On one hand, I’d been genuinely excited at the prospect of experiencing real life proctored assessment from the student perspective. I would be sitting an exam in my home, using a specially downloaded ‘lock-down browser’ that would take over my computer, preventing me from accessing unauthorised information, while a remote invigilator watched me through a webcam to confirm I was following all exam regulations. On the other hand however, I was increasingly nervous. The PRINCE2 Foundation exam (taken at my department’s expense after a 3-day course) may not have been comparable to university students’ end-of-semester exams, but I was still anxious about failing. Would I be able to blame the stress of the proctored exam experience if I didn’t pass?
I did pass. I probably wouldn’t be writing this post if I hadn’t. But the stress was real, on top of and interconnected with my already bad exam nerves. It was a useful, but overall unpleasant experience and I want to share just a few of my reflections on the process, in the hope that they will be useful to others working on proctoring policies, student support and exam set-up for remote assessment.
Once the exam was scheduled (in my case, 5 days prior to sitting)
- I had to download the secure exam browser. I didn’t really want to do this, because I’ve done basic cyber security training and am very uncomfortable about having such a controlling product on my computer. This is not helped by the fact that my Mac really didn’t want to let me install the thing anyway because it was not from an approved developer and because Apple (rightly) thought it could do dubious things to my computer. I started to read the licensing agreement, but found it too depressing. It wasn’t like I had any choice in the matter; if I wanted to do the exam, I’d have to download the software.
- At the same time, I was very grateful for my privilege. If I only had a work computer, this would have been a nightmare. I may have had time before the exam date to get IT to install a new and untested programme onto my managed laptop, but it would have been stressful. I am fortunate to have a separate personal computer that I could use, one that I don’t share with anyone, so any dodgy software choices are up to me.
- I told my husband about the exam. We live and work in a one-bedroom flat, and I wanted to use the living room/kitchen/office/study desk for the exam. He got into the spirit of things by asking facetious questions about how much noise he could make while working in the bedroom. And what about if he wanted to get a drink of water? Or a snack? I felt for students living at home, I have one household member who thinks these jokes are funny, if I was still a student living with parents and siblings during my exams, I’d have five.
The morning of the exam.
A couple of hours before the exam started, I began setting up. I needed to clear the desk of anything that looked like it could help me cheat. In my anxiety, I interpreted this as anything in the room that looked like an exam aid. Or that the invigilator might judge me by. I’d need to give a 360 view of my exam environment for the invigilator so felt obliged to also do the washing up. I tried to tell myself that this could be considered in the place of commuting time to an exam centre, but it wasn’t convincing. An even less convincing part of my brain was telling me these were unnecessary displacement activities; this didn’t help either. While pre-exam advice is of course in students’ best interests, it’s worth unpicking how it will be interpreted by someone in extreme anxiety, ready to procrastinate and unable to make sensible decisions about how to organise their time.
The exam itself.
For me, the exam began when the invigilator introduced themselves to me through my speakers and started to take me through the exam onboarding process. Hearing a supportive human voice was more reassuring than I could have imagined. The invigilator was happy with what I showed him of the room and confirmed that the set up was completely fine. I knew he was there throughout the exam and I could contact him through a chat box if I needed to. Based on this single experience, I cannot imagine how stressful the remote exam experience with only AI and not a human invigilator would have felt. It only took a few sentences, but I felt reassured that normal human behaviour would not be construed as cheating and that I could, finally, focus on the exam itself.
I still need to take my second PRINCE2 exam, but I am currently feeling less stressed about it. I’ve now been through the process once, and I not only survived, I succeeded. I also am much more confident with the set up and demands on me as someone who is not only sitting an exam, but also creating the exam space.
I would recommend anyone working on remote exams to strongly consider how decisions will affect students. Exams are stressful and stress exacerbates any difficulties faced. People who are stressed are not good at prioritising, following basic instructions or feeling in control of their situations. There are also very practical reasons why asking students to create a controlled exam environment for themselves is a burden that should be considered by those demanding it. Above all, guidance, reassurance and human interactions are key to support those who have no choice but to take part in remote proctored exams.
Shoshi Ish-Horowicz works as Senior Learning Technologist (Enhancing Practice) at Queen Mary University of London. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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