How do we pass the NET exams

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The digital summer semester ends with the online exam. That changes a lot. Our author summarizes his first electronic exam experience.


Anyone who told me at the beginning of the year that I would take my university exams online this semester, I would have laughed at them. But that's exactly how it happened: For the past few weeks, like thousands of other Mannheim students, I have been sitting at my desk at home and have been writing exams. I study at the University of Mannheim, which has international semester times. Lectures start in September in autumn and in February in the spring semester. When the corona lockdown came in March, we were in the middle of the semester, and teaching had to switch to online overnight.

On May 15, the university announced that most of the exams in the first two weeks of June would be written online: as take-home exams. Everything is based on the analog exams and the analog exam schedule published at the beginning of the semester. On a certain date and at a fixed time, you can download your exam in PDF and Word format in the specially created examination area of ​​the university's digital student portal. After the processing time, the completed exam can be uploaded to the examination portal. You get an extra ten minutes each for downloading and uploading.

That sounds cheat-friendly, and it is, because no one can check what happens while editing. Using unauthorized aids, making phone calls or writing the exam together, all of this is possible without any problems. There is no video surveillance. But it is by no means a brave new student world. In the home exam, the disadvantages are exacerbated compared to the classic exam. This is based on the mistake that one can simply transfer the analogue into the digital and the quality would remain the same. We students and lecturers have already seen in recent weeks that this does not work when we tried to play analog university in digital space. We handled it well, but it wasn't a real digital university. The majority of universities have failed in recent years to reflect on digital change and to develop suitable formats for digitized teaching.

This neglect weighs heavily in the exams. To understand that, it helps to understand what they mean. From my exams I would like to formulate the following: The purpose of exams is to query knowledge under time pressure under the same conditions, so that a comparison of all examinees is possible. However, this equation “written exam = knowledge + time pressure + equal framework conditions” does not apply to an online exam. I would like to make this point clear on the basis of my marketing exam.

Cheating under time pressure

University exams often focus on the mere reproduction of knowledge. Only a small part checks knowledge transfer. It is obvious that this does not make sense at a home exam. The majority of the online exams were therefore implemented in OpenBook format. It is therefore allowed to look at the lecture notes during the exam. The professors focus the exam more on the transfer of knowledge. In the case of my marketing exam, which the chair designed as a mix of multiple choice and free questions, it was refreshingly different compared to the business administration exams in a "normal" semester, because I actually had to think and answer the questions don't just write memorized concepts on the sheet of paper. So looking at the script didn't help anyone who didn't understand what it said.

However, simply shifting the focus from reproduction to transfer does not mean that knowledge is a variable. Because the open book exam can only check how fast the students can leaf through the script and read it, but not whether they can actively access knowledge. During my exam preparation, I asked a fellow student to what extent he was learning by heart this semester. He looked at me puzzled and replied: “You don't have to know anything by heart. You just have to know where it is in the script! ”In order to make it difficult to scroll through the printed script - or, much more simply, the search function in the digital script - the time pressure during the exam must be extremely high. Only those who do not look up have the chance to answer all the questions. I only looked up the script a few times during my exam, so I only had to guess a few multiple-choice answers at the end of the processing time. The fact that I looked up so little was actually because I had learned a lot beforehand. Only the strong time pressure enables the query of knowledge.

Unequal conditions

In an online exam based on the analogous model, knowledge and time pressure are therefore interwoven. However, there can be no question of the same framework conditions. In a classic exam, all students write in one room, so they are exposed to the same environmental influences. That sounds banal, but it's not. Because time pressure is central to an exam, every moment of disruption costs valuable seconds. In my case, I am privileged, I live in a dormitory. In the two weeks of the exam phase it was as quiet as a mouse. There was even an email from the dormitory management asking them to be particularly quiet. But what about my fellow students who are not that lucky? How can you write an exam with a high level of concentration if you live in a noisy apartment, for example?

In addition, the success of the online exam depends heavily on the technique you have. Here, too, I had an advantage. My internet works reliably, and I borrowed a second screen from a roommate, which gave me many minutes of working time. There were eleven pages between the multiple choice questions and the checkbox for the answers. Thanks to the two screens, I was able to open the exam twice: I read the questions on one screen, and at the same time I was able to put crosses in the (hopefully) correct answer fields on the other. Otherwise I would have had to scroll steadily or write the answers first on a piece of paper in order to transfer them to the answer field at the end.

A fellow student chose this paper method. She told me that it took her five minutes to translate the 36 crosses at the end. So I could think five minutes longer than she could. And not because I was faster or smarter than them, but simply because of my better technical equipment. In a ninety-minute exam that is time pressure, five minutes is an outrageous advantage. Because the better the time management, the more likely it is to get a good grade.

The success of the exam therefore not only depends on your own abilities, but also largely on external circumstances. A quiet workspace or a second screen are just two examples, this list could go on for a long time - without mentioning potential cheating opportunities. But one thing becomes clear: the online exam requires comparability, where it cannot equate anything, as it cannot guarantee its participants the same framework conditions.

The equation of a classic exam "written exam = knowledge + time pressure + same framework conditions" looks like this after the transfer to the online format: "written exam = knowledge + increased time pressure + unequal framework conditions". Even without knowledge of algebra you can see that it is not the same. In the exceptional situation of a pandemic, this may be justifiable due to the lack of alternatives. But one has to criticize the fundamental error: the analog cannot simply be transferred into the digital. Where the digital is becoming more and more important, and this also applies to a university landscape without Corona, it is time to develop new exam formats that can remain true to their principles.

Keywords: digital semester, online exam
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