Essays or Projects Instead of Proctored Exams: A COVID-19 Response

By Jim Shimabukuro

We just received a message (18 March 2020, 12:16 PM) from President David Lassner announcing that our University of Hawaii System will extend its move to online courses for the remainder of the semester. This extension has created a whirlwind discussion on proctoring exams: Procedures? Costs? In response to a Kapiolani Community College online discussion, I submitted the following:

This may be an opportune time to explore essay exams (or projects) that don’t require proctoring. These would be open-book and open web, and time limits could be imposed by controlling start and end times. Since online provides flexibility, students could be allowed to submit their exams within a 24-hour period. This would be a test of mastery rather than speed of recall.

Also, instead of one or two high-stakes exams a semester, an alternative is to require short essay exams four, five, or more times a semester. The exams would be open book, open-web, and unproctored. A time limit could be imposed.

To discourage discussions among students during the exam period, we could require them to append a simple honor statement to the end of their paper: “I have not discussed this exam with other students during the examination period. Signature:________. Date:___.” In some cases, discussions among students could be allowed or even encouraged, with the caveat that sources are included.

Essay exams could be designed to test for higher-order thinking and applications rather than rote learning. Here are a few examples:
01. Applying a process to an unfamiliar case or problem.
02. Comparing or contrasting two or more theories or writers.
03. Explaining a concept with an illustration or example from personal experience or observation.
04. Critiquing a theory via different logical methods.
05. Defending or attacking a popular or unpopular opinion, theory, or advocate.
06. Analyzing the critical factors of an unfamiliar case or problem.
07. Analyzing the short or long-term implications of a specific process or course of action.
08. Testing transfer of knowledge from a known to an unknown situation or case.
09. Imagining new, different, or controversial applications for a process or theory.
10. Examining underlying issues in a given controversy or debate.
11. Weighing different solutions for a problem selected by the student.
12. Conducting a small-scale survey on a controversial topic and discussing the results.
13. For language courses: Writing a short personal essay or one-act play with appropriate vocabulary and syntax.
14. For language courses: Creating a short script or video to demonstrate mastery.
15. Other: __________________________

Other concerns or thoughts:
01. If your exam needs aren’t covered by any of the options in the list above, please share them with us. I’m sure we’ll be able to come up with essay- or project-type alternatives.
02. To limit the scoring/grading load, maximum word counts could be imposed.
03. Instructors could read for content rather than form (mechanics, grammar, style, etc.).
04. My guess is that the essays could be fun to write (by students) and evaluate (by instructor) if the essay prompts are carefully designed.
05. Other: __________________________

Please share your thoughts, concerns, suggestions by replying in the comments section attached to this post.

Related article: DIY Alternatives to Turnitin for Written Tests, 31 March 2020.

3 Responses

  1. On 18 March 2020, in the discussion forum that prompted this article, I received an inquiry about essay or project alternatives for an introductory course in Discrete Mathematics for Computer Science. I posted the following response:

    Here are some links to different perspectives of teaching Discrete Mathematics for Computer Science. These views seem to invite project evaluations (or even papers) rather than rote learning.

    Course: MA 111 Discrete Mathematics
    At the completion of this course, students will be able to:
    • Develop logic and problem solving skills through exposure to and
    constructing many different forms of proof and/or arguments;
    • Develop an understanding of sets, relations, and functions;
    • Develop, perform and/or investigate an algorithm;
    • Develop strong computational skills for typical counting problems;
    • Evaluate and find the closed form for simple recurrence relations;
    • Develop an understanding of graph theory;
    • Develop an understanding of trees and their connection with search or sorting
    • Develop an understanding of Boolean Algebra and Combinatorial Circuits.
    /* */

    2. Introduction to Discrete Mathematics for Computer Science Specialization, Coursera (UC San Diego)
    To bring the learners experience closer to IT-applications we incorporate programming examples, problems and projects in our courses.

    3. Janet Barnett et al., Designing student projects for teaching and learning discrete mathematics and computer science via primary historical sources – Assessment may be accomplished through projects, portfolios, online assignments, exams,
    presentations and/or papers.
    /* */

    4. Programming Foundations: Discrete Mathematics
    Challenges at the end of every chapter allow you to test your knowledge. By the end of the course, you should be able to make the leap from theory to using discrete math in practice: saving time and resulting in code that’s cleaner and easier to maintain in the long run.

    5. Discrete Mathematics in the Real World

    6.Application of discrete math in real life
    /* */

    7. MATH121 Discrete Mathematics (Bucks County CC)
    Prerequisites: MATH140 (C or better) or Permission of the Department of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics
    Students will:
    demonstrate an understanding and apply the concepts and procedures for expressing mathematical ideas clearly, precisely and unambiguously;
    demonstrate a proficiency in analyzing an argument’s form to determine whether the truth of the conclusion follows necessarily from the truth of the premises;
    apply the logic of quantified statements and the precision of thought and language to achieve a mathematical certainty;
    demonstrate a proficiency in discovering and characterizing regular patterns associated with repeated processes;
    apply the concepts of set theory, including Boolean logic and work with functions such as discrete sets, one-to-one and onto, existence of inverse functions, and the interaction of composition of functions and the properties of one-to-one and onto; and
    apply the concept of equivalence relations as used in modular arithmetic and cryptography.

    8. KLAUS SUTNER, CDM: Teaching Discrete Mathematics to Computer Science Majors, Carnegie Mellon University
    This empirical and experiential approach to mathematics can help greatly in coming to a solid understanding of the relevant concepts. Moreover, it is fun to make small discoveries of one’s own and then try to formalize and establish them in a rigorous way.

    Click to access JERIC05.pdf

    9. What is a good way to learn discrete mathematics?
    Ayush Shrestha
    [Concepts that can be taught via other subject:] Logic and proof, Induction and Recursion, Combinatorics, Algorithms and their analysis, Discrete Structures

  2. Jim I am looking for some ideas moving forward to replace lab experiences next term. I teach in a Kinesiology program and we have a lecture component and then multiple experiential labs for different courses. I am struggling with the experiential component- how do we allow them to engage given there is specific equipment required and usually classmates to work on.

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