Opinion //

Is the take-home exam here to stay?

The university is moving away from traditional exams in 2022.

As our fourth semester since COVID begins to heat up, we are again preparing for an exam season that consists primarily of proctored tests and take-home exams. We’ve become so used to locking ourselves in our rooms to tackle a final exam in a strangely informal yet equally nerve-wracking environment. 

But what will happen to the humble take-home exam as Australia re-opens? Will it remain as a valued form of assessment even when things go back to normal? Or will the face-to-face exam return to rule the roost?

There’s a strong case that a well-designed take-home exam is actually of great pedagogical benefit – even more than a regular exam, says Associate Professor Peter Bryant, Associate Dean of Education at the University of Sydney Business School.

“As someone who believes in authentic assessment, I believe that take-home exams can be a better assessment of the kind of skills that people use in the workplace and often a fairer representation of what you’ve learned. … I don’t necessarily see the benefit of exams that just repeat knowledge.” He stresses, however, that it’s “quite a skill to design a good online exam,” whether take-home or proctored. 

But Associate Professor Nicole Graham, Associate Dean of Education at Sydney Law School, believes that take-home exams cannot be considered as equivalent to the formal invigilated exam. 

“You have advantages and disadvantages [of both methods],” she says. “If you’re a fan of exams, you’re going to love a sit-down and if you aren’t then you’ll prefer the take-home.”

She also stresses that equity is a concern with take-home exams. 

“We set long release take-home exams so that people in different time zones are not disadvantaged,” she says, “but then, students inevitably spend the whole period on the exam. But some of our students are working or have carer responsibilities and could never spend that amount of time on the task. That’s a big concern for me.” 

Whilst Bryant believes that take-home exams can stimulate more authentic, practical learning experiences, Graham suggests that the short deadline limits this benefit anyway.

“2 or 3 hours is a tiny amount of time to demonstrate 10 to 13 weeks of learning, whether unsupervised at home or in an exam room,” she says. “This is why some coordinators prefer assignment-based assessment to test depth of understanding.”

Many students and staff have raised privacy concerns over the use of ProctorU, with regular complaints about its malfunction during exams. To date, Sydney Law School has not administered any proctored exams. 

“We have encouraged staff to move away from exams where it is possible and pedagogically effective,” says Bryant. “However, in accredited programs like accounting, invigilated exams are often expected or required because exams involve the calculation of numbers, which is a little too easy to share amongst students.” Bryant revealed that the University will focus on reducing the amount of exams overall in 2022, especially as not all students may be back on campus, a point also made by Graham, who stresses that these decisions are made “by the university, not the faculties.”

Graham also cites the challenges that international students face, as many accrediting bodies view supervised assessment as a form of “quality assurance.” 

“There are a large number of bar associations and accrediting bodies all around the world that will not recognise a law degree where there’s been a certain percentage of unsupervised assessment or online learning. So that means that if we have an 100% unsupervised assessment regime, then international students would not come to Sydney because then they can’t practice in their home jurisdiction.”

According to Graham, the Law School has seen an 800% increase in claims of academic misconduct since the start of the pandemic, which Bryant says is consistent with a university-wide increase. 

“That’s one of the risks of the modern education environment in any assessment form,” he says,“assistance and collaboration are so accessible now and have resulted in the growth of contract cheating.”

“Our sector is under siege and there’s not a lot of cash thrown around,” says Graham, who says that the team of Law School academics investigating cheating has “more than doubled” recently, without receiving extra pay. “It’s unfortunate that our resources are being spent on detecting misconduct instead of learning. … it doesn’t matter if it’s two hours or two months. Students who are going to cheat will cheat.”

Whilst it’s business as usual for Bryant, Graham says that the Law School is looking at new forms of supervised assessment in 2022, “perhaps through debates, moots, presentations or more class participation,” where staff can verify students’ identity.

Given that students often struggle with university bureaucracy and assessment requirements, Graham and Bryant emphasised their commitment to student welfare. 

“I just want to say to students that we feel for you learning in a pandemic. It’s very suboptimal. We appreciate how hard it is and we’ll do the best that we can to support you,” Graham says.

So, whilst it seems that the take-home exam is here to stay for the foreseeable future, the utility of take-home exams should be determined by the “authenticity” of the learning experience in helping graduates navigate a post-COVID world. Given the continually changing environment and the diversity of skills that employers will increasingly expect, I think the take-home exam is certainly here to stay.  

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