Teachers should consider replacing online tests with pen and paper assessments

October 8, 2020 — by Carolyn Wang
Screen Shot 2020-10-08 at 7
Photo by Carolyn Wang
Paper tests eliminate the glitches and ill-motivated incentives that are fostered during online assessments

The timer on the right-hand side of my computer screen ticked dangerously as I scrambled in panic to finish my last problem. A thick orange banner flashed across my screen: “5-minutes left before the quiz is submitted.” The words hung ominously as I struggled to concentrate on the bright display. 

Online tests, which have been a common test-taking format during online learning, are not the best way to assess a student’s actual comprehension of the material. Whether it’s slow wifi or a missing scroll bar in a fill-in-the blank problem, various technical difficulties create additional stress during remote learning. They also do not adequately address cheating and make it difficult for students to show their work. 

To avoid these problems, teachers should replace online tests with paper tests where teachers unlock the PDF of the test during the first few minutes of class for students to print it out, and once the student finishes, they upload their work as a PDF and turn it in on Canvas.

The current online testing format makes it easy for students to cheat since they are typically required only to have the camera record their face. This gives the teacher no way to assess what the student is doing — for all they know, a student’s fingers could be flying over their keyboard, perusing Wikipedia and Sparknotes to find answers.

The advantage of paper tests is that teachers can then ask students to have their cameras panned down to focus on the paper and the student’s hands. If the test is closed notes, teachers can also determine whether the student is being genuine based on the students’ behavior, such as whether their hands are flipping through a textbook or their body is fidgety and leaning in a direction.

Online tests also typically do not consider work: Instead, they evaluate your understanding solely based on your final answer. Showing work helps students who know the material but make silly mistakes sometimes. It also helps teachers understand what difficulties students are experiencing if everyone makes the same error.

 In in-class math or chemistry tests, teachers can see a student’s thought process as they complete the problem and reward them accordingly. 

The online format is also inherently difficult due to the plentitude of technical errors. Often, an image refuses to load, a browser fails to support a test, or students accidentally press the submit button before finishing, inevitably leading to more stress just over the logistics of taking the exam.

While remote learning must rely on technology and cannot be completely devoid of technical difficulties, allowing students to print out the physical exam papers and upload it eliminates many of the issues such as incorrect formatting, page-loading error codes, or wifi crashing halfway through the test. Additionally, “I didn’t see the scroll bar” or “the page isn’t loading” are no longer valid excuses in paper tests.

However, one downside to paper testing is that grading sometimes takes longer than online tests. But this tradeoff allows tests to be more secure, and removes some of the anxiety that results from cheating and technical issues.

The benefits of using paper tests exceed the benefits of online testing. By making the switch now, rather than later, teachers will  make tests less a panic-inducing burden and more of a “celebration of learning” for students.


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