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Lecturer's blog 7: "Testing times" by Milena Nikolova

Milena Nikolova
Milena Nikolova

The several COVID waves have been a true test for our academic community – a test of our adaptability, patience, resilience, and dedication to teaching and research. As a result of the lockdowns and the switch to online teaching, many of us became overnight experts in the intricate features of Nestor and Blackboard Collaborate Ultra. We started living dual lives as avatars on Zoom and Google Meet while juggling kids and tasks at home. Especially during the pandemic’s first wave, the phrase “building the plane as we fly it” gave many of us a sense of purpose and perspective about the truly remarkable things we were doing in the face of this unprecedented adversity. Through the heroic efforts of the lecturers, the support of the staff, and the patience and understanding of our students, we managed back then to land the planes safely on the Zernike ground. The vaccination campaigns that followed gave us hope that we would never have to fly the plane this way again and that we could go back to in-class teaching and “business as usual.” Yet, wave after wave, the virus has been coming up with ever more challenging variants, cunningly testing and trying us all the more.

Despite all the challenges and frustrations, the pandemic offered some avenues for rethinking our current ways of doing things and an opportunity to tweak our established teaching and research practices. It allowed spurts of creative destruction that often propel positive change and future progress and give us the tools to respond to future challenges. In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic revived Winston Churchill’s famous phrase, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

“There is no final exam in this course,” stated the revised version of the coursebook of Global Political Economy last spring. A big change! But a good change as well: it not only helped better align the course goals with student progress, but it also helped with future-proofing the course and “insuring” it against the vagaries and uncertainties of the virus. But that is not the full story.

Since the 2019-2020 academic year, I have had the privilege of serving as a course coordinator of Global Political Economy, which is a second-year compulsory course in the International Business (IB) program. In this course, students deepen their understanding of the inter-relationship between international politics and international economics and how it shapes the business environment. It is a course that students and instructors generally like.

The assessment methods (group assignment and a final exam) that I “inherited” in the course when I took over as a coordinator seemed to work. So why fix it if it ain’t broken?

The challenges of online teaching and administering the final exam during the pandemic’s first wave made me question whether we, the instructors in this course, could better facilitate our students’ learning progress and ease the stress and uncertainties surrounding the COVID situation.

Merriam-Webster defines “examination” as “an exercise designed to examine progress or test qualification or knowledge.” In that sense, having a final exam comprising a big chunk of the course grade may not be ideal in gauging progress, at least in our course. That is because if we, the instructors, see consistent errors or misinterpretations of the course material in the final exam answers, it is often too late to correct them.

Moreover, when nearing the final stretch of the course, students typically feel very apprehensive about the final exam, given its weight in the course grade. The fact that the exam is at the end of the block also creates incentives among students to postpone studying the material until shortly before the exam date. Needless to say, COVID-19 also added an extra layer of uncertainty and stress about the final exam for both the students and the instructors.

So what were our options? We could have, for example, introduced a midterm and provided formative feedback. Yet, the midterm does not solve students' apprehension and stress related to exam-taking. Nor does it “insure” against the ambiguities of postponing exams or changing their format in case of recurrent COVID outbreaks. And it also does not reinforce students’ progress in relation to the course goals.

How about scrapping the final exam altogether and replacing it with a series of quizzes and individual assignments? This is the path we chose, and let me tell you why.

For students, the change offered several advantages. First, it removed the incentives to “cram” before the final exam and made it necessary to study the material during the block consistently. Second, it provided the students with an opportunity to receive feedback on their performance and test their understanding of the course material and mastery of the course goals throughout the block. Third, it avoided the uncertainty and stress associated with the final exam and potential COVID-19 outbreaks while maintaining the course objectives. Finally, because the exam was typically at the end of June (with a resit in July), students could enjoy their summer break early. The course evaluations – which every instructor anxiously awaits – were encouraging and positive. Students also seemed to see these benefits and appreciated the more linear and continuous learning process throughout the block.

To put it in the language of Global Political Economy, the change in the assessment methods was a win-win or a “positive-sum game.” In addition to the student benefits, as instructors, we got to check the progress of our students throughout the block, engage with our students and provide them with consistent feedback. Instead of grading exams until mid-July, we could now spend more concentrated time on the 99th revision of our research paper.

Is this change in the assessment method a silver bullet? Certainly not: there are courses in which a midterm and/or a final exam works better than a set of quizzes and assignments. Moreover, conducting weekly quizzes requires a big question bank. I am greatly indebted to the student assistants who worked with me in developing it. In addition, using assignments also requires careful thinking about how to administer and grade them. For example, one must clearly explain the assignments to the students in advance, institute measures against plagiarism, ensure that all assignments are graded consistently using a clear grading rubric, and provide formative feedback. All of this takes more time than writing, administering, and grading an exam. In this sense, I am very fortunate to have worked with dedicated and energetic instructors and administrative staff colleagues who provided much support, guidance, and input, in implementing the changes and achieving the course goals. I am also thankful to the students who took the course last year for their patience and openness to change.

I won’t be lying when I say that I never thought that Winston Churchill’s wisdom would apply to the Global Political Economy course. Indeed, the corona pandemic has been a rare crisis that has shaken many aspects of our working and private lives and forced many unexpected (and sometimes unpleasant) changes. Yet, the pandemic has pushed many of us to optimize, innovate, and seek new solutions. In these testing times, changing the assessment methods in our course seemed to have been one positive change. Let’s hope that it will withstand the test of time.

I would like to now pass the torch to my talented and enthusiastic colleague Petros Milionis, with whom I co-coordinate and (teach in) the FEB Honours Bachelor Programme.

Last modified:11 January 2022 11.18 a.m.