Summative online assessment: disaster and triumph

Posted on Posted in eAssessment

I’ve just spent two days at the e-Assessment in Practice Conference at the Defence Academy in Shrivenham. I felt a bit out of it not being in military uniform or being followed around by a dog but it’s been a good opportunity to get back into the area of eassessment.


Two of the presentations dealt with issues around large-scale summative eassessment ie big groups of students lined up in rows doing online tests under exam conditions. Bill Warburton and Helena Knowles from Southampton University were running an ambitious summative assessment pilot where students from satellite campuses in places such as Winchester were bused into the Southampton to sit the exam. Bill talked about the military-style planning for the large cohorts of students, testing of the workstations in advance, training of the invigilators with eassessment staff on hand to assist them… The preparation was meticulous for the first assessments.

Then disaster struck.

A flood meant that the data centre was knee-deep in water which took out some of the servers and the networks. Several of the eassessments had to be abandoned. All that planning, that bringing around of the skeptics…. the learning technologist’s nightmare. But Bill still seems to be smiling (perhaps through gritted teeth), still has a job, and Southampton will be continuing to take the pilots further.

At Manchester University, the push came from the University President who was so concerned about the institution’s poor results in the National Student Survey that he saw online assessment as a key way to enhance feedback to students.

Julie Andrews was tasked with coordinating much of the eassessment activity at Manchester and, like Bill at Southampton, found summative assessment an order of magnitude more difficult to organise than the formative assessments she’d been providing to students up till then. There were so many things to organise: seats allocated to students as they walked in, passwords required to view the exam paper, the Respondus LockDown Browser used so that students could only access the test, paper copies of the exam paper and answer sheets available in case of failure…

Some extraordinary statistics back up Julie’s claims that Manchester’s foray into summative eassessment has been exceptionally successful. For Julie, the increased numbers of students in recent years have meant that providing individual feedback on assessments is well nigh impossible – this way the marking and feedback are instantaneous. Most impressively though, there have been massive improvements in exam performance and hugely reduced student dropout. Other factors to do with the course have remained fairly constant so Julie attributes the improvements entirely to the use of eassessment.

And Manchester is used to rain. They had no floods to disrupt the eassessments; just once in four years has Julie had to resort to the paper-based backup procedures.