Online Learning and Testing: Is it really working for us?

So, like some of you reading this blog post, I’ve just finished writing my exam which happened to be online. This might be a totally new experience for some, but if –like me- you’ve been in university for a while, it might just feel like we’re back to writing online exams after 2015’s Fees Must Fall, scrambling to save the semester because we’ve missed a lot of contact lessons.



Except this time, many would have had to spend the whole semester self-studying. This pandemic has meant that educators have had to change their means of teaching, similarly, students have had to adapt to new learning styles and have had to take the lead when it comes to their education.


Honestly, I feel this change is long overdue, and maybe- just maybe- it’s what we need. I don’t feel we should still be expected to basically regurgitate what a lecturer has placed on their class notes in order to pass a course. This doesn’t facilitate understanding, which by the way is the actual point of being educated.


I’ve been lucky enough to be taught by many different types of educators and I always found that those who structured their course work around developing a student's understanding ended up being more successful in getting students to pass their course not because they just needed to pass but because they actually understood what they were doing.


I’ll give an example. I’m currently doing a biostatistics course which doesn’t work on a grade point system. Instead, in order to pass you have to get a “completed” mark from the lecturer in each subject within the course. In order to get this a student needs to demonstrate that they truly understand each subject by completing 3 assessments.


The first is by engaging in a discussion board with other students. This is where I literally just have to talk to other students about the work and my lecturer is able to gauge my understanding based on my responses. Obviously we’re given prompts to facilitate the discussion and you'd be surprised how much speaking to others to figure out what’s going on would facilitate understanding.


The second is an assignment where we are given statistical problems to solve and we have to explain at each step what we are doing, why are we doing it and why we’ve chosen to do things this way. There’s a reason why people say “practice makes perfect”, because by practicing the work you put to test your knowledge.







Lastly we have a quiz. The quiz is made up of practical questions that we have to solve and again explain what we’re doing etc. If you fail to answer a question in the quiz correctly, you have to submit a quiz correction explaining why the original answer you had was wrong, what the correct answer is, and why this is the correct answer. If I do these 3 assessments to the lecturer’s satisfaction, then and only then do I get a “completed” mark. This shifts the goal from trying to get a good grade to trying to complete the assignment with a thorough understanding of the work.


Honestly this style of learning is time consuming and sometimes draining. You guys have no idea how many times the lecturer has given me an “incomplete”, and left me comments on where I’ve gone wrong and how many resubmissions I've had to make. It gets frustrating, but honestly, I’ve never understood stats as much as I do now. Like I’m even re-looking how I’m going about my own project such that the results I get are actually statistically significant.


This isn’t the only way to actually get students engaged in their course work in a meaningful way. There’s plenty of lecturer’s out there doing their best to help their students. I think this is so important. I remember last year, one of my supervisor’s told me that he doesn’t always pick “A-students” because not all of them tend to do so well when it comes to the practical work within the lab.


This really got me wondering if our curriculum actually prepares us for the working world. I mean yes theory is important, we need a solid foundational understanding of everything we do, but South African universities need to also put emphasis on developing practical skills. After all it’s the practical work that most of us will be applying once we leave academia.


This move to online learning has forced universities to use programs such as Procturio to monitor students and to ensure exams are written fairly in a somewhat controlled environment. As much as I think this will be helpful, I think it's a missed opportunity to completely reevaluate the way we are testing students and ask “Is this method truly helpful in the context that we are living in?”.


I personally hate the way we write exams. I’m able to do really well when it comes to writing exams but it comes at the cost of my mental wellbeing. If you’ve been an avid reader of this website’s blogposts you’ll note that there’s a strong emphasis on mental health, and that’s because we’ve all gone through problems with our mental health due to school. It’s sad that it’s the norm. I don’t think the point of getting educating is to create individuals with mental health problems. Which means that we really need to look at how we’re implementing and testing our curriculum.


Mental health aside, some people just don't test well despite the fact that they actually understand the course content. For those students, they have to go through universities thinking they're not capable of doing well when in actual fact "you can't judge a fish by it's ability to climb a tree".


If there’s one positive that has come out of this pandemic it’s that educators have been forced to start questioning their own teaching styles and testing methods. I think this will really help facilitate the conversation of what it means to be educated in the climate that we find ourselves in today. Are traditional methods still working for us? What needs to be adapted? How can we make it better? What does it really mean to be educated virtually?

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