Dear friends,

I have decided to stop using the online test monitoring system.  I had felt conflicted about it throughout the semester last fall, because I was not convinced that it would prevent cheating and suspected it could worsen equity issues. Now I am finally abandoning it because it is bad for my soul and erodes my relationship with students.

The online test monitoring system cannot prevent academic dishonesty.  Worse yet, it may introduce one more layer of systemic inequity in the way we serve our students.  Those with resources would be able to cheat, leaving the performance gap even larger between the haves and have-nots.  The first thing I did when my university said we would use an online test monitoring system was to Google “how to cheat on …”  And barely weeks into the online pivot, there were already YouTubers showing me how to fool the system.  As of February 2021, there are even more and even bolder sources of such kind.  Some require accomplices paid or otherwise, some require extra devices, and some require paid apps and/or computer coding knowledge.  Cheating is a viable option only for those who see the investment as less costly than simply studying for the test.  When it requires technological capital, the socioeconomically privileged “benefit” inequitably because the comparative cost is lower for them.

But let me get to why I have finally decided to abandon online test monitoring.  Like most teachers, I devote hours on evenings and weekends assessing and evaluating student work.  I do it trusting that education is a two-way communication; I do not merely spew information at my students but they respond by demonstrating that they have acquired the knowledge and skills through this process.  My duty is to verify that they have responded sufficiently.  Over the course of another such Saturday spent poring over recorded videos on the online test monitoring system, I realized that the fatigue I feel after these grueling video review sessions is not simply physical.  Seeing a student’s countenance contorting slowly – or at 4x playback speed, not so slowly – throughout the recording, and seeing the next student agonize, then another and another, wears down one’s soul.  I am not a sadist and do not want to be forced to watch all these people being tortured, feeling that I have somehow caused their distress.

Exams cause students stress regardless of format.  My Advanced Physiology exams are no easier on paper than online, and I am familiar with the tense atmosphere when students gather at the lecture hall to take a major exam.  In fact, we know well that some students’ test anxiety is compounded when they have to be in the same space with others, and we accommodate their request for alternative testing arrangement in a separate room.  Even those who do not need accommodation certainly exhibit their distress when taking in-person exams.  However, there in person, they have each other’s camaraderie in being able to see they are not alone in this stressful situation.  They give each other a pep talk or an assuring look as they settle down to take the exam.  And they have my comforting presence.  Yes, comforting!  For one, my presence assures they are being assessed fairly.  I come around to address students’ confusions about certain questions, to offer extra paper or an eraser, to remind the rest they still have lots of time when the first bold person submits the exam and leaves, and whatever else comfort in-person human presence can offer each other.

During my video review sessions, I am left with a feeling of impotence unable to help students who some hours or days ago had been subjected to this experience in isolation from me and from each other, either getting distressed by the minute or trying to hide their cheating from me.

I have my own coping mechanisms, of course.  Wanting to avoid the emotional distress of watching another human being suffer, I can objectify the student into a study subject.  I study and code their behavior – frequent rightward glances between the 15:29 mark and 21:06 mark, a questionable change in their eyeglasses’ reflection at 25:14, etc.  Worse yet, it can devolve into a “me against them” brain game, as if my job is to catch the perpetrators.  This represents a total breakdown of the relationship of mutual respect that is at the core of education.

Teaching is a relational activity.  A composer can compose a masterpiece with no audience, but a teacher cannot teach without students.  A composer’s music can be heard without a response, but a teacher’s teaching must elicit her students’ response in learning.  Good teaching at least considers learners, and great teaching requires caring about and caring for the learners.

Teaching is a communal activity.  Parker Palmer in The Courage to Teach speaks of community “that can help renew and express the capacity for connectedness at the heart of authentic education.”1 While Palmer means many things by “community”, I want to interpret it here in the form of connection between teacher and students and between students.  Authentic education surpasses dissemination of facts, even more importantly now in the age of supercomputers in the hands of every learner than at the time of Palmer’s writing.

Teaching is an activity of Christ-like service.  Our ultimate teacher Jesus had compassion for the lost, including his close disciples.  He taught them intimately, he taught them in community, and he served them through his teachings.  If we educators lose the respect for our students as whole persons, if I start to view my students as customers or subjects to probe or potential criminals to punish, if I am disconnected from my students, all is lost.

For me, the online test monitoring system unfortunately epitomizes this disconnectedness.  A well-meaning tool developed to solve a specific need has made me question the meaning of education and of my vocation as an educator.  Over the past several months of using online test monitoring, I recognized a certain kind of evil in me.  It wants to substitute this monitoring tool for a meaningful improvement in assessment methods in accordance with online learning.  It has the old curmudgeonly disdain for “lazy” students (“If they would only study!”) rather than compassion for today’s students who face new barriers to learning in the online environment.  It is the selfishness that wants to protect myself from the obvious emotional distress captured in those videos.

Assessment is necessary.  I do not argue that we should do away with assessments.  However, we educators must acknowledge that it causes emotional distress and work with our students to address it – convincing them that assessment is necessary, that there is no intent to judge the whole person, that there are ways to ease the stress – instead of deploying online surveillance along with assessment.  I intend to continue to assess my students’ knowledge and skills in the online environment, but I intend to think more deeply about ways that can preserve both our relational integrity and academic integrity.  While my purpose here is not to offer suggestions, for myself, I will explore one-on-one oral exams.2 Oral exams have their own weaknesses including ill effects of implicit bias and they are time-intensive.  My “policing” of recorded videos is no freer of bias than a video meeting, so oral exams are no worse in that dimension.  And regarding time-intensiveness, I would rather spend those long hours on the screen interacting with students than watching them suffer or disconnecting from their suffering.

.

Footnotes

  1. Parker J. Palmer, The Courage To Teach: Exploring The Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 89.
  2. Della Dumbaugh, “Revitalizing Classes through Oral Exams,” Inside Higher Ed, https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2020/09/09/how-use-oral-examinations-revitalize-online-classes-opinion 

Yoojin Choi

Yoojin Choi is Professor of Biology and Department Chair of Biology at North Park University. 

6 Comments

  • Jenell Paris says:

    Thank you! What a powerful post. Adjusting ourselves to acclimate to the suffering of others is such a profound framework that reaches out to all suffering in the world. I hope you write more about how to maintain authentic connection with students in the digital age. We are all experiencing that change, I think, in student ethos and in faculty capacity and context. Oral exams are one strategy, and as you describe so well, every strategy will have its limitations and benefits.

    • Yoojin says:

      Thank you, Jenell.
      Indeed it has been difficult to build rapport and stay connected with students. The other day, a few more students came to the in-person lecture than usual, and they started chatting about some trivial thing like what they did that morning. It was beautiful to have that before-class chatter about nothing. I realized how much I missed just being together.
      Content delivery “transaction” still happens online. Serious discussion still happen online. But it’s just not the same.

  • Godwin Emmy says:

    Thank you for sharing your thought and experience. As a teacher, I will consider trying the one- on one oral examination this semester.

    • Yoojin says:

      Thank you, Godwin.
      I tried it with one class last week, and will do another one tomorrow. I found that I could grade on the spot! I had been worried I’d have to record and transcribe everyone’s answers, agonizing over how many points to give, etc. It was very clear to me and to the student where each person landed. It is going to end up taking me less time to do this than to grade typed short answers.

  • Nancy Arnesen says:

    Thanks for these thoughtful and humane reflections, Yoojin. So proud to be your colleague!

    • Yoojin says:

      Thank you, Nancy!
      Thanks for letting me know you had left a comment. I wasn’t aware of the comments section until I heard from you.