Why I’m No Longer Giving Paper Exams in My Computer Science Courses

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Since the start of the COVID pandemic, I think a lot of folks expected the world around work and education to change dramatically. However, almost four years later, it’s almost like we’ve regressed. Remote jobs are disappearing and classrooms are removing their support for online work. On the other hand, I’m embracing the virtual world and moving all of my computer science exams online. Here’s why!

Table of Contents

Exams Have Got to Go

In writing this article, I don’t want my position on exams to come off as if I’m in favor of them. In fact, I categorically oppose exams in just about any capacity. But, don’t take it from me! There are plenty of educators asking for the practice to stopOpens in a new tab., and some even calling folks cowards for not going full abolitionistOpens in a new tab.—which I cannot deny. Not to mention the horrific effects of “exam seasonsOpens in a new tab.” (TW: suicideOpens in a new tab.), something I simply do not want on my conscience as an educator.

From my perspective, exams are extremely annoying for both the student and the educator. For instance, I can recall my first data structures course where I threw away a semester worth of good grades on one bad final exam grade, ultimately earning me a ‘C’.

Later, I remember taking a differential equations exam and getting the same number of points as a peer of mine, only to earn a ‘C’ while my peer earned an ‘A’. If you’re wondering how anything like that could be possible, here’s the secret: the instructor dropped one of four of the questions on the exam because so few people were able to answer it.

While the average person might blame these two experiences on me or the instructor, not the exams themselves, I would argue that these scenarios can only exist in the presence of exams. More specifically, the “high-stakes” nature of the exams is what makes these issues so prevalent. Though, I might even argue that this is just a symptom of a broader culture around grading, but that’s probably a conversation for another time.

Speaking of broader culture, exams are a part of academic culture, and it’s very difficult to make the jump away from them without a compelling argument, continuous pressure, community buy-in, and a lot of support. Ultimately, I believe the change has to be incremental, which is why the position I’ll by taking today is not the complete abolition of exams. Instead, I’ll be talking about a simple change: the migration from paper exams to online exams.

Student Preferences for Taking Online Exams

Naturally, I never make a decision without consulting the actual community that I serve, so after administering the first paper exam of the semester, I turned to my students and asked them if they would prefer an online exam or a paper exam in the future. At the time of writing, the votes were split 18 to 41 for the paper and online formats, respectively.

To me, that split was surprisingly close. I had imagined that students in general would welcome the pivot to the online format, so I opened the topic up for discussion. The remainder of this section covers what they argued.

Students Prefer Being Able to Run Their Code

On computer science exams, it’s common to have a few coding questions. In the course I teach, the expectation is generally that students provide a perfect program to address the problem statement. For example, it’s not unheard of to take points of if students use print() over println() when the prompt asks for output on multiple lines.

Now, I’ve never really been that strict in my grading because I care much more about the students’ thinking than their ability to follow exact directions during a time crunch. Therefore, I tend to give students the benefit of the doubt when they use size() instead of length() since the overall thinking is correct.

By switching to an online format, students believe that the stress related to writing perfect code will be alleviated by the use of a tool like an IDE. In general, I tend to agree. After all, I make mistakes all the time in handwritten code that students point out in my homework keys. Why would I hold them to a higher standard?

Of course, the counterargument I see all the time is that IDEs are a crutch. They allow a student to solve a problem through trial-and-error. To a certain extent, I agree with this as well. It’s part of the reason why I push for the use of tools like DrJava. That said, an online exam can still have the time crunch element, meaning you can’t just permute lines of code until you get it to work. You still need to have a good idea of what you’re doing.

Though, I would argue that it wouldn’t matter if the student used trial-and-error anyway. They would probably understand just as much as a peer who wrote correct code from the start (yet another reason why exams are ultimately pointless). The reason I make that claim is that most engineering curriculum is memorization-based, despite popular belief. Think about it! All those “hard” calculus exams that boomers push for are just testing students’ ability to memorize problem solving strategies. Do you think students really “understand” calculus after they take those courses, or did they just memorize some techniques for solving formulaic problems? I can tell you that I still remember how to take some basic derivatives, and I even remember what those derivatives mean. However, I have almost no understanding of where a derivative would be used (outside of some physics contexts) or why a derivative is what it is?

Students Prefer to Be Able to Type Their Code

Along a similar argument as the previous one, several students made the case for being able to type code. Not only is it faster, it feels more natural. And in contrast with paper exams, there’s no drawing of arrows, erasing, and/or rewriting of code. If you’re missing a line, you can just insert in another line.

From experience, I can’t tell you how many students will approach me before they turn in an exam just to ask if their code is readable. Moving to online completely solves this problem for both students and me. Not only do students no longer have to worry about their handwriting, I don’t have to attempt to read it.

Students Prefer Assessments That Map Better to Job Assessments

Another argument that came up was the idea that online exams map better to the way that companies assess candidates. As you can probably imagine, I believe coding assessments for jobs should also be abolished. That said, as long as they exist, we should be preparing students for them. Therefore, an online exam makes a lot of sense.

A counterargument I hear a lot from academics is that college, especially computer science, is not a trade school and therefore should not be treated as such. I find this argument sort of silly because they never really make the case for what college should be but rather what it shouldn’t be. If college is not for providing students the skills to succeed in the job market, what is its purpose? To train more academics? Give a poll to students right now. How many of them do you think want to be academics? It has to be an exceedingly small proportion of the student body. Take me for example. I’m an academic, and I found my way there through industry. Do I wish my undergrad better prepared me for the possibility of working in academia? Absolutely not. That’s the job of grad programs.

