Challenges with remote exam delivery cause stress during finals

“[I]t was a pretty discombobulating system”: students talk navigating technical issues with online exam service

Students have reported technical challenges with online exam services this semester.
Journal File Photo

As the pandemic continues through exam season, a number of students experienced frustrating technical issues while completing finals by remote delivery.

According to John Pierce, vice-provost (Teaching and Learning), all course instructors were asked to consider making academic adjustments because of the transition to remote learning. Out of the original 488 final exams that were scheduled for April, 76 were cancelled.

“Due to the requirements of completing course learning outcomes, some courses still required final exams, which meant that some kind of remote proctoring [needed to] be used,” Pierce wrote in a statement to The Journal

Pierce added that Examity, an online examination service, is not the only platform currently in use by Queen’s to administer exams, as individual instructors and faculties were permitted to determine the best approach to delivery for their needs.

While Examity normally allows live proctoring of exams, the impacts of COVID-19 have forced the examination service to temporarily shift from live proctoring to an alternative proctoring option called Automated Proctoring Premium.

This version uses technology to monitor the test-taker for the duration of the exam, capturing audio, motion, and desktop activity to identify any abnormal behaviours. Once the session is complete, Examity conducts a human audit to review the video recording.

A limited live proctoring component has recently been re-enabled under certain circumstances, according to Pierce.

“Staff and faculty very much understand that experiencing technical challenges that impede access or the ability to complete exams is extremely stressful for students,” Pierce wrote. 

“The majority of exams on Examity have occurred without incident; however, there have been some instances where there were problems. [I]n those cases, every effort has been and will be made to provide an alternative to allow for a fair evaluation and grade assessment by the instructor.”

For example, the Faculty of Health Sciences has established a triage system to increase help for students who are experiencing technical problems that cannot be easily resolved. 

When an issue is reported, the video is reviewed to determine a fair resolution on a case by case basis, according to Pierce. They also have staggered start times to allow for greater availability of technical help. 

A number of students, however, have reported technical challenges with Examity while attempting to complete exams. 

After experiencing difficulties when she attempted writing a biochemistry exam on April 11, Ambre Lambert, ArtSci ’21, detailed her experience in a post on the Overheard at Queen’s Facebook page. This exam period, she has two exams scheduled for delivery through Examity.

“I wasn’t expecting the program not to work, but it definitely wasn’t a surprise,” Lambert wrote in a statement to The Journal. “[W]ith so many people taking the exam at the same time it would be hard for the system.”

Nolan Breault, ArtSci ’21, said that while he’d used Examity in the past, this was the first time he had experienced any technical issues with the platform. 

“The final [step for preparation] is a screen-share prompt, so I clicked [on it] but it didn’t enable me to start the exam. I’m sitting there for a few minutes, just thinking that the servers are buggy or whatever,” Breault said in an interview with The Journal. “Then, nothing happened and the exam period [had already] started.”

He decided to reload the exam, but the program interpreted his actions as a signal that he’d finished writing and locked him out. He then tried rescheduling the exam, but ran into another issue.

“There were no spaces left for [the final] and they didn’t have any tech support on at the time,” Breault said. “The people at Examity couldn’t help me either, as the two systems run independently.”

After reaching out to his professor for assistance, he received a timely response but found they did not have “much power” to provide direct help because of their limited role in organizing remote delivery.

“It’s sort of three separate entities: the professors work separately from the health sciences portal, which is separate from Examity,” Breault explained. “[I]t was a pretty discombobulating system [because] they’re not really coordinating with each other.”

Eventually, Breault was given another opportunity to write the exam.

While he doesn’t feel that the challenges with Examity will impact his own score on the exam because the technical issues occurred before he started writing it, he said others in the class were “kicked out” of their exam mid-way through completion.

“I think I’ve had a bit of an easier time than others,” Breault said. “I felt pretty confident with the material, but if you’re kind of struggling and worrying about how things will go, then it can definitely be traumatic and off-putting.”

He said his “thoughts go out” to students in that situation because there wouldn’t be any technical issues if exams were being written in person as usual.

“Affecting your mental state might impact exam performance there. If you have to work yourself up to write the thing and then you have to start again, it’s a negative for sure,” he added.

For now, he’s just hoping the system will be improved by the time he writes his next exam.

“I have two more exams [to write through Examity], so I’m hoping by then the kinks are worked out—that everything runs smoothly when I get going and I don’t get kicked out halfway through.” 

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