Is this the end of the lecture and exams?

For Universities, and in particular science education, some of the main issues we faced have been how to deal with closed laboratories (see this blog piece), exams and lectures. I'll have a look at exams and lectures here.

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Many thoughts and ideas we have long held to be true have been shown not to be so during the last year of the pandemic. For instance, working at home has been positively received by those who have jobs that can be, at least partly, completed remotely. The world didn’t stop spinning when A Level exams were cancelled two years in a row, things just had be be adjusted (the success or otherwise of how it was done aside). We know that things can change and be done quickly with some appetite.

For Universities, and in particular science education, some of the main issues we faced have been how to deal with closed laboratories (see this blog piece), exams and lectures. I’ll have a look at exams and lectures here.

Will universities continue to allow Exams?

Traditional end of year (or module) exams involved hundreds of students sat in a sports hall at little tables. This was never an option during the pandemic. How do we go about replacing them and will we return to that next year?

Universities took a variety of approaches to replacing exams. Most went for some sort of time bound assessment. Open book 24-72 h essay style papers (google resistant) were quickly developed. Getting students to problem solve rather than recall facts was key.

Some went for online short exams – where IT systems permitted. These require the ability to turn off access to other software whilst the exam is on, or just replaces questions as above – make them less prone to Google. Some examples I have seen have been done very well and allow staff to mark the parts they need to very quickly.

exam by Adrien Coquet from the Noun Project
Are time bound exams a thing of the past?

So will we go back to exams? No is my short thought. The cost and time saving for administration being one reason. There are lots of opinions on the balance of assessment and whether we are asking too much of our students with lots of end of year exams. Some courses will have professional body requirements that mean they will need to have some closed book exams, this will be accepted I am sure, as long as we minimise the other exams!

It comes to what is assessment for? I believe ultimately assessment is to validate the student’s learning. I like to see a balance of assessment methods across a course, relying on exams and essays is not giving all students the same opportunity to succeed. For example as an undergrad I really enjoyed doing presentations, where others hated them. Others enjoyed writing essays more than me. Some specific learning difficulties make some types of assessment much harder than others, so variation should allow all to shine! We also need to be more mindful of the skills the students will use when they leave university and go into their jobs. Almost all reports they may write will be open book. More likely they will need to analyse and report data, interpret their findings and present to senior staff – so lets ensure we teach them those skills and test them on it.

The end for the lecture?

Lecture Hall by Gan Khoon Lay from the Noun Project
A lecture. Some time in the past.

The lecture has been hailed as dead and obsolete for many years, but simultaneously it is seen as a useful vehicle for transmission of information from one lecturer to many students. In the last ten years or so (10 years is my timeframe of direct knowledge) academics have used the lecture for more than just transmission though, there are many good examples of active learning methods (getting students to do stuff), even with 300 in the room. Active learning is generally considered to be a more engaging way for students to learn and involves getting them thinking too – thus some higher level skills come into play.

Will we ever go back to Universities allowing large group teaching for 150+ people? Will we use the lecture halls whilst we still have them (before they are turned into atria and coffee shops)? I think it more than likely future University estate will be developed without significant numbers of lecture halls. Even when social distancing is relaxed I think the days of mostly being sat in lecture halls as a student is gone and many universities will start easing out the lecture altogether.

Do students want lots of two hour slots being talked at?
Students have given reasonably positive feedback on the use of recorded material instead. We have ‘chunked’ our lectures into 15 minute or so videos and let students watch them at their own time and pace. They can re-watch and note take as they wish. Whilst we know there are issues with engagement through entirely virtual learning this is thought to be where the future direction of most universities. Free up tutor face to face time for more meaningful interaction.

Flipped learning?
The idea of flipped learning is to get the students to read/watch videos/think about content before a session, so the students can gain more from the interactions with staff who aren’t on purely transmit mode. This is what most models of blended learning have done. When designed well this is a really good way of students learning. The real issue here is whether students will do the pre work to make the sessions work. Not just once or twice, but constantly for all session each week? Over to you students!

Plenary and course cohesion?
I would think we will still want to use some lectures though, lets call them ‘keynote’ or ‘plenary’ type sessions for modules/courses. These can be the big occasions that build course identity, something that will be missed if the larger courses never get together in real life.

Staff response?
We have some people I know who really want a return to exams. One reason is to avoid grade inflation and protect the worth of previous degrees. This is less likely to happen or we will need to use technology to restrict access to websites with online exams.

Other staff want to return to lecturing rather than workshops. Student experience being cited by some (they think it is in the students’ interest to have lectures and that they enjoy the theatre and community of lectures). The scale of running many smaller groups for large courses may make it unviable to do small group teaching. Do we have staff to teach large multiples of the same content on specialist modules? We may need to be more agile in our thinking and planning of the courses. Still things to think over!

I’d love to hear thoughts and other approaches!

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About Dr Tom Bassindale

Dr Tom Bassindale is a forensic scientist, and the founder of We Are Forensic. He is currently the subject lead for chemistry and forensic science at Sheffield Hallam University. He's managed hundreds of forensic toxicology cases, and is an experienced court witness. He has specialist expertise in forensic toxicology and drug testing in sport. And yes... he watches CSI.