Writing good questions for online exams Posted on September 2nd, 2021 by

Sometimes it’s necessary to have an online exam. This became true during COVID, but I think I’ll keep it up. Every time you can put an assessment online, you give yourself more time in the classroom. Learning doesn’t really happen during the assessment, so why give one when you’re around? You can save that time for interaction with the students.

The most common question I get about this is preventing cheating. I like to use Calculus 1 as an example. One learning objective I use for that course is

  • I can compute derivatives correctly for products, quotients, and composites of functions.

If all I put on the assessment is a single function to be differentiated, there nothing to stop the student from going to Symbolab and getting the answer, complete with steps! Instead, consider questions with multiple parts. We can look at these questions as coming from the different levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy:

  • Remembering
  • Understanding
  • Applying
  • Analyzing
  • Evaluating
  • Creating

So a question on derivatives could have 3 parts. The first part would ask a student to evaluate a derivative and show their steps. The second part would ask them to explain why the derivative is the correct tool to evaluate an applied problem. The third part would ask them to look at a solved derivative, but with incorrect steps. The student would need to write an explanation of why the steps were incorrect.

Constructing questions this way gets to the heart of understanding the mathematical concepts, while minimizing the risk of students just copying work they didn’t do themselves.


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