Measuring Student Learning with Exams: What COVID-19 Can Teach Us

As we neared the end of the last semester, faculty created final exams and students stressed out trying to study for them—just like every semester. But spring 2020 was not like every semester.

Students were learning remotely from their homes or other locations, and many didn’t have full access to technology, to the internet, or to the myriad support services that colleges and universities typically provide. Faculty were in the same boat; not all had full access to the tools that they usually use to teach (especially many of our contingent faculty).

So how could we have final exams? How could we develop a good, valid, and reasonable way to measure student learning at the end of the course? Sure, we could do what we’ve always done (and there are some really great examples of this), but now we’re in a position where being innovative isn’t just a good thing—we MUST do it for our students.

Yes, I know. We have lock-down browsers for multiple choice exams (but not every student can use these technologies from home). We have final papers and projects that can be sent by email (and these can be wonderful ways to show learning—but it’s hard if the student is trying to type a paper on their cell phone, as so many are).

So, let’s think about other options; let’s let the pandemic actually push us to do something new or creative that may even change the way we think about assessing student learning. Below, I include a list of several innovative ideas for faculty to consider as we plan our courses for an uncertain fall semester and beyond:

  • Student-Created Exams: Allow the students (individually or in groups) to create an exam along with the rubrics for evaluating responses. We know that when students can teach a topic then they have learned it well, and this could also provide new exam questions or quizzes for a later semester.
  • Gallery Walk Exams: Ask each student to create a video and post it to the class website or folder. Then, other students view and peer review the items as if it were a gallery walk.
  • Oral/Video Exams: Have students respond to a particular prompt and record it. Faculty can give time limits, and students can have as many tries as they need (before a deadline) to record and upload their answer(s).
  • Op-Ed Style Articles: Get students to write an article, helping them show that they understand both sides of an issue and can explain it to a particular audience. Perhaps extra credit can be given for actually submitting it to a news outlet, too.
  • Social Media Platform Exam: Have students think about your course as a “brand” and come up with social media posts that would demonstrate their knowledge of this brand. Here’s a great example of how this can work.

There are so many ways that we can think about assessing student learning in a course or a program that go beyond the more traditional paper/exam options. Try something new and see how your students can surprise you with their creativity and their learning!

Video Discussion on Formative Assessment and Innovating during the Pandemic

Catherine M. Wehlburg is a senior fellow with AAC&U and former dean of sciences, mathematics, and education at Marymount University. She can be reached at or @cwehlburg on Twitter.

This multimedia series is coordinated by M. David Miller (University of Florida), Tammie Cumming (Brooklyn College, CUNY), Gladys Palma de Schrynemaker (CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies), and Terrel Rhodes (AAC&U).

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