How much time does it take to write an Exam in the LMS Based Online Exam Taken in Asynchronous Mode

How much time does it take to write a 3-hour exam in an LMS Based Online Taken in Asynchronous Mode?

My expectation from faculty members is that their question needs to be a 3-hour exam, the “estimated” writing time for the answers should be 3 hours. The exam paper is typically loaded on LMS as an assignment or some other activity. It should be visible to students on the stipulated time and date and with a clear specification of the end time-date. The duration doesn’t have to be exactly 3-hours. It needs to be much more as the exam is being offered in an asynchronous mode because of connectivity issues, power breakdowns and technology issues. Depending upon the severity of such issues, the time period can be extended to half a day, full day or even few days as per the university’s policy and particular geographical spacing of the students. This is what HEC is grappling with in designing a policy governing big universities whose students hail from poor demographics and far flung areas where there is only 2G or even no internet.

A good philosophical question. Can a faculty member estimate the time it would take a student to write a particular exam? This is a hard problem. Some students have good typing skills, others may not be as good. Some can write fast but require a lot of repeat editing. Some write slow but do not require a lot of repeat editing. Some have clarity of thought and may not require several drafts for improving the original. Others may require several rough drafts and repeated reading for correction. Writing also depends upon your practice and strive for excellence. Some are well prepared, others need to consult several resources. During an exam, we typically follow the Parkinson Law: The work expands to fill the allotted time for the exam [1]. During a physical 3 hour exam in an examination hall, irrespective of the type of question or its time requirement, the paper ends after exactly 3 hours with some students doing better than others in this limited duration. The question becomes really hard for exams whose duration has been extended to a day or even more.

Good students strive for excellence. Excellence is trying to do your best in the available resources. Time is a precious resource. The students who are “In Search of excellence” [4] often strive hard to achieve the best within the available resources, which in this case is 24 hours. This is the bane of “In Pursuit of Excellence“, where good students would exert themselves to their limit to achieve their best. I have personal experience with some great scientists for whom pursuit of excellence was their life’s mission and who considered “Beauty is Our Business: Dijkstra and Excellence” [5].

Then, there are the ordinary people like those found in too much abundance in Pakistan. These are the ones for whom “Guzara” is the operative mission of their life. They just want to scrape through with the minimum effort, always performing below their best. Never striving to come out of their comfort zone. Inability of Pakistan to rise can be attributed to this culture. I went through a tedious process of discovering the difference between Guzara and Excellence in my life as described in Pursuit of Excellence vs Guzara: How to teach excellence through everyday examples [6]. I use this post to exhort my PhD students to learn the pain of pursuit of excellence. Students who are in the “Guzara” category will be happy with 24 hours, because they will simply sit for 3 hours and make do with the minimum to pass the grade.

The good students would try to extract the best juice from these 24 hours and would work really hard, often too hard. Much more than what the teacher expects. But, this is what excellence is all about. In a quotation often attributed to Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” As part of their habit, these students would simply work their hearts out in utilizing the maximum part of 24 hours.

Many students are tempted toward copy paste and other form of plagiarism. They may even indulge in fraud or impersonation. Often people argue for the need for centralized monitoring of the exams through cameras and all sorts of bio-metric hi-fi solutions. I am against all this charade. I consider it as a self defeating technological adversarial game which has been played for a long time by hackers who create viruses and companies that create anti-viruses. This game has led to creation of more sophisticated viruses, with even more powerful anti-viruses, and with no end to this competition. Playing this game is simply against the philosophy and assumptions behind self learning and experiential learning in online education [2]. In an LMS based environment, automated and centralized plagiarism checking is typically available. Students must be aware of the strict guidelines about what constitutes plagiarism, and what are the different patterns of plagiarism and how it can be avoided [3]. A good teacher can spot a plagiarized article from a mile by just scanning and also may be a little viva.

My recommendation for the faculty is to keep the exam questions at the top levels of Bloom’s taxonomy (create level and evaluate level) which require originality of thought from students and a format which typically can not be copied.  Furthermore, the assessment exercises must be accompanied by clearly defined rubrics that capture the expectations of the faculty member.  A teacher may also specify the word counts. Design of clearly defined rubrics can ease the tremendous pressure on students whose work may expand to fill in the allotted time and also the challenge of fairness in grading.

How does a faculty member grade the answer sheets. A good teacher typically goes through first few papers at random trying to sample and identify the relative level of answers. Initial grading of these papers is kept tentative. As the teacher encounters subsequent papers, the teacher compares with the initial papers and revise their grading also. For example, a teacher goes through many answer sheets of a class and finds out the initial paper which was given a B, actually deserves an A because latter papers are not as good, then the teacher will revise the marks. This is subjective grading. This can work in the other direction too. What is fairness is grading is another of my experience at University of Texas at Austin, explained in Fairness in Grading: A Lesson by the Great Dijkstra [7]

As you can see, I write blogs . I write on a wide range of topics. I can’t tell how much time it will take me to write on a topic till I start writing. At times the urge to write and get it over with is so great that I complete it within an hour.

Some blog posts I write in 15 minutes, and except for minor tweaking, it is published ready. Others take hours. Yet others require weeks. Some require repeated visits and repeated editing till I am really ready. At times when I read my old blog-posts, I notice spelling mistakes, grammatical mistakes, formatting mistakes, and I go and re edit them and improve them. Some are pending in an unfinished state for years. There are currently 61 drafts from 2013 till 2020 that are yet to be completed by me.
This post was written in response to a query from a faculty member, and when I had finished writing the response I thought I would generalize it and put it on my blog. The question has triggered a line of thought that I had not explored earlier. Writing helps me to explore, refine and articulate the thoughts that are coming to my mind. Thanks to the teacher for asking a good question.

I have added more material to this based on some students who were exceptionally good expressing the pressure that they felt on trying to do their best on a 3-hour exam which has consumed a major part of their day. They were complaining about the length of paper, which actually can be mitigated by a clear enunciation of expectations of the faculty in the form of rubrics. See Using Rubrics to Manage Anxiety Created by LMS Based Online Assignments.

[1] Parkinson’s law is the adage that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. It is sometimes applied to the growth of bureaucracy in an organization. Attributed to C. Northcote Parkinson
[2] Assumptions of Conventional Exam vs Assumptions of LMS Based Online Exam
[3] How to Identify Plagiarism. Patterns of Plagiarism. Indiana University
[4] In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr..
[5] Beauty is Our Business – Mathematics, Excellence and the Great Dijkstra
[6] Pursuit of Excellence vs Guzara: How to teach excellence through everyday examples
[7] Fairness in Grading: A Lesson by the Great Dijkstra

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