Assessing knowledge and skills during a pandemic

14 January 2022

The pandemic is unfortunately not letting go of its grip on us, but the start of the spring semester is approaching and an intense period of examinations is already upon us. The latest information we have been given from the Government and the Public Health Agency of Sweden is that exams should be conducted onsite with suitable disease control measures in place.

High-quality education needs to assess the knowledge of students in a legally secure, educational and fair way. Various types of knowledge and skills are verified in different ways. One format used for fact-based assessment of knowledge is written hall exams.

Heidi Hansson, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of education

Photo: Mattias Pettersson

Thankfully, the transition that Umeå University has needed to do to remote and online teaching and learning has not negatively affected achieved learning outcomes. In fact, an increased proportion of our students have performed better in their courses and achieved a higher average grade. To me, this is indicative of how well students, teachers and researchers have managed to adapt to new and digital teaching and learning methods.

A digitalisation of hall exams is not strictly a result of the pandemic. For a future-oriented university, the advancement of digital formats of teaching and assessment is rather a natural consequence of the digitalisation of society and the University. This applies to both on-campus and distance educations.

Already in 2018, Umeå University started a project to digitalise written hall examinations and subsequently offer a system integrated service. The work was based on pilot studies that built knowledge on the needs of the organisation. Tests and evaluations showed a strong willingness in students and teachers to transition to e-examinations.

In autumn semester 2021, a new university-wide service for e-examinations was introduced, in collaboration with a nationally procured provider. Umeå University is included in a Swedish network that regularly meets to exchange knowledge and ideas. The network consists of Stockholm University, the University of Gothenburg and Luleå University of Technology, among others. In the autumn semester, 58 e-examinations were carried out, which I am delighted about as I see several evident benefits with this service.

The use of paper is reduced, students are used to using their computers during their studies and the service saves time for staff assessing completed tasks. Avoiding the transportation of large paper bundles from exam halls also speeds up efficiency and makes for a more legal certain solution. An additional bonus is that neither teachers nor students need to worry about interpreting poor handwriting.

Students on one of our programmes recently criticised an incorrectly constructed e-examination. It is regrettable that these students had to experience this and we need to learn from the mistakes. The fault was a human error, and not the technology itself. However, introducing new technology does involve certain challenges. Staff at Umeå University are new users of this service and I would like to remind everyone that support and guidance is available for those who wish.

Criticism has also been aimed at the conduction of hall exams during a period of high infection rates locally. I understand and deeply respect the worry that people can feel about the situation we are in.

I, and the University Management with me, listen to the criticism and discuss ways for how we can improve the safety aspects of examinations. Umeå University is following national guidelines, have continuous dialogue with the Department of Communicable Disease Control and Prevention at Region Västerbotten and implement a number of measures to ensure the safety and security of our students and staff in examinations.

The end of this semester is fast approaching. And this weekend, we will be welcoming new international students to Umeå – as long as no new COVID measures put a stop to travellers. I'd like to take this opportunity to wish you a wonderful start to the new year.

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