, I really have been encouraging students to connect with faculty that way and to connect with each other, to not be afraid to reach out to classmates and peers, and to be really upfront about what they’re hoping for. You know, a lot of students really do miss working in groups, because that’s a good, engaging, social way of learning. But not all groups work for all people. … So be specific about your time and how you’d like to communicate and what you’re looking for from that group, whether it’s collective reviewing or running through some practice problems together, so that you can connect with people who learn in a way that complements how you like to learn rather than just kind of randomly grouping people in a class that you know from other classes. That’s not always the best way to put together a functional study group, whether that group is in person or electronic.
Q: What is your biggest piece of advice for all students going into this exam week?
A: I think this is a really important part in the term to be reflective and to look back on what this term has been like to date.
If your midterms, say, didn’t go the way you wanted them to, that means that you probably need to change your strategy. But to change your strategy effectively, that means kind of delving into what worked, what didn’t. Why didn’t my grades look the way I wanted them to? Did I not study enough? Was I surprised by the format? Did I have trouble interpreting my instructor’s questions? Which can be another challenge in an online environment where you can’t simply raise your hand and hope that the faculty member can provide some clarification.
So knowing those things hopefully lets you know how to best move forward. … I think reflection is really important and not just reflecting on what didn’t go well, reflecting on what went well and carrying those things forward. Sometimes reflection isn’t about, “Oh, here’s the things I need to change.” Sometimes reflection is about realizing, “Wow, that technique worked incredibly well for me.” OK, there is your strategy for future test taking. So be reflective and make adjustments.