Exams: Online versus Paper

It may seem a contradiction but, while I prefer paper over e-texts, I prefer online over paper exams.

When I clicked the “submit” button on my latest exam, I felt satisfied. Not only was another exam out of the way and another course completed, but I didn’t have to pop a painkiller to ease my aching arm. After writing three paper exams and three online ones, I definitely prefer the latter. Here’s why:

Less agony. I don’t enjoy handwriting, whether print or cursive. My writing has always looked tortured, and it feels the same way. My written work is now primarily done with a keyboard and I only handwrite when I have no other choice. Lengthy written answers on a three-hour paper exam requires exercising hand and wrist muscles that are unaccustomed to use. It’s a challenge to keep my writing legible long enough to write a grocery list, let alone a 500-word essay. After a three-hour paper exam, my arm is ready to fall off. Not so with an online exam. I’ve been typing for decades and much of my working career has involved sitting at a computer. I can type quickly with a fair degree of accuracy. And I know that my tutor will be able to read the results when he or she marks my exam.

Less time wasted. With a paper exam, the first ten minutes is chewed up filling out required fields on the exam (name, student number, etc) and then again on each answer booklet. Online exam time is not wasted in this way. Once I’m logged into the exam, every minute of time is usable exam time.

Reduced vulnerability. One worry with a paper exam is its journey back to Athabasca. If a paper exam is lost in the mail, as described in this 2014 The Voice Magazine article, you can expect to re-write it. No fun! Online exams take a direct e-route to the marker. While there are vulnerabilities with online, such as power outages, dodgy internet connections, and the unpreventable “that shouldn’t happen” computer glitch, consequences are usually less severe. Online exam answers are auto-saved throughout, and exam invigilators have resources to deal with unexpected issues.

Quicker results. With a paper exam, I have no idea when to expect my marks. I have to allow time for the invigilator to mail it, Canada Post to sort and deliver it, and then the mail room at AU to forward it to my tutor. (If you write at an AU exam centre in Alberta, your exam takes a more direct route.) Then my tutor has to mark it within a reasonable time frame?which doesn’t seem to be accelerated by me obsessively checking my grades in myAU. On average, I wait one month after writing a paper exam to receive my marks. With an online exam, delivery is instantaneous. For my one multiple-choice exam, I had computer-generated marks within minutes of completing the exam. For exams with long answers, my marks were ready in about a week.

On the downside. Online exams aren’t perfect, of course. For starters, I’m using an unfamiliar computer. The public library computer on which I wrote my most recent online exam had a few sticky keys that needed extra force. Secondly, online exam software is not as familiar as everyday computer programs. Unlike Word, a MuchLearning exam will never underline misspelled words, so my proofreading skills need to be sharp. Additionally, not all shortcut keys that I commonly use work in an exam environment. For example, my attempt to use the shortcut “Alt+130” to type an accented “é” in my recent exam resulted in the computer kicking me out of the exam for a few tense minutes. Finally, there is the persistent uneasiness that some minor computer blip will result in disproportionately major consequences.

Online exams won’t be everyone’s favourite method of exam writing. (My sympathies to all you two-fingered typists, and those of you with limited computer experience.) However, I’m so satisfied with online exams that part of my course selection process is to check AU’s list of courses with online exams.

AU’s attempt to move from paper to e-texts may have been an ill-conceived disaster, but their move from paper to online exams gets two thumbs up from this student.

Barbara Lehtiniemi is a writer, photographer, and AU student. She lives on a windswept rural road in Eastern Ontario