Now, I will concede that college is not a trade school, but not for the same reasons that people make this argument. In the tech world, we have bootcamps. You can learn to code quickly and jump right into the workforce. Hell, you can be self-taught in our field. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong path. That said, I think college has certain advantages that these other options don’t, which are simply not prioritized at all in our education system. For example, a major benefit of college is networking, yet how many classes incorporate that into their education? Likewise, I think general education classes are incredibly important for the broader benefit of society—lest we continue to produce narcissistic, planet killing, privacy robbing, union busting, freak tech billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk. But don’t take it from me! Erin Cech was the one who found that engineering education is beating the social responsibility out of its studentsOpens in a new tab..

I find that the cultural emphases of students’ engineering programs are directly related to their public welfare commitments and students’ public welfare concerns decline significantly over the course of their engineering education.

Erin Cech, 2013

Benefits That Students May Not Have Considered

While students in general seem to be really focused on the stress aspect of the exam, there are just so many additional benefits that I had been thinking about on their behalf:

  • If class were to ever need to go virtual under another pandemic-style situation, the material would already be online, so the course could be adapted much quicker.
  • Giving students more autonomy to complete their exam when and where they want promotes more trustOpens in a new tab..
  • During finals week, students can potentially travel home sooner and even take their exams from their home.
  • Commuters—who might have absurdly long travel times in the US—would no longer be required to commute to campus for an exam.
  • English as a Second Language (ESL) folks would have the ability to leverage translation tools on the exam.
  • Students would no longer have to deal with the in-person shame of getting a low score (e.g., getting their exam handed back face downOpens in a new tab.).

All of which I could easily flesh out in more detail and argue, but I think just having these points is enough to put this change in the win column for students.

Selfish Reasons for the Switch

When it comes to providing education, there are a variety of stakeholders with diverse needs. Ideally, these needs would converge in some way to lead to positive outcomes for everyone. To me, it makes most sense to focus on the needs of the students, but there are other key stakeholders as well, such as educators themselves.

As an educator, moving away from paper exams is a no-brainer. Aside from what I might have mentioned earlier, there are just so many benefits as an educator:

  • Grading can be automated for certain types of questions
  • No more printing exams
  • No more carrying around exams
  • No more storing of exams
  • Class time can be reclaimed for review sessions and new topics
  • No more scheduling special times to proctor exams with students who miss class
  • No more uploading exams to the disability services portal
  • No more downloading completed exam from the disability services portal
  • No more printing completed exams
  • No more manually typing out the pages to print because the disability services staff scanned the empty backs of each page (yeah, I know this one is very specific)
  • No more paper cuts
  • No more dried up pens
  • No more awkward exam return experience
  • Accommodations can be applied to each exam individually
  • The shift to online allows for incremental shifts later, such as the move to regular quizzes
  • Exams can be graded basically anywhere there is internet
  • No more miscalculating point totals

And I’m sure there are more yet to be seen.

This One’s for the Doubters

Now, even though about a third of my students said they preferred paper exams, I’m fairly convinced at this point that online exams are the way to go. That said, there are almost certainly doubters. For instance, there were definitely a few students who had some solid concerns:

  • One student prefers to think on paper first, so they requested that online exams have some extra time to transfer written solutions to the computer.
  • Another student had a bad experience with an online exam, so they were worried that my online exam would be more difficult than the in-person version.
  • A third student raised the concern that they wouldn’t be able to ask questions if the exam was online.
  • Yet another student was worried that allowing some of the sections to have online exams but not others could pressure the other students to cheat, since the programs are so competitive.
  • Finally, another student mentioned having a roommate and no great place at home to take an online exam, among other distractions related to computers.

In general, I don’t really have great responses to these concerns. As with any decision, there are going to be tradeoffs, so it’s not like I expected the switch to be unanimously good. That said, I think these holes can all be plugged to a certain extent.

To start, I think the first two concerns are pretty easily solvable by the exam format, content, and prep material. The latter few are a bit more tough to solve, with the closest solution to the Q&A problem being a concurrent Zoom call or something similar. I have almost no clue how to deal with issues of competition across the department, as it’s systemic to the field. As for the distraction concern, I wouldn’t be opposed to helping students find quiet places to complete their exam. Personally, I find the sniffling and paper shuffling in the in-person settings distracting in their own way.

On top of the students’ concerns, I suspect there are a lot of concerns from other faculty around cheating. I say this because cheating is one of the biggest concerns our department seems to have, and I know computer science departments around the country are obsessed with it. Not to mention tools like ChatGPT giving computer science educators nightmares. Personally, cheating is not something I really care about (perhaps as evidenced by this parody on how to cheat) because I think it’s solvable by addressing the various causes of cheating, such as the systemic obsession with grades, poor pedagogical practices, and moreOpens in a new tab.. However, I understand the concern.

Ultimately, that is to say that I think switching from paper exams to online exams will be a net positive for everyone. That said, I haven’t actually given an online exam yet, so I’ll have to pilot it and report back. My hunch is that I’m going to prefer this practice, but we shall see.

In the meantime, I’d appreciate it if you took the time to check out some of these related teaching articles below. I don’t spend a ton of time writing about teaching, but it’s my other main passion aside from software development:

As always, if you liked this article and want to see more like it, I recommend heading over to my list of ways to grow the site. Otherwise, take care!

Jeremy Grifski

Jeremy grew up in a small town where he enjoyed playing soccer and video games, practicing taekwondo, and trading Pokémon cards. Once out of the nest, he pursued a Bachelors in Computer Engineering with a minor in Game Design. After college, he spent about two years writing software for a major engineering company. Then, he earned a master's in Computer Science and Engineering. Today, he pursues a PhD in Engineering Education in order to ultimately land a teaching gig. In his spare time, Jeremy enjoys spending time with his wife, playing Overwatch and Phantasy Star Online 2, practicing trombone, watching Penguins hockey, and traveling the world.

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