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‘By the Second Exam, I Felt Much More Confident’

ICEF students and teachers share their experiences with exam proctoring technology

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On June 10, final exams for the third and fourth modules will begin at HSE University, during which many students will take online exams with proctoring software for the first time. Proctoring helps ensure fairness and prevent cheating during online exams. The ICEF has already administered over 40 online exams with the use of proctoring software. Students Artem Veselov and Ksenia Lebedeva, as well as Sergey Konyshev, Head of the ICEF Office of Research Methods, talk about how to prepare for exams, what difficulties students may encounter, and how they can be solved.

‘In my personal opinion, proctoring makes the exams easier’

Artem Veselov

Second-year student, ICEF (HSE and University of London Double Degree Programme in Economics), Chair of the ICEF Student Council

I have a total of three proctored exams this module – Law, Banking and Finance, and Macroeconomics – and I’ve already taken two of them (the two former). The format of both exams, despite the remote form, hasn’t changed a lot, except perhaps for the fact that the teachers had us do more essay-type assignments rather than multiple-choice tests. I think this makes more sense: the complexity of the exam hasn’t increased a lot, while there are less opportunities to copy from other sources, since the format and the time doesn’t allow for it.

The Law exam was the one I took first, and my anxiety level was, of course, high. What if my wifi connection cuts out, what if my parents come in (the exams were conducted in the morning or afternoon Moscow time, but I am now in Novosibirsk, where the time difference with Moscow is +4 hours), or something happens to my computer? The 15-page manual, which we got a day before the exam, didn’t quell any of my fears. But everything went pretty smoothly: I put a sign on my bedroom door, so that my parents remembered not to come in; at the beginning of the exam, I showed my room, my desk, and all my drafts – and calmly started to work on the exam. It was divided into two parts, with a break and an opportunity to leave the room during it. I personally had no technical difficulties: probably, this is because, due to my work at the Student Council, I am more familiar with the process than some of my classmates.

Artem Veselov

By the second exam, which was conducted eight days after the Law one, I was much more confident: my classmates and I had shared our experiences with each other and discussed the process with representatives of the university administration. We at the Student Council had also re-written the manual: we didn’t make it shorter, but we made it more structured and clearer, according to the students. I didn’t have any problems with the second exam as well; it consisted of only one part, and it was much faster.

How to Solve Technical Problems

As a Student Council member, I can see that taking exams online is not easy for everyone: some students have connection failures, while others cannot show their entire rooms, and still others have technical troubles with Examus. Of course, all these problems contribute to students’ anxiety—all the more so when the final exams are worth up to 90% of their final grade (if the course lasts for one semester), and they want to do as well as possible.

After the first exams, we at the Student Council created a form, where every student could write their comments about the exam procedure. As of today, we have registered 73 comments from first, second and third-year students. They have been mostly related to problems with the platform (which failed to cope with the load) or their internet connection. As a result of this work, I compiled a report that I sent to the university administration for discussing and finding solutions for the future exams. We expect the meeting to be organized in the near future. Some measures are already being implemented, such as emergency Zoom conferences, where students who have problems with the platform are redirected. This provides each student with an opportunity to take the exam.

In the beginning, we had some questions from students about how long they can keep the eyes off the screen, and how this will be assessed. After the first exams, we have understood that this measure is mostly about the exams that are administered online (with the use of Google services, for example). But even in this case, you can avert your eyes from the screen: if the system registers that the eyes are averted too often, but the student has had shown their whole room and workplace, no one will have any questions.

I would also like to particularly mention the problem of academic honesty: when you are at home, not fully observed as in a classroom, there is a temptation to resort to ‘academic doping’ and use some aids. Of course, it is impossible to detect all cases of dishonest behaviour, but some students have already been held accountable for plagiarism or violating exam rules.

Just several days ago, the HSE Student Council approved the ICEF Student Council’s opinion in five cases. The problem of how to prevent cheating can be solved either by more creative assignments, or by administering ‘open book’ exams (as it is done at the University of London).

‘Teachers also understand how worried the students are’

Speaking of the good things, in my view, the exams have been easier, because teachers also understand how worried the students are and the role anxiety can play during exams. You also don’t need to spend time getting to campus to attend consultations before the exam, so you have more hours for studying.

The well-coordinated work of the ICEF technical support team and effective coordination with the Student Council have played a big role in ensuring that the system operates stably enough. We collected student feedback, sent it to the administration, and they were able to fix the errors promptly.

In addition to standard procedure recommendations, such as prepare your workplace, set up your computer, and so on, I would also advise reading the manual carefully, checking your equipment in advance, and, in case of any problems, contacting your programme office immediately. I also believe that local student councils can play a role in the process: if they work closely with the administration and discuss protocols of the online examination period, this will be helpful not only for the students, but for the programme office as well. And, probably, the main advice is – don’t worry. The study office consists of humans, just like you, for whom the transition to online learning has been unexpected and, I believe, emotionally costly. Based on my experience at ICEF, I can say that everyone understands the situation students are in, and are always ready to cooperate.

‘Everyone is more accustomed to doing things in person; it’s easier when you see the other person’s reaction’

Ksenia Lebedeva

Second-year student of ICEF, member of the ICEF Student Council

At the ICEF, almost all exams are conducted with an asynchronous proctoring system (students are not observed in real time, but a recording of them taking the exam is reviewed afterwards). I have already taken three exams in this format. It’s important to note that proctoring procedures may be different. For example, you can use the Examus system to administer a purely electronic exam that only involves filling in tables, when in fact you’re using screen, sound, and room recording functions.

‘The proctoring procedure tests important skills, such as your ability to use technology’

The most unpleasant aspect is that you are at the mercy of your computer and technical equipment. Offline, you know that your final grade won’t be affected if by an internet connection failure, a website malfunction, or your typing speed. In addition, the power of artificial intelligence in proctoring is rather scary: many people are afraid that their work could be marked invalid due to outside sounds or uncommon gestures.

But, as we get experience with these procedures, we understand that the asynchronous form, despite its high resource consumption, helps prevent such problems. First, for emergencies, a parallel exam session in Zoom is very helpful, which makes the Examus software instability not as scary. Second, while recording is really quite sensitive, re-watching the records in manual mode helps distinguish really suspicious behaviour from plain nervousness. Finally, the question of parallel open tabs, which has been worrying students, can be solved easily: the recording shows everything that is happening on the screen. This means that in manual mode, you can always see why the student had decided to switch from one tab to another.

I have to admit that everyone is more accustomed to doing things in person, and it is easier when you can see the other person’s reaction. We are social animals, after all. But there is something positive in it, too!

Being at home is beneficial for many, particularly in terms of being able to get a good night’s sleep before the exam. The proctoring procedure tests important skills like your ability to use technology, which is essential nowadays. And the emotional tension only improves the standards, since at the end of the day, everyone experiences about the same level of stress because of the format.

An argument in favour of online exams that is rarely considered is their environmental friendliness. Not many people think about it, but written exams mean a crazy amount of paperwork, particularly if the essays are cross-checked, for example. Computer files take up less room and help save the forests.

In fact, a certain culture of technology use is needed to completely understand the advantages of online format. I believe we are simply not yet ready to completely abandon the things we have grown accustomed to over the years.

‘The ideal conditions for exams include a well-rested genius student who learned all the material from the very beginning of the year’

When I think back to my first experience with a proctored online exam, I can say that you have to be ready for system instability. The Internet might cut out, your camera might turn off, there could be problems with external apps – all these scenarios are very common and very stressful. Don’t get too worked up about it. Instead, decide in advance who you will contact in case of technical troubles.

To get everything organized as calmly as possible, I would recommend reading the system manual carefully. It may sound simple, but the ability to open a browser tab in incognito mode, to navigate the website page, and focus when necessary is a key to success.

The ideal conditions for exams are a well-rested genius student who learned all the material from the very beginning of the year, who has a separate web camera installed at home, a powerful computer, and an internet cable with 5G connection speed. But everyone understands that ideals are ideals because they are unattainable. We have to remember that, as long as unified exam procedures are followed, and the same time frames are set, the students are in equal conditions. These are the realities of the digital era! Still, I honestly believe that we are not going to switch to online learning entirely.

I’ll sum up my comments with a parenthetical remark: at the ICEF, materials and assignments have been published online since long ago, as part of our cooperation with the University of London. But students choose our programme, rather than simply the University of London online, since the interactive part of learning is essential to them.

‘I can understand why the students are worried’

Sergey Konyshev

Head of Office of Research Methods at ICEF

The use of proctoring technology at exams ensures confidence: every student can be confident that everyone else is taking the test in the same conditions where their knowledge and skills are being evaluated; teachers can be confident that the exam results reflect their students’ real knowledge. As a result, this means guaranteed quality of the academic programme and guaranteed quality of the earned degree. This confirms the fact that the leading universities of Russia and across the globe are willing, even in these trying times, to administer proctored exams.

Of course, we understand that online proctoring cannot guarantee that an exam is completely ‘clean’, but, together with an additional check of ‘unexpected’ results (an analysis of the student’s performance throughout the year, monitoring the video records, additional surveys on the exam topic, and comparison of the students’ texts with each other as well as with possible sources), the reliability level turns out to be quite high.

As of today, we have administered over 40 online exams with the use of the Examus proctoring platform. The ICEF conducts almost all its exams with proctoring technology. Particularly, the fourth-year bachelor’s students (the graduating class) have completed a full cycle of four exams with asynchronous proctoring.

The exam results were statistically analysed (in terms of average deviation, standard deviation, correlation with December offline exams in the same subjects), and we have not detected any considerable statistical deviations from the expected distributions. Fourth-year students have also completed an anonymous survey about the quality and transparency of online exams at the ICEF, and their average grade was about 4 out of 5. This means that the difference between proctored online exams and traditional ones is minimal. Deviations of results from those that are expected are more likely in the cases when there is no proctoring procedure.

Read more

Vice Rector Sergey Roshchin on Taking Exams with Proctoring Technology

I can understand why the students, who have not yet gotten accustomed to online exams, are worried. An exam is not an entertaining event in itself, and in this case, you also have to demonstrate your knowledge in an uncommon online form, under an invisible proctor’s supervision. The unknown is always worrisome. I remember quite well how, several weeks ago, we had consultations on Examus and spent a long time discussing various cases with our students, and today, students at the other faculties worry about the same problems.

These are the things that helped us dispel students’ fears:

  1. Face-to-face interactive consultations with step-by-step reviews of each provision of the manual;
  2. Organizing several channels of urgent communication with proctors before and during the exam;
  3. Creating emergency plans for students who have technical troubles during the exam;
  4. Creating our own team of proctors who are ready to immediately solve students’ problems, not only related to exam contents, but to technology (such as setting up a student’s computer to work with Examus);
  5. Proactive help from the ICEF Student Council, which collected student feedback after each exam, helped us improve the standard exam manual, and advised on the things that cause the most difficulties among students. This helped us better understand and recognize issues.

Finally, today, now that the online examination period at the ICEF has entered its home stretch, I can say that many fears were unfounded. Particularly, the fear that the proctoring system may invalidate the exam due to technical troubles or mistakenly assess the student’s conduct during the exam – we have had none of such cases.

The students have gained experience with proctored exams. While there were a lot of questions before the first exams, by the second and third exams, the procedure has become routine for the students. Of course, some new problems and cases sometimes arise, but the main thing is not to leave students on their own with them and provide timely support. When you know what and how you can do, you are not afraid of anything.

May 29, 2